Alfie Kohn explains to parents intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and the detriment of assigning letter grades to students.

Alfie Kohn explains to parents intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and the detriment of assigning letter grades to students.

The ABCs of motivating kids

Expert Alfie Kohn travels to Maple Ridge to explains why letter grades are destructive

Elementary students across Maple Ridge may not get letter grades this year, and the district is getting kudos from the man who Time Magazine called “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades and test scores.”

This year in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district, elementary school teachers will be given the option of not giving letter grades, and can instead choose a student/parent conference model of reporting.

Alfie Kohn is the author of 12 books with titles like Feel-Bad Education, The Homework Myth and Punished by Rewards. He is a sought-after lecturer at education conferences and universities, and for two hours on Monday at Thomas Haney secondary he explained to local parents why letter grades are a disaster for their children.

Kohn is a Boston native, parent and a former teacher who has become a student of the psychology of punishments and rewards.

First he debunked the use of punishment – which he says makes children more self-interested, and does not make them more ethical.

“Kids become more self-centred, and less concerned with the impact of their actions on other people,” he said.

Their thought process is “how do I escape punishment more effectively next time.”

Punishment brings “temporary compliance, but at a terrific cost.”

Rewards are not a much better tool to motivate kids, Kohn maintains.

“Rewards and punishments are not opposites, they’re two sides of the same coin, and that coin doesn’t buy much.”

“You get one thing and only one thing – temporary compliance.”

He talked about two different kinds of motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is where you like what you do.

Extrinsic motivation is doing something to avoid a punishment or get an award. Intrinsic motivation is more powerful and effective because “what drives excellence is interest.

“Rewards tend to kill intrinsic motivation,” he said.

Twice he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and on the second occasion, the producers conducted an experiment, based on research from the University of Rochester.

Posing as toy company executives, they asked children to play with toys, then evaluate them. One group of 10 was paid $5 per toy. The other group was given no incentive. The kids were watched behind one-way glass as the “executives” left the room. Those children who received no reward went back to playing with the toys. Of the children who were paid to play with the toys, nine out of 10 stopped when they were no longer supervised.

Bringing the conversation to the education system, he explained that there are three “robust effects” of letter grades.

The first is that children are working for a grade, and so they are less likely to return to a task on their own time.

The second effect is that students won’t challenge themselves.

“Kids tend to pick the easiest possible task they can, when given a choice,” he said, and they can hardly be blamed.

“When kids cut corners, they do so for perfectly rational reasons.”

So, they will choose to read the easier book, rather than the tough one, and minimize intellectual risk taking.

The third effect is that kids end up not meeting their potential. Students who are graded forget what they are taught faster than those who were not graded. Kids in classrooms or schools that emphasizes letter grades tend to think in more superficial terms, and can be heard to ask things like: “Do we have to know this?” And, “Will this be on the test?”

He said a meeting between parent, student and teacher is “far more meaningful and less destructive than a report card.”

He said parents should make their kids grades a non-event. Rather, ask questions about topics or what they learned, rather than questions about their mark.

Kohn said the worst thing a parent can do is give their children money for getting a good report card – that’s giving them a reward for getting a reward.

“You can almost watch their interest in the process of learning evaporate before your eyes.”

Kohn’s advice to teachers is that even if they must eventually give a student a mark or letter grade, they should never put a number or letter on any individual assignment – even if they are grading it for later marking.

“Make grades as invisible as possible, as long as possible.”

The District Parent Advisory Council sponsored Kohn, and chairperson Kellie Marquet was impressed.

“He’s fantastic,” she said. “Letter grades are a spirit killer.”

She said 250 parents registered for the event.

He also spoke to the teachers, and district superintendent Jan Unwin said he gave local educators a lot to consider.

“There were many pieces of conversation that are going to keep us talking for a long, long time.”