Learning for the Sake of Learning

Rewards for such things as reading do not create adults who like to read.

Alfonso Moore and his friends at Wilkinson Elementary School in Washington, D.C., ask one another, "How many books have you made?" The question is a combination: How many books have you read? and, How much money have you made? It is used, according to a story in U.S. News and World Report, because, to the students, they are the same thing - resulting from a nonprofit program called Learning by Earning.

In Memphis, Tenn., Booker T. Washington High School fights truancy by offering students "warrior bucks" for being on time for class. These coupons can be exchanged for prizes such as CD players and bicycles; Such programs are examples of how our society has been influenced by B. F. Skinner’s theory, known as behaviorism. Simply put, behaviorism is, "Do this, and you’ll get that." The wisdom and effectiveness of this philosophy are taken for granted, particularly in the process of education our children, according to psychologist Alfie Kohn, Author of "Punished by Rewards."

Rewards pervasive

The orchestra director hands out Symphony candy bars to the students who have practiced. The science teacher dangles an "A" in front of her reluctant student. Parents offer money for that grade and Air Jordans for making the honor roll.

From the first Tootsie Roll given to a kindergartner for sitting quietly on the carpet to the car given to a high school senior for graduating, students are nourished by rewards. And why not? On the surface, rewards appear to be successful. Pizza Hut’s "Book It" program, which rewards students with pizza for reading, has mushroomed from 200,000 pizzas awarded to 22 million in the last 10 years.

The Learning by Earning program has doled out more than $200,000, which means more than 100,000 books have been read. As for warrior bucks, parents and teachers see the results immediately and say that it’s really paying off. "The children are talking about what they’ll be able to buy." Everything appears to be fine. Students are performing with enthusiasm. However, a closer look at the phenomenon might move one to ask whether kids are motivated to attend classes, read books, and create projects because these activities are delightful and educational, or because they enjoy pizza or want money.

Interest undermined

According to U.S. News and World Report, "A steady stream of research has found that, rather than bolstering motivation ... rewards actually undermine genuine interest and diminish performance." In the end, the method of dangling a carrot in front of our children ends up failing them. Students today are the victims of the do-this-and-get- that philosophy, which is enforced by well-meaning teachers and parents.

Creativity is a particular victim of the reward-driven system. Researcher Mark Lepper studied fourth and fifth graders who were given a problem-solving task similar to the board game "Clue." Those who were promised a toy for doing sell-formulated hypotheses in a much less systematic way and took longer to get the solution than those who were promised nothing.

Kohn found that college students who were rewarded for doing well on creativity portions of intelligence tests performed at a far lower level than those who were not rewarded. In these and dozens of other studies, rewards killed creativity - regardless of the type of task, the type of reward or the age of the people involved.

Kohn maintains that when we are working for a reward, "we are less likely to take chances, play with the possibilities, (or) follow hunches that might pay off. Risks are to be avoided whenever possible because the objective is not to engage in an open-ended encounter with ideas, it is simply to get the goody."

Researchers find rewards particularly insidious because they kill intrinsic motivation, which is the desire to engage in a task because the task is, in itself, viewed as interesting, useful, or desirable.

A recent study, published in USA Today, states that programs such as Pizza Hut’s "Book It" do buy the behavior of students but not enthusiasm or appreciation for the activity. In fact, once the reward is removed, they are less likely to read than they were before the program even began.

University of Illinois professor of education John Nichols joked that such programs will lead "to a lot of fat kids who don’t like to read." Like pizza and other goodies, grades also reduce intrinsic motivation when they alone drive the student to perform.

Educational psychologist Susan Harter has conducted numerous studies that indicate that the overemphasis of grade rewards dilutes the pleasure of successfully completing a task, encourages cheating, lessens a student’s desire to challenge himself or herself and encourages blind conformity to others’ wishes.

Examining motivation

Kohn tells of a privileged young man about to graduate from one of the most elite prep schools in the country. The young man, throughout his life, had put aside books that appealed to him to prepare for college boards. He joined clubs because they looked good on a resume, even though he had no interest in the clubs themselves. He listened to Kohn speak on the shortfalls of traditional rewards, and after the speech, stood up to ask:

"You’re telling us not to get in a race for... rewards, but what else is there 7"

What else is there besides the extrinsic motivators of grades and goodies? The intrinsic fulfillment and exhilaration that comes from learning and creating is "what else."

Teachers, when asking, "What else?" might choose to examine what motivated them to enter the profession. Most would respond that it was their desire to impart lifelong delight and excitement in the exploration and discovery of knowledge. Yet how many of these same teachers, when asked by a student, " What is this assignment worth?" immediately respond with, "50 points," or "10 percent of your term grade."

Parents, when asking, "What else?" might choose to examine conversations with their children about their school work. Do such conversations revolve around offers of ten dollars for an "A," or questions such as, "How did you do on that history test?"

Psychologist Ken Christian’s research shows that students do best when parent put the emphasis on the pleasure of learning, rather than rewards.

Christian advises parents to "take pleasure with their children in what they are learning. Praise them when they persevere... but praise them for the quality of perseverance, not because it will earn them a good grade." If teachers and parents focus on the real goal of education - the goal of developing lifelong thinkers, creators, and learners, not lifelong earners - then the journey away from gold stars and candy bars can begin.

And who knows? When on the playground of Wilkinson Elementary, instead of hearing, "How many books have you made?" one might hear, "Read any good books lately?"

Phonics Popular, but not ’Explicit’

Some states have recently mandated the teaching of phonics, and many schools across the country are trying to incorporate it, but instruction methods typically do not involve explicit, systematic phonics.

"Implicit" phonics is the most widely used teaching method, and is synonymous with whole language. "Explicit" phonics is the scientifically proven reading instruction method. The reason for the confusion, according to author and teacher Delores Hiskes, is that explicit phonics has "not generally been included in graduate teaching curricula for over 50 years, and most of the classic old texts have long been out of print. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know."

Writing in the National Right to Read Foundation’s Right to Read Report, Hiskes states: "Explicit phonics builds up from part to whole - implicit phonics breaks down from whole to part." The implicit phonics method teaches children to memorize approximately 300 words per year, encouraging guesswork and providing a recipe for failure. Children learn to identify words by their shape, their beginning and ending letters, and by the context in which they are used in sentences, often with the aid of pictures.

"Explicit" phonics teaches children to read by "blending and building." Instruction begins with individual letter sounds, blending those sounds into words. According to Hiskes, "Initial reading practice using explicit phonics should consist only of highly decodable text (skills already taught) until the most common letter/sound correspondences have been learned." Children who learn to read with explicit phonics can master up to 30,000 words by the end of the 3’" grade, compared with only 900 words mastered by 3’" graders using whole language.

Hiskes advocates: (1) Direct instruction in phonemic awareness, (2) Direct instruction in letter/sound relationships, one at a time, in isolation, (3) Explicit instruction in blending, (4) Instruction in building sound spellings into words, using concrete examples, (5) Opportunities to practice reading using decodable text, to review and reinforce these skills until they become automatic.

Once their phonics skills are developed, children can focus on the meaning of the words they read, unlocking a whole new world of concepts and ideas. According to Hiskes, explicit phonics instruction "is a critical step leading to a truly balanced ’whole’ language reading program. It provides the skills needed to unlock, decode and comprehend all of the wonderful classic stories in today’s literature-rich reading programs."