Rewarding learning

This paper will be evaluating and reflecting on two conflicting arguments. The first, by Paul Chance, seeks to convince the reader that learning is best facilitated by shaping the actions of individuals through positive reinforcement contingent on success. Alfie Kohn disagrees with this assessment saying that rewards decrease motivation and lead individuals to see learning as means rather than an end. Both have various strengths and weaknesses, which invariably lead the reader to their own conclusion.

The first article, The Rewards of Learning, champions the argument that by rewarding individuals, specifically students, learning can be facilitated. Paul Chance is of the belief that not only is some reinforcement needed in the classroom setting, but a lot of it. In these opening pages he argues that the American system vastly under uses reinforcement and lists several examples of why this is.
The heart of Chance’s article seems to center around motivation, rewards, and learning. He acknowledges that if rewards do reduce interest than it is significantly important to classroom teachers (Chance, 1992, in Slife). He refers here to findings that too many extrinsic rewards can reduce future motivation in the same tasks. The best predictor of this, the author argues, is the reward contingency. He reflects on research done by Alyce Dickinson and the three kinds of reward contingencies that she came up with and concludes that ‘success-contingent’ rewards are the most effective.

The author finds things like encouragement and intrinsic rewards as motivating, but not teaching and as less rewarding than say the intrinsic pleasure created from friend’s laughter. He concludes his article with some guidelines for how to reward without stifling motivation. He recommends teachers do things like give the weakest reward possible, reduce the rate of rewards as time goes on, and reward only behavior they want repeated. He sees extrinsic reinforcement as one of the most powerful tools available to teachers.

The second article was written as a direct response to Paul Chance. Its author, Alfie Kohn, argued against the manipulating punishments and rewards endorsed by Chance. The premise of his paper, besides a complete refutation of Chance’s work, is that rewards can get people to do what one wants for a while, but the effect is short-term and actually detrimental over time to those being rewarded.
The bulk of his paper is concerned with proving four points: that rewards are inherently controlling, are ineffective, make learning less appealing, and ignore curricular questions. He sees applied behaviorism as a technique to control people, or do things to them instead of working with them (Kohn, 1993, in Slife). Kohn desires learning to be more reliant on mutual problem solving than control. He defends his argument that rewards are ineffective through a wide variety of cited research and example, including the failures of the token economy.

The purpose of Kohn’s article seems to be that contrary to all of the evidence that Chance and other authors like Dickinson, bring forth, rewards feel controlling and do reduce interest. As Kohn says, getting children to think about learning as a way to get a prize, can turn learning from an end into a means (Kohn, 1993, in Slife).

Although part of a minority group of thinkers, Paul Chance does raise some good points in his piece. Chance took a holistic approach and recognized the importance of taking a long-term view of learning. An argument of strength that Chance presents and even Kohn recognizes, is that learning should be fun and interesting. He argues that extrinsic rewards can help people learn and make it not seem to be a boring, yet expected process. Another strong insight is the fact that punishments outnumber rewards. A society or classroom built on fear and avoidance does not promote positive conducive atmosphere.

Even with the as stated strengths, Chance presents an argument lacking in uniformity and general persuasiveness. His primary point was that success-contingent rewards work best. This argument was weakened by his example where students who already enjoyed an activity, were given a prize if they completed it. Weeks later the prize was no longer given on completion and they still continued to do the task. Imagine that, students continued doing something they had already enjoyed! It seems like Chance’s sources were incomplete, his detractors many, and that he was not entirely confident or complete in his own argument.

The argument that Alfie Kohn presented was shorter, but raised a lot of good points that strengthened his side. Referring to directly to Chase’s sources, namely Dickinson, and highlighting their weaknesses and inconsistencies worked very well for Kohn. He also did a good job of diminishing Chance’s behavior arguments by showing potentially uniformed readers that the token system, a behavior modification landmark, has been discredited because subjects revert back to old behavior upon withdrawal of rewards.

A weakness of Kohn’s argument is that even though he wants parents and educators to do everything that they can to get students to forget that grades exist and focus on working relationships he does not leave any room for rewards to act in a positive manner. Passer & Smith (253, 2001) show that applied behavior analysis can be used to target specific problems, which may be detrimental to the learning process. This absence may be due to the specific question he was addressing, but limited his argument.

Being relatively uniformed about the larger debate involving this issue, this author found himself persuaded by the clarity, confidence, and knowledge that Alfie Kohn presented in his article. This author would argue that while it is virtually impossible to avoid a rewards/punishment reinforcing system, it is possible to limit this activity in a structure like school. Both authors argue for a more interesting and student-relative system where individuals can have fun and be attached to the learning process. Kohn argues this better and effectively counters the general reward-contingent argument.

Rewards should not be solely relied upon to reinforce behavior, yet there is a place for them and in the current grades-oriented system they won’t soon disappear. While it would take more work for the teacher and require extensive targeting, a new style of learning could emerge where students are targeted based on individual interests and strengths and a curriculum organized and playing off of these. Students must become attached to the learning process and as Kohn and others have shown, rewards only have a short-term answer for this.

In conclusion, the question addressed leaves more questions than answers. If the whole concept of learning was narrowed down to a simple ‘do rewards facilitate learning?’ than the answer, based solely upon the readings reviewed would be, no it does not. The definition of learning is to acquire knowledge in the area being taught. Not only acquire, but also remember. Kohn shows that not only do rewards create short-term results; they decrease motivation needed for later learning processes. Learning must be seen as engaging and fun, not as a simple chore to be performed for a prize.

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