Before You Hand Out Those Rewards – 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

Pernille Ripp reminds us why external rewards aren’t worth the trouble.

  1. They create a division of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
  2. External rewards weaken intrinsic motivation in the long run.
  3. External rewards take the focus away from the work
  4. If the value of the reward is undermined, so is the effort.

He then goes on to suggest rewards should be abandoned altogether. He is not the first to suggest this. I’m not sure who is, to be honest. Alfie Kohn goes into this a lot in his book titled “Punished by Rewards”. Dan Pink also talks about this indirectly in his book, “Drive”. And there’s a handful of teachers who are doing this and blog about it (google it). So it does seem like this idea is picking up steam.

Pernille Ripp

I have been reward and punishment free for 5 years in my classroom.  I have loved it and yet rewards seem to still crop up every year, typically through school-wide initiatives or team decisions.  Because I try to be a team player, I go with it as much as I can, and yet, the voice inside of me still screams that for most students, extrinsic rewards do not help.  Sure there are a few kids who may become more motivated because of a reward, but I have yet to see a child really change their behavior because of an extrinsic reward system.  So if you are not quite sure whether to give up rewards or not, please ask yourself the following questions.

1.  Will the rewards only go to certain kids?

Rewards have always, in my opinion, been the surest way to create a divided community within a classroom.  A…

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Chomsky on what it means it be educated

Chomsky defines what it means to be educated in this video. Selected quotes below.

“The core principle and requirement of a fulfilled [educated] human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively independently without external controls.” (Chomsky citing Humbolt)

“To be truly educated from this point of view means to be in a position to inquire and to create on the basis of the resources available to you which you’ve come to appreciate and comprehend. To know where to look, to know how to formulate serious questions, to question a standard doctrine if that’s appropriate, to find your own way, to shape the questions that are worth pursuing, and to develop the path to pursue them.” (Chomsky, 1m50s)

“That means knowing, understanding many things but also […] to know where to look, how to look, how to question, how to challenge, how to proceed independently, to deal with the challenges that the world presents to you and that you develop in the course of your self education and inquiry and investigations, in cooperation and solidarity with others.” (Chomsky, 2m20s)

Gatto’s Scorched Earth Solution to School Reform

This is from Chapter 4 from Gatto’s book “Dumbing Us Down”. The chapter is titled “We Need Less School, Not More”.

Let me start with the last lines from the chapter, his ultimate solution to fixing schools:

“Break up these institutional schools, decertify teaching, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatize this whole business — trust the free market system. I know it’s easier said than done, but what other choice do we have? We need less school, not more” (Gatto, p.145)

This is one of the most radical solutions I’ve read. Unlike other reform advocates, he’s not talking about curriculum design, teacher training, or accountability. He wants to blow up the whole thing. Awesome, I say. Now let me take you through the first part of the chapter to see why he’s come to this solution.

First: the school is a product of and propagator of “networks”. And you guessed it, networks are evil. The network is positioned directly in opposition of the community and family. Relationships in communities and families are based on love, respect, whole-person understanding and all the other human affirming qualities we have. Relationships in networks are based on shared interests and mutual benefit.

You are born into a community and family and your job as a human is to find your place within in and ultimately to live harmoniously with others in it. All members of the communities and families are whole persons worthy of love and respect. Think about your annoying little brother. As annoying as he is, you still love him.

On the other hand, networks only care about one thing: what you offer. You choose (or sometimes are forced) into a network and you either make yourself useful or are relegated to the outside. Think about that kid in class that never contributes during groupwork; you develop a hatred for him. Because he’s doesn’t do anything to help your team achieve some arbitrary objective. Like a bad employee, he needs to go. But in this case, going means being villified by his peers. Notice, it’s the artificial environment of the school that induces the hatred.

“Networks like schools are not communities […] By preempting fifty percent of the total time of the young, by locking young people up with other young people exactly their own age, by ringing bells to start and stop work, by asking people to think about the same thing at the same time in the same way, by grading people the way we grade vegetables — and in a dozen other vile and stupid ways — network schools steal the vitality of communities and replace it with an ugly mechanism. No one survives these places with their humanity intact.” (Gatto, p.51)

Gatto is essentially saying, through schooling, we forget (or never learn) how to value or love people for who they are, but only by what they do for us. The kicker is we that shine this spotlight back onto ourselves and come to define out own worth based on what we can contribute. And contribute to what? Contribute to whom? Abstractions: government, nation, god. At the expense of what? Real human contact and emotion.

