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Enough of the Rewards of Behaviorism!

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: September 11, 1999; August 6, 2003
Latest update: September 21, 2005

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Index of Topics on Site Index on Issues Raised by Alfie Kohn

  • Who Are We? Since They ain't Us? Ernest Gaines' understanding on normative identity and counter-normative identity. Link added September 11, 1999.
  • Effects of Behaviorism - Silencing
  • Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos by Jeremy Bernstein.
  • Who Are We?
  • Included by Law? Or Excluded by Power?
  • Covaleskie on the Nature of Academic Power
  • Motivating Students without Grades sarial - Should Education Be Adversarial?
  • Grades Are Adver
  • Law School Deans Chafe at Having Their Law Schools Graded
  • Grades on the Job: Merit Pay Doesn't Work

    Motivating Students without Grades

    Review Essay by Jeanne Curran
    Added in late June 1998.

    Arrogance is rampant in the hierarchy of the academy. Students report it every day about their encounters with faculty. Faculty report it every day about their encounters with students. And the administration just can't seem to remember to consult any of us when it makes far-reaching decisions about the future of our learning. Alfie Kohn, lays much of the blame for this dilemma on behaviorism.

    Arrogance is assurance in one's authority and status, and the willingness, nay, eagerness, to enforce that authority and status by exerting control on others, either control through unnecessary and demeaning rules, or through a rigid adherence to rules grown through no longer remembered institutional history, or through pure spite and/or greed.

    This essay was prompted by Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Goldstars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. In Volume 2, our Spring 1998 Issue, we addressed arrogance and hierarchy in the academy. On this page we will review the threads of Alfie Kohn's arguments on how grades, praise, honors' convocations, all that we think of as good about our grading system, can have the same harmful effects on learning when they are set within the context of a manipulative environment that rewards competition in lieu of cooperation, and when they treat us as objects without intrinsic motivation.

    Alfie Kohn's emphasis is on the importance of learning as a stimulus to growth of the pscyhe. You will find that this attitude toward learning goes back to ancient Greece. The problem is that in the modern world there are so many distractions which turn us away from the intrinsic motivation to learn and the satisfaction that comes with that learning. We have a tendency to categorize, to take every good program, that depends on the social bond that develops between student and teacher, and turn it into a formulaic mass production that retains only a plastic shell of the original. And then we are surprised when the program's vitality seems to have dissipated.

    Alfie Kohn describes the same dismay expressed here, that grades and GPA become the "red badge" of learning, and that learning is lost in the process. Explore the articles on Alfie Kohn's page, and on Ain't Us. Be sure not to miss Covaleskie's article, Power Goes to School

    Who Are We? Included by Law? Or Excluded by Power?

    Opening Essay for Threaded Discussion by Jeanne

    The concept that the self, identity, all that we consider that makes us unique as individuals, are all affected by the social patterns in which we are caught is perhaps the single most important issue facing us at the end of this millenium. Social constructivists believe that we, as individuals, play an active role in who we are and what we become. Unless they're radical and believe the world leaves us no room to play. Cognitive theorists tend to believe that there is a given reality "out there" and that we must adapt to it.

    Now those are neat ideas on paper. But I doubt that any of us can ever hold consistently to either extreme. Most of us find ourselves at varying times, in varying situatedness, responding on the fly, not always in ways that reflect our overall beliefs. Put simply, we are human, torn by human stresses, changeable, growing, in odd ways unlimited. So theories describe who we say we are, who we maybe even honestly believe we are, who we try to be maybe. But I personally reserve the category of who we actually are for some higher Being, for our existence, and that of any higher being, is largely immeasurable until we are no longer of this world. There are even those who tell us that we cannot prove our own existence, let alone that of any higher being, for all is perception.

