Controversial author, Alfie Kohn, challenged long-held beliefs by teachers, daring them to change time-worn practices. 

However, some teachers did not appreciate ideas he presented at the WA Positive Schools Conference in May. Kohn’s work has drawn world-wide criticism in the past with some critics calling his work “dangerous” and worthwhile only for “selling books”. 

Kohn’s practised attack criticised schools, world-wide, for their approach to grades, punishments, rewards and a list of traditional practices.  

“We make children suffer our punishments in the hope that it will create better outcomes,” Kohn said. 

“However, punishments alienate children from people who impose consequences.

“Those who have been victimised will become victimisers. We get temporary compliance at considerable cost.” 

Kohn’s research shows that rewards are counter-productive. When researchers tested their subjects’ performance in relation to solving puzzles, those that received rewards performed poorly compared with participants who used ingenuity.  

“Rewards fail because people hate to be controlled. Even young children can see that they are being controlled and don’t like it. 

“Children need unconditional love for who they are and not for what they are,” Kohn said.  

Kohn’s talk was supported by his extensive research into cooperative learning that shows only 5 to 10 per cent of participants in Cooperative Learning workshops continue to use it. He said that the poor uptake was caused through inadequate teacher training, children being told to work harmoniously and avoid conflict in cooperative learning. 

“It is far better to invite disagreement but nesting it in a framework of creative conflict and avoiding a haphazard sort of group work or where the results are predictable,” he maintained. 

While Kohn supported cooperative learning he asked teachers to understand that many did not use it because they believed CL reduced control, demanded greater attention to social goals, challenged individualism and competition.  

He said that competitions were the “arsenic of rewards” and making children compete against each other was unhealthy.  

“I want to see people collaborate through competition organised around projects that create a working environment,” Kohn said. 

“People assume that rewards motivate children but it is not the amount but the type of reward that we should consider,” Kohn said.  

Kohn questioned the value of Classroom Management Strategies that Canadian researchers like Barrie Bennett and others advocate. 

“When children are caught doing something right we reduce it to mindless compliance if the goal is not critically questioned,” Kohn said. 

“A lot of schools that talk about engaging students really mean that they want students to do what the school wants.” 

He said that systems like Restorative Justice had a weakness that was exposed if a bully did not want to make reparation. 

He challenged schools to change their policies on homework saying that research showed it had little value.  

Kohn’s research drew stinging criticism from several critics like cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in Encylopedia Britannica Blog and bloggers in D-Ed Reckoning. 

Williamson said that Kohn does not accurately summarise the work of researchers on homework. 

“The research by Mica Endsley on automaticity in pilot’s perception (training) and (the value of) practice time by Anders Ericcson show the value of homework,” Williamson wrote.  

“If the student is unmotivated to learn rewarding him will not hurt his motivation and Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, shows the important psychological role of praise and reward being complex,” he said. 

K De Rosa, writing for D-Ed Reckoning, quoted research by Shiffrin and Schneider that showed the development of automaticity depended on high levels of practice. 

“Don’t people practise when they pursue organized sport, learn to play a musical instrument or play games such as chess? Experts do a lot of practising to increase their skills and sustained practice ensures a student will automatize (sic) skills,” De Rosa wrote. 

Ita Buttrose hosted the conference and asked teachers to re-think how best to motivate students. She provided another dimension by saying that the quality of leadership in a school had a big effect on outcomes children achieved. 

“It will require visionary leadership and teachers need to question themselves and children too,” she said. 

Karen Pedrick, deputy principal of South Thornlie Primary School, with teaching and administrative experience from Early Childhood to Year 12, agreed with Buttrose but found Kohn’s ideas provocative. 

“Extrinsic rewards can support intrinsic ones and be beneficial if used in a timely way with judicious thought,” she said. 

“I find it very successful when praising children for the values that they contribute to the class. 

“Naturally, the focus needs to be more on values contributed than the reward,” Pedrick said. 

Pedrick believed that the benefit of rewards for non-academic children raised self-esteem and encouraged emotional intelligence and social skills. 

Her experience and research showed that competition had several positive levels if it encouraged children to reflect on what they did best and respect the strengths that other people showed. 

“Encouraging a child to engage is providing him or her with an opportunity to question what he or she is doing and provides an opportunity to reflect on new ideas and approaches,” Pedrick said. 

She found that children were motivated and engaged with school better if the teacher and family supported each other making children part of the decision-making process.  

She believed that Restorative Justice needed to be implemented capably with the community understanding the process and language used by the school. 

“I developed a community-school partnership where parents knew the code of behaviour to be used at school and teachers modelled it in the community,” she said. 

“Teachers need to know when to use Restorative Justice and if a child is agitated should wait until its emotions settle,” she said. 

Pedrick responded to Kohn’s criticism that Restorative Justice did not work if bullies were uncooperative. 

She said that schools could persevere by using a tiered approach involving other reasonable systems, along with Restorative Justice, to achieve the goals of self-discipline and self-control.