“The pathological state which eventually develops out of these [networks] is a feeling that your “friends” and “colleagues” don’t really care about you beyond what you can do for them, that they have no curiosity about the way you manage your life, no curiosity about your hopes, fears, victories, defeats” (Gatto, p.53)

There’s the first reason we need less schools, not more. Schools propagate network structures at the expense of family and community structures. Following closely from this is the second reason for less schooling. Schools promote institutional living, rather than individual living.

Institutional living means surrendering your life, your goals, your relationships for the livelihood of the institution, to work for institutional goals and to value only your relationship with the institution. Think about what happens when a young person is asked to go to war for his nation. He is asked to put aside his whole family (wife, children, parents, cousins, etc.). You’re going to put a heavy strain on your marriage, damage your relationship with your child, and see your parents far less than you otherwise would. The person is also asked to put aside his own aspirations. Forget painting, writing, exploring. Just forget it. But that’s nothing compared to the ultimate demand of the institution, which is to give up your spot on this earth altogether. You will die. For the institution. Without ever realizing your full, or even half, potential, as a human being.

“Institutional life have demanded a role above and beyond service to families and communities. They have sought to command and prescribe as kings used to do, though there is an important difference. In the case of ancient kings, once beyond the range of their voices and trumpets you could usually do what you pleased; but in the case of modem institutions, the reach of technology is everywhere — there is no escape if the place where you live and the family you live in cannot provide sanctuary.” (Gatto, p.54)

The third step in Gatto’s argument against schools is that, as an institution, schools are psychopathic. They will never be able to serve human needs. They have no conscience, nevermind compassion or sensibility. No matter how well-intentioned institutional goals claim or want to be, they will never live up to it. Their stated goals will only ever be undermined by their modus operandi. Like an Edwards Scissor hands trying to caress a baby, it’s not going to happen.

“No matter how good the individuals who manage an institution are, institutions lack a conscience because they measure by accounting methods. Institutions are not the sum total of their personnel, or even of their leadership, but are independent of both and will exist after management has been completely replaced. They are ideas come to life, ideas in whose service all employees are but servomechanisms. The deepest purposes of these gigantic networks are to regulate and to make uniform.” (Gatto, p.145)

So now we’ve gone fairly deep into Gatto’s argument. But here’s not even finished there! I won’t go much deeper into it because this is a blog post. But in the rest of his chapter he goes even deeper to pull out the irrational logic of schools. That when trying to strengthen families, they actually weaken it. That when trying to gets kids to learn more, they make kids dumber. That when trying to better utilize children’s time, they actually just waste it. His contempt for school becomes quite clear.

“We should begin thinking about school reform by stopping these places from functioning like cysts, impenetrable, insular bodies that take our money, our children, and our time and give nothing back.” (Gatto, p.145)

Ultimately, I think Gatto is coming from a good place. For Gatto, education is all about discovering your individuality, finding that spark inside yourself that makes life worth living, and avoiding being sucked into the vortex of institutional living. Schools, on the other hand, turn you into a conformist, usurp your personal goals for institutional ones, and turn you into something only fit for an industrial society. So, what to do? The short answer is to de-institutionalise schools. I’ll save this long answer for another post.

Alfie Kohn’s principle’s of education

Principles are important. They are the natural laws that govern things. Only when we understand them can we start to make progress with theory (understanding things) and practice (getting things done). Take for example the field of physics. It has, as its principles some things like: “everything has a cause”, “time only moves forward”, “you can’t create something out of nothing”, and “one thing can’t be at two places at the same time”. If you don’t accept these principles then your going to have a hard time doing physics. You can try to argue that some things have no cause and time can move backwards, but you’ll just make it really hard on yourself because you’ll have to commit to unwrapping and re-explaining the rest of physics which are based on those principles. And more often than not, you’ll be arguing against an underlying truth. As Stephen Covey says, when you know and accept a principle, you have “knowledge of things as they are” (not as you wish them to be). Further, he tells us those who don’t believe in principles to “consider the absurdity of attempting to live an effective life based on their opposites.” Imagine if these principles were not true, then you’ll quickly see who is right or wrong. So with that, let’s look at Alfie Kohn’s principles of education [1]. And while we read them, think about the opposite. While Kohn’s principles may not be rock-solid foundation principles, they get very close to the ‘core’ of education.