    Dear Habermas is not here to give you answers to questions like that. We stick to the part of reality that is clearly here, because it affects the size and existence of our paychecks, the pain and joy in our relationships, the myriad systems through which we must procure our everyday palpable existence, and whether or not we're going to blow each other off the face of the earth in the next millennium, or even to celebrate the ending of this millennium.. All the other answers aside, it hurts to blow each other up, to destroy the atmosphere, to be given no access to the goodies that were supposed to be, according to the American Dream, available to everyone.

    Dear Habermas is a forum for discourse, in which students, faculty, and people in general can practice hearing one another, recognizing the extent to which we do structure our own reality, make exploitation possible, right wrongs, demand ethics, and settle for less when we are exhausted and broken. Dear Habermas is a forum for narrative, for stories that will help us see the reality we have constructed, or to which we are trying to adapt, depending on our philosophical persuasion. If we will listen to the stories in good faith, they become a source of patterns of cultural, group, and individual response that may guide us to more definitive phrasing of the philosophical questions of just who's in control of parts of our lives that matter.

    We will include the many philosophical positions in our stories, for it matters whether we consider humans passive or active, and in what degree in their interdependence with each other and with the community of other humans and with nature. It matters whether we believe that people will work if you clear the barriers and provide them with the means and tools. Or if you believe that they will not work unless you force them to. It matters whether you see yourself as central to the orbit of activity in which you exist, or whether you notice that others exist in that orbit along with you, and whether you think that matters. Philosophical questions are not irrelevant. They permeate our choices. But we dare not sit until the next millennium contemplating our navels. There are grades and merit systems and violence and ethics and forgiveness and suffering and concern and greed, all here now, demanding a seat at the discourse table. Dear Habermas seeks to tell those stories. The everyday stories. The law grants us rights. But power, in its various forms, determines how those rights are distributed amongst us. Dear Habermas is our forum to explore those issues of how well equitably rights are distributed and how we even come to recognize them as rights. It is our forum to explore what options there are when we encounter auto-poietic non-learning sub-systems that are crushing us or others. It is our forum to share and learn that we are not alone, that there are limits to our control, but that we can together discover alternatives we never suspected were there. Alternatives, that is, short of retreating into self induced catatonia, blowing holes in the atmosphere, or in each other, or just plain giving up. That is Habermas' message. That there is hope, through the system of law that refuses a non-learning stance, through the inclusion of all in good faith. It may not be the answer, but it might work. Or would you care to mutate into a dinosaur?

    Andy Lock has a whole different approach to providing you some theory for critical distance on these issues. He traces the case for human language, and concludes that lannguage grew from the shared understandings that developed between humans.

    Professor Andy Lock's paper, Against Cognitivism (External Site: Virtual Faculty)

    Professor Lock provides some clarification on the separate paths taken by those who call themselves "cognitive scientists" and our path, which is more like Alfie Kohn's, Duncan Kennedy's, that of the Virtual Faculty, etc., though I hesitate to try to peg anyone at any specific space on the philosophical continuum. After all, I call Habermas a post-modernist, and other colleagues agree that he fits there in the sense and within the limits of my definitions of that space. He is, however, generally recognized as a modernist. So be it. Labels don't matter. What matters is the attentiveness and discipline with which we seek to ask ever more complex questions and share with each others the resulting stories that may shape our lives more effectively.

    Early on in "Against Cognitivism" Professor Lock mentions the difference between social constructivists and cognitivists. I think it all comes down to a basic philosophical issue: humans as passive or active. Go for Skinner if you believe in external locus of control (Rotter). Stick with the social constructionists if you believe in internal locus of control, that we have choices, that we are responsible for those choices, and that that is a basic component of our dignity. More links and essays on this soon. These are two ends of a continuum, and you will find theorists all along the continuum, and not necessarily always consistent. Jeanne

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    Kohn on Grades as Adversarial

    Kohn is horrified by what we actually teach with grades. He puts it very strongly in Punished by Rewards:

    "All punishment, by which I mean any relaince on power to make something unpleasant happen to a child as a way fo trying to alter that child's behavior, teaches that when you are bigger or stronger than someone else, you can use that advantage to force the person to do what you want."
    At p. 167.