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