  1. Students forget most of the facts they learn in class
  2. Knowing a lot of facts doesn’t mean you are smart
  3. It’s easier to learn something if you’re interested in it
  4. It is harder to make someone interested in something if they are forced to learn it
  5. We shouldn’t be doing things for the sake of raising test scores
  6. Students are more likely to succeed when they are loved and cared for
  7. Children need to develop in many ways, not just academics
  8. Something is not better because it’s “harder”
  9. Kids are not a small version of adults
  10. Substance is more important than labels

And now reread these. Think about all the policies and practices that forget or ignore these principles. The result? Lots of pain, waste, expense, hostility and outright failure. And in the end, it’s just the kids that suffer.

Gatto’s “Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher”

Gatto, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite agitators, reflects on his career as a teacher and sums what he has been teaching all those years. This summary can be found in Chapter 1 of his book “Dumbing Us Down”. I’ve listed them here:

  1. Confusion
  2. Class position
  3. Indifference
  4. Emotional dependency
  5. Intellectual dependency
  6. Provisional self-esteem
  7. One can’t hide

You may read these and think they are bad things to teach. Well, yes! They are. And Gatto is unashamed about it. It’s what, in his own words, he is “paid to teach”. It’s what the school system demands and rewards.

In my job, I find myself teaching the same lessons.

I teach kids that confusion is normal. Things are not supposed to make sense. It’s okay that 30 minutes ago you were reading about the solar system and now you are practicing order of operations and later you will write about roman history. It’s ok really. That’s life. Things are not connected. Nobody cares about who you are and what you’re going through. Just take things as they come and don’t try to hard to figure out the natural order. There is none*.

I teach kids their class is where they belong. Class, here, is meant in the literal sense. They need to be put and stayed here with this group of strangers until someone else says otherwise. While they are in this class, they may become friends with some of the strangers if they wish. But that’s entirely optional. What’s important is that they don’t try to escape.

I teach kids that getting too excited about something is a bad thing. Like something just enough so that what are learning is palpable, but not too much that you spend time learning more than you need to know for the test. Learning how to dull your curiosity will take you very far in your future job, whatever that may be. Even the Prime Minister is expected to stay cool when dealing with topics like homelessness to genocide.

I teach kids to depend on external cues for happiness. 90, be very happy. 70, be happy. 50, be sad. Gold star, be happy. Two gold stars, be very happy.

I teach kids to depend on me for answers. There’s nothing you can figure out on your own. All the answers are hidden in the back of your textbook, or in my drawer, or on my computer. Don’t go looking for them. When I want you to know them, I’ll tell you.

I teach kids my assessment report is the single most important indicator of their worth as a person. Every few months, I’ll let you if you can be happy with yourself. And I’ll let your parents know if they should be proud of you too. Until then, keep working hard.

I teach kids they need to be tracked throughout the day. Myself, or someone else in an authority position, needs to know where they are and what they are doing. And god forbid, they be wasting their time. Life is short and there’s much to learn. “Free Time” and “Unsupervised” were things brought into this world by the devil. “Unsupervised free time” is his masterwork.

So there is it. The seven lessons I taught last year and the seven lessons I’ll be teaching next year. I hope my kids will enjoy the lessons as much as Gatto’s kids have.

Schools as Factories: Metaphors That Stick

Larry Cuban explains why the ‘school as factory’ metaphor sticks.

His answer: it works for liberal reformers and conservative reformers.

Liberal reformers, like Maria Montesorri and Ken Robinson, use the factory model to show how it dehumanizes kids, strips them of their individuality, and aims to produce a dull citizenry.

Conservative reformers, like Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, use the factory model to show how this inherent infrastructure can be used to apply scientific management to improve every aspect of the school.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

You have seen images like these time and again:



The idea of the school as an efficient factory assembly line has a long but surprising history. A century ago, the notion of schools delivering finished products to a democratic society was both new and admired. Here is what Professor Ellwood P. Cubberley, of Stanford University said in the early 20th century:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.

In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did

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