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Killing with Kindness Do Rewards Defeat Their Purpose?

… a goody given unconditionally is not really a reward at all. A reward, by definition, is a desired object or event made conditional on having fulfilled some criterion: only if you do this will you get that. If I promise to give you a banana tomorrow, that is not a reward. If I promise to give you a banana Tomorrow for helping me out today, that is a reward— and if I don’t give it to you, you will probably feel as if you are being punished. To avoid having this happen, I must avoid giving you things on a contingent basis. (Rewards as Punishment, page 53)

I was new to teaching. Margaret was new to our school. After the class’s first visit to the school library to check out books, Margaret confided in me: “In my old school, we got M&M’s for every book we read.”

I told her I thought that was very nice, but “… here we just read books because we like to.” Satisfied with my explanation, Margaret and the rest of my students usually checked out and read the maximum number of books they were allowed each week. Sometimes one or more would not check out a book, explaining that they were reading one from the public library or one from their own collection. Even though I knew the latest behavior motivation techniques from my recent college courses, I never had to “motivate” these children to read; I often had to remind them to put their books away to begin their classwork.

A few years later. Pizza Hut developed an ingenious and well-meaning program for encouraging children to read. It’s called, “Book- It,” and it is used in thousands of classrooms across the United States. “Book-It” rewards with a free pizza all children who read a predetermined number of books each month. For classes where everyone meets their quota each month, a special class pizza party is awarded. Again, most of my “average” readers met their quota each month and won their pizza. Poor readers showed no improvement in their reading habits. The most interesting phenomenon, however, was the fact that few of the avid, insatiable readers ever met their goal. Some simply stopped reading altogether; others refused to produce the required proof that they had read. Our class never succeeded in winning a class pizza party, and the “villain” was usually one of my most voracious readers who just forgot he had a goal and spent the entire month reading one book— generally an “adult” novel with 300 plus pages!

Experiences such as this during my last thirty years in public and private school classrooms and in museum education programs have convinced me that using rewards to motivate is counterproductive. In fact, I believe one of the reasons museum education is often more effective than typical classroom education is the lack of a reward system!

I don’t think rewards should ever be used in decent programs. This conviction did not come easily. My undergraduate and graduate studies in education occurred during the 60’s and 70’s — prime time for Skinner boxes, token economies, and other versions of behavior modification. Even the studies we read toward the end of the second decade, that indicated that token economies didn’t really work, were dismissed as “faulty research,” “surprising results,” or “puzzling.”

The first psychologist to articulate the theory that would come to be known as operant conditioning was probably Edward Thorndike. In 1898, he proposed the Law of Effect that states, in essence, behavior that leads to a positive consequence will be repeated. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, B.F. Skinner began his operant conditioning studies with rats and pigeons. Receiving a reinforcement (reward) after a behavior Skinner wanted his lab animals to repeat, enabled the rats and pigeons to “learn” to navigate mazes and press levers to receive food. Skinner proposed that humans were different from animals only in the degree of their sophistication, not in how they learned. He even devised a Skinner box for infants, a controlled environment in which his younger daughter spent much of her first two years.

Who was I to argue with a Harvard professor! Nevertheless, I wrestled with what I had been taught, with conventional wisdom, and what I saw happening in my relationships with children.

Grades, of course, are the most obvious forms of punishment-reward system going. And, while there did appear to be students who worked hard for As, there also seemed to be at least one in every class to whose parents you kept saying, “Johnny really isn’t working up to his potential.” Translated from teacherese, that means, “Johnny is smarter than anyone else in this class; he reads what he wants to read; he studies what he wants to study; he doesn’t turn in his homework or assignments, so I can’t give him an A; he’ll probably turn out to be another Bill Gates!”

We also had annual school-wide drives to see who could bring in the most canned food to help the “less fortunate” at Thanksgiving. At first, classes were just encouraged to share at this time of year. Then, a new element was introduced. The class bringing in the greatest amount of food won a popcorn-and-Cokes party. I noticed that, throughout the years, the amount of food donated to these campaigns actually decreased. My students expressed very little interest in winning the party prize, consequently they brought minimal contribution. Maybe if the prize had been bigger?!

It’s difficult to believe that rewards don’t motivate, that they may instead actually diminish intrinsic motivation. After all, a book listing just some of the awards given throughout the world is a huge reference volume you can barely lift from its self The Silver Buffalo Distinguished Eagle Scout Award (the “… only award made by the Boy Scouts of America that has no specific course of action, tests to be met, or training as a requirement; rather it honors committed service to young people.”) was first given, in 1926, to Sir Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting’s founder or, as the award put it, “Chief Scout of the World.” The first Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded Jean Henri Dunant and Frederic Passy, the organizers of the Geneva Conventions of 1863 and 1864 and the International Red Cross, which those Conventions produced. The Woman of Conscience Award, a $1,500 prize funded by Clairol, was first awarded to Rachel Carson, environmentalist and author of Silent Spring. Since these were the first recipients of these awards, surely they did not work to receive them. Did the winners who followed do their good works in order to win prizes?

