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April 23, 2003
Don't reward!

Yesterday I linked to this site and at it I today found this piece, which includes the following quote from Maria Montessori herself:

Like others I had believed that it was necessary to encourage a child by means of some exterior reward that would flatter his baser sentiments, such as gluttony, vanity, or self-love, in order to foster in him a spirit of work and peace. And I was astonished when I learned that a child who is permitted to educate himself really gives up these lower instincts. I then urged the teachers to cease handing out the ordinary prizes and punishments, which were no longer suited to our children, and to confine themselves to directing them gently in their work.

Of all the notions I've so far got today from my further reading of Paula Polk Lilllard's book about Montessori, this is the one that has most intrigued me.

I don't yet know whether Montessori intended this idea to apply to older children as well, but it certainly makes sense to me that it might.

When someone rewards you for what you've done, it is as if they have taken possession of your work. They've made it theirs rather than yours. Accordingly, you lose interest, because it isn't yours any more.

This idea also reminds me of an earlier posting I did here about a lecturer who once visited my school. Intrinsic to the enormous pleasure I remember taking from this event was that nobody tried to test me later to see if I'd been paying attention to it properly. I decided what it meant and which was the best bit and why it was so good. And I recall once refusing a prize for some work I did during a holiday from the same school, about town planning, as if shaking off the unwanted attentions of an over-affectionate relative.

The organisation Taking Children Seriously also makes much of the notion that there is something deeply manipulative about rewarding children from doing "good work", an idea which I must say didn't make that much sense to me when I first encountered it, but which I think I get better now. I wonder if this lady, the leading light of TCS, had read lots of Montessori before she got into her TCS stride, or whether it was just a case of a good mind echoing a great one independently, or perhaps just breathing the air that had been perfumed by the great one.

If Montessori has been as influential as I surmise, this might also account for some of the fierceness with which many teachers oppose the current government-lead enthusiasm for academic testing. What such critics presumably have in mind is that lots of literacy testing, for example, may indeed create a generation of children who certainly do know how to read and write, but it may also create a generation of children who don't actually like to read and write very much.

Taking the same idea into early adulthood, it is a familiar story for recent university graduates to be repelled by the whole idea of intellectual activity for about two years after they leave university, because while there they forgot how much fun thinking seriously and systematically can be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:59 PM
Category: Parents and children

This is an interesting thing to hear from a libertarian! (Though, of course, it's not contradictory to the letter of libertarian thought, it seems to go mildly against the spirit.) It is, however, an interesting point. Of the three jobs I've had (in my limited 20 years of life), they all started out as something I enjoyed, and then they transformed into a thing that I do to get paid. This suggests that the Pavlovian impulse to reward is wrong. If you want someone to want something, you should convince them why they should want it. You should not offer them something extra which they do want if they do what you want them to do. This is sort of like money--no one (coin collectors asside) really wants money. It's just printed patterns on paper, or sometimes just numbers. What people want is the power that money gives us to do other things.

Comment by: Lucas Wiman on April 24, 2003 02:27 AM

A good book on the subject is 'Punished by Rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise and other bribes', by Alfie Kohn, published by Houghton Mifflin.

Comment by: Susan Godsland on April 24, 2003 07:24 PM

Libertarian spirit is such that training through rewards is the way to liberty? Huh?

Rewards are an insult to a person's autonomy- their right to self-direction- imo. Notice the part in the quote about 'directing them gently in their work'. It's not that they think that children are capable of directing their own learning; adults are still perceived as being necessary to show the children the right things to be learning at the right times (is my understanding and experience with Montessori. Executed as a school, it is just as coercive and non-autonomy-respecting as any other school.

Children learn about textures and abstract shapes and sizes and sorting and creating playthings from the materials at hand without anyone doing any great theorizing or 'teaching' whatsoever. Kids use sticks and stones and dirt to play, quite happily, when nothing else is around. Such self-conscious re-creation of the 'things children must learn' is so much redundant make-work, I guess to create jobs for teachers and administrators for schools. Just think, if all those adults were willing to mentor children in their learning, instead of insisting on chidlren doing things their way...

And goodness, with the bad rap that 'work' gets from most people- and don't think that children don't know this! and learn early to try to avoid doing anything that smacks of 'work'- how confusing to go to a school where the adults refer to 'play' as 'work'.

Not terribly impressed with Montessori, or at least with what people have done with it, here. She may have articulated some good observations but not to any great end, as far as I can see. I don't see where testing and opposition to it ties in, either. That has to do with state control obsession, imo.

