The fourth graders squirmed in their seats, waiting for their prizes. In a few minutes, they would learn how much money they had earned for their scores on recent reading and math exams. Some would receive nearly $50 for acing the standardized tests, a small fortune for many at this school, P.S. 188 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When the rewards were handed out, Jazmin Roman was eager to celebrate her $39.72. She whispered to her friend Abigail Ortega, “How much did you get?” Abigail mouthed a barely audible answer: $36.87. Edgar Berlanga pumped his fist in the air to celebrate his $34.50.I've always loathed explicit rewards and punishments with my five-year-old daughter. I know that once you start down the road of side-stepping intrinsic motivation and feeding extrinsic factors through chocolate and swats to the behind, it's hard to reverse course. So my wife and I have refrained, often to our short-term chagrin because patient parenting is so much more difficult than simply controlling and manipulating your children's behavior. My brother has his kids on a short leash. They do whatever they are told. They have been sufficiently trained to listen to him, fearing the lash or coveting the candy bar. I don't blame him for raising his kids this way. I get it. I see how much easier it is. Sometimes I wonder if I should raise my kids this way . . .
But then I'm reminded of why we do it the way we do it. I got a taste of the poisonous effects such Skinnerian techniques have with my daughter's theatre class. The teacher told the kids that if they learned their lines, she would give them candy. So when practicing with her the other day, my daughter said, "When I learn my lines, I will get candy!" I said, "Yeah, but if you learn your lines, you'll also be able to have fun in the play." She said nothing. Did she understand what I was saying? Or was she too busy thinking about what kind of candy she would get?
I admit that it's a hard thing to get, to see that practicing and memorizing your lines will eventually lead to an as-yet unexperienced joy -- the thrill of performing live in front of an audience, being in character, flowing with your fellow actors, pretending to be sad or angry or -- in my daughter's case -- a flying taco. But I would ideally like her to get this, to understand that practice and hard work and being involved in a play are their own rewards.
Ultimately, I'm not worried. She'll probably get it. The candy reward will be a nice treat, and it probably won't snuff out her nascent intrinsic motivation. But that's because there are so few external factors in her world right now that manipulate her choices, affect how she views herself in relation to a world of possibilities.
Not so with these 4th grade kids at P.S. 188. For them, and for lots of other kids, there's an inextricable link between learning and external rewards (or punishments). It might seem like an insignificant thing, and many would argue, "If the reward or punishment gets them to do SOMETHING, isn't something better than nothing?" But if you peel it back far enough for each kid, if you undo all the decisions these kids made because they were rewarded for approved behavior or punished for bad behavior, what would be left? I suspect you'd have a kid that would experience the same sense of joy I wish for my daughter -- the joy of practice and hard work and being involved in something challenging as their own rewards. But because the sugar-coated behaviorist tactics have been laid on so thick, have been applied so consistently and so relentlessly, there's little chance this will happen.
This means these kids have been short-changed, robbed of something I'd consider to be one of the main benefits of our species. Apologists claim it's done on their behalf. It's done to help them. But, really, it's done to them because it's so much easier to control them this way. Allowing kids' intrinsic motivation and inherent curiosity to flourish would be rather messy. It would be hard to do with classes of 25, much less 30 or 35 students. So, for the sake of efficiency, we give them cash and cookies in exchange for their cooperation.