Prior to the recent Winter Olympics, in which she and partner Jerod Swallow finished in seventh place, ice dancer Elizabeth Punsalan was quoted on the subjective and widely criticized judging of her event. “At some point you just stop caring about placement,” she said. “You just do it because you love it.”

Numerous studies, notably those by Edward Deci and Mark Lepper, have indeed indicated that extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation. In his book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn tells an old joke that illustrates this reality. An elderly man was beset by a group of ten-year-olds who passed his house each afternoon on their way home from school. After listening to their daily insults for weeks, the man came up with a plan. He met them on Monday afternoon to announce that each of them who came on Tuesday to yell at him would receive a dollar. They arrived as soon as school was out on Tuesday and insulted him with even greater enthusiasm than usual. As agreed, he paid each boy a dollar. He promised that he would give a quarter to anyone who came back on Wednesday. True to his word, he paid the hecklers each a quarter on Wednesday, but then announced he would only be able to pay a penny to those who came on Thursday. Loath to perform for a penny what they had been paid a dollar to do, the boys never returned.

Docents come to volunteer at your museum, historic site, zoo, or nature center for a variety of reasons. Their intrinsic motivation may stem from a desire to share their love of a particular discipline with others. They may find joy in simply being with the beautiful or fascinating objects in your collection. They may come at first, and continue to come, for the training your institution offers, a chance for them to learn and grow personally. There is a danger that these strong intrinsic motivators can be extinguished, like the enthusiasm of the youthful hecklers, if extrinsic rewards are offered, contingent on the docents’ attendance or performance.

There are other, even more compelling reasons for not including rewards in a decent program. Rewards are designed to be a way to control behavior. Skinner sought to control the behavior of his lab rats; teachers seek to control the task attention of their students. Education directors who attempt to ensure quality performance from volunteer docents by rewarding them run the risk of creating a schism between staff and volunteers. The dispenser of the reward must by necessity also become the judge of behavior. When my reward depends on the good will of another, I will attempt always to present myself in a good light. I will avoid bringing my problems to the very person who might be able to help me solve them. Additionally, when docents come to expect a reward they don’t receive, they feel punished.

Rewards do not promote the cooperative, collaborative environment most conducive to quality work. In most cases, rewards are given an artificial scarcity. Only one person will win first prize. Only one docent team will be awarded the Loving Cup at the annual awards luncheon. Not only does this pit one group or individual against another, the awarding of team rewards is further complicated by the dependence of the group on the behavior of individual members.

Rewards change the way people feel about what they do. When docents come to your institution to volunteer their time and expertise, they are already motivated to do so by some internal need that is satisfied by their time there. When you offer them a reward for something they do willingly, they will view their task differently. They may be insulted! If the elderly lady next door has ever offered to pay you for the helpful things you voluntarily do for her— bringing in her groceries, shoveling snow from her walkway, calling to check on her welfare —you probably felt slightly insulted, too. You’re not a good neighbor for pay! There is also the danger that when a docent is offered a reward for a task, she may realize that you think the task is so onerous that no one would do it without a reward!

How, then, do we say “thank you” to the volunteers who make our institutions’ education programs possible? The most effective way to insure that rewards aren’t counterproductive is to make them gifts, with no strings attached. They should be given after the fact, as a surprise. never contingent on certain behavior. The quest for reward, if there must be one, should never be competitive.

Shirley Napier, docent coordinator at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina, has found a creative way to thank the docents who give tours of that fascinating facility. Each month, she scours flea markets and Dollar stores to find inexpensive “goodies” that are placed, with a little thank you note, in a basket next to the docent sign-in board. A small bag of peanuts, for instance, was attached to a note that read, “We’d go NUTS around here without you! Thanks for all your help.” Another time, a packet of seeds was clipped to a note thanking docents for “sowing the seeds of kindness” at the museum. In July, Shirley found small, star-shaped lapel pins and thanked the volunteers for “filling our days with stars as you shine for the North Carolina Transportation Museum.” “Because we recognize that you are the keys to our success” was the message attached to a key chain.

None of these small gifts represented a large cost; they were not contingent on any behavior; everyone got one; and their awarding was done quietly, without fanfare. Certainly, no one volunteers at this museum solely to receive one of Shirley’s little gifts. The docents’ intrinsic motivations are still intact, and it is intrinsic motivations that keep them coming back year after year.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Killing with Kindness,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 6-7+.

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