Comment by: lars on April 27, 2003 08:57 PM

Lars, I have to disagree with you about rewards. Rewards are not "an insult to a person's autonomy- their right to self-direction". They are certainly an attempt by one person to cause another person to act differently, but I don't think that libertarianism is about not causing others to act differently. Taken to this extreme, even persuasion by intellectual argument is outlawed. Rather libertarianism is about not forcing other people to do something they don't want to do. People should offer other people choices: "if you do x, then I will reward you with y. If not, then I will not reward you with y." There is nothing wrong here--people should be free to interact with others and use their property to their own benefit. It is the threat of violence that is usually the problem. Identifying persuasion by rewards with persuasion by threats is a serious category error. They are both kinds of persuasion, but only one is violation of another's freedom.

Comment by: Lucas Wiman on April 28, 2003 04:38 PM

Now, I could be quite off about this, but it seems to me that libertarianism is about, well, liberty. Persuasion would be in a direction of convincing people that liberty is good and right and to act in ways that support liberty for all.

That is a different subject than the issue of rewards and punishment, and how such things help or hinder people's learning process. Both are extrinisic motivators, and do not help a person to create knowledge about what they are interested in. Such knowledge is created intrinsicly, through conjecture and refutation. Rewards and punishment help people to learn about rewards and punishment and how to gain or avoid them.

If a person is conditioned to acting according to rewards and punishments, they can be lead down any garden path. Critical, rational thought is needed, and I see rewards/punishment as getting in the way of clear thinking.

Comment by: lars on April 28, 2003 05:59 PM

I could be quite off-track about this, but in my understanding, libertarianism is about, well, liberty. Persuasion would be in the direction of covincing people that liberty is good and right, and to take action that supports liberty for all.

Rewards and punishments are extrinsic motivators, and get in the way of knowledge creation about what a person is actually interested in (unless that subject happens to be reward/punishment). Convincing a person that libertarianism is right involves intrinsic knowledge creation through conjecture and refutation- how convincing is "I'll give you X if you vote libertarian"? Arf arf, toss me a treat! heheh

People are autonomous agents, with the right to decide what they think, for their own selves. When someone thinks that they have further knowledge that can benefit another person, engaging in intellectual persuasion through conjecture and criticism and refutation, respects autonomy. To try to entice someone to change thier idea because they will get X unrelated reward, without building the knowledge base of why it is a better idea, seems quite disrespectful to that person's ability to think and learn, imo.

But, sure, people are free to attempt to use their property as rewards to try to get others to do what they want them to do, but rewards do violence to peoples' ability to learn, even as do punishments.

Comment by: lars on April 28, 2003 06:21 PM

Well, damn, the mysteries of losing things in computers! Sorry about the double posting-- I thought that first one was gone forever...

Comment by: lars on April 28, 2003 06:23 PM

Certainly libertarianism is about liberty, but it usually has in its spirit that a money/reward-driven market is a good way to efficiently manage resources. Of course a libertarian could (and probably should) accept the idea that rewards don't always yield optimal results. Still, it's a counterintuitive move for someone who generally argues in favor of a money-driven market to marshall resources effectively. You're quite right that this isn't opposed to libertarianism per se (as I said), but libertarianism usually comes with some extra ideological "baggage" about how people should do things. (Some libertarians are socialists, for example, but most believe in capitalism.) The ideas put forward conflict with the spirit of the capitalist "baggage" which usually comes with libertarianism.

(The socialist remark will probably rankle. People who have radically diferent views on human nature from what is common among libertarians may believe in the idea of liberty, but think that people are fundamentally socialist beings (so that without government oppression, people would start to see their property as a community asset). Capitalism is the corruption brought on by statism. Noam Chomsky, for example, says this. I disagree strongly with it, but certainly someone can believe in liberty and be opposed to capitalism.)

I agree quite strongly with you that self-directed learning is generally the best way to learn. I've been teaching myself matematics for 7 years now, and I've only had significant external direction in the last two years (since I came to college and encountered real mathematicians). The state school system (in the U.S.) encourages extremely slow learning of mathematics, and it also encourages people to quickly forget what they've learned once the test is over. With that said, I've found (since I got access to teachers who know something about math in college) that some direction by a more experienced person is extremely helpful in avoiding misunderstandings and in guiding where learning should go. The most useful "guided learning" that I've experienced has been in the form of collaborative research--where I'm able to ask questions and get answers while working on a common problem. The teacher is able to make suggestions and clear up misunderstandings, but not in the framework of grades and classes. There are rewards, however, in the form of praise, encouragement and friendship. That seems totally positive to me. I think it's mainly punishment (bad grades, detention, etc.) and "fake" rewards with no real value (good grades, gold stars, money, etc.) that hinder education, not rewards generally construed.

Comment by: Lucas Wiman on April 28, 2003 06:59 PM

Montessori, TCSers, unschoolers and such all vote pretty strongly anti-reward.

However, the best arguments anti-reward are not the ethical ones that are used there, but rather the purely pragmatic ones available in Alfie Kohn's book _Punished_By_Rewards_. Now, I will admit that Alfie Kohn is a flaming communist, but on this count, as well as some others, he happens to be right.

Comment by: hatter on April 30, 2003 09:38 PM
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