Author Interview with Alfie Kohn, “Punished by Rewards”


My guest for LeanBlog Podcast #57 is Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer in the fields of education, parenting, and human behavior. His books include Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

I reached out to Alfie after there was some very good discussion on the blog about Chicago Public Schools giving incentive payments to high school students earning A's, B's, and C's. Many of the arguments that Alfie makes are reminiscent of Dr. W. Edwards Deming and can be applied, more generally, to many organization settings where rewards and incentives are used. I hope you find this interesting and thought provoking. If anything, the Dr. Deming fans will want to listen to the end of the Podcast where Alfie does a dead-on impression of Dr. Deming. To read more articles, Alfie's website is

MP3 File

For earlier episodes, visit the main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS or via Apple Podcasts. The podcast is available there in MP3 or AAC formats.

Episode #57 Key Words and Links:

  • Blog post that started the discussion
  • Alfie's website
  • Rewards for grades are a “reward for a reward” — magnifying the harm.
  • What you get is, at best, temporary compliance, but at a very high cost.
  • Discussion of nominated Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.
  • Great questions about the purpose of education — to create learners or prep people for the working world?
  • Ties to the philosophy and lessons of Dr. Deming.
  • Great Deming impression at the end!

If you have feedback on the podcast, or any questions for me or my guests, you can email me at or you can call and leave a voicemail by calling the “Lean Line” at (817) 993-0630 or contact me via Skype id “mgraban“. Please give your location and your first name. Any comments (email or voicemail) might be used in follow ups to the podcast.

Full Transcript:

Mark Graban: Hi, this is Mark Graban and this is episode number 57 of the LeanBlog Podcast of January 12th, 2009. My guest today, am very happy to have Alfie Kohn, who is an author and lecturer, who's written about a number of topics in education, parenting and human behavior.

Now you might think, if you are a regular listener to the podcast, that this is a bit off-topic. But I reached out to Alfie after we had some really good discussion on the LeanBlog in regards to a story in the news about Chicago Public Schools giving incentives payments to high school students for earning As and Bs and Cs, and the pros and cons of that.

What were the tie-ins to industry or other business or organizational settings? I reached out to Alfie, because he's done a lot of writing on this topic — a number of books including “Punished by Rewards; The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes.”

Hopefully, you'll find this thought-provoking and interesting to think about the Deming Philosophy, and what we do in organizations. Alfie makes a very compelling and interesting case of why some of these practices should be questioned.

As always, thanks for listening.

Mark: Well, again our guest here on the LeanBlog Podcast is Alfie Kohn. Thanks for joining us, today.

Alfie Kohn: My pleasure.

Mark: I was wondering if you could start off by introducing yourself for the audience, your background, and how it is you've gotten into the education field.

Alfie: I've been writing for some time now, about human behavior more generally, and issues pertaining to human behavior that have special relevance to schools, workplaces and families. For example, two of the books that I wrote are explicitly about business — managing employees and teaching students and raising children.

One of those books called No Contest: The Case Against Competition. The other one is called Punished by Rewards, that looks at the flaws of all uses of incentives to try to “motivate people.”

Mark: We've gotten to talking to you today, because it's been a recent topic on the Blog, looking at incentives in education. There's been a lot of discussion, and I wrote about what the Chicago Public Schools have been doing ,and I guess a number of other high profile districts, in terms of paying students for good grades. If you can explain, why is that a bad idea?

Alfie: We have to back up for a bit. First, Chicago is only one of many districts doing some version of paying for grades or test scores, now. Second, now is only one of many examples over the last few decades, where various sorts of reward systems have been used to try to improve the performance of students and teachers, the latter being something that falls under the rubric of “merit pay.”

Third, that, in turn, is only one example of various sorts of techniques that are used in the workplace and the classroom, where we say to people in effect, “Do this and you'll get that. Jump through these hoops and we'll give you a doggy biscuit for it.” In the corporate world of course, incentive plans, bonuses, and pay-for-performance are still very, very common.

One thing that's unique about the latest plans for kids is that it does double damage. Grades are already a reward and punishment system. Evidence shows that doesn't make any sense, and I'll explain why if you'd like. When you pay kids for good grades, you are giving them a reward for a reward.

Mark: [laughs]

Alfie: You're really magnifying the harm. There's a whole book to try to sum up in a few sentences, but let me say this. Rewards, like punishments, are ways of doing things to people. Whereas, what tends to be much more effective is to work with people to try to set up reasonable goals, and to solve problems collaboratively.

If I threaten to punish you, “Do this or here's how I'm going to hurt you,” it's obvious that I'm trying to control you. But if I say, “If you do these things, I'll give you some goodies,” it should be obvious, but isn't always, that that's just as manipulative, and as it turns out, equally problematic. Rewards and punishments can only get one thing — that is, temporary compliance — but at a very high cost.

For example, when you look at the research on grades themselves — I'm not even talking yet about extra rewards for good grades — what happens if you take a bunch of kids and say, “This will count for a grade,” and compare that to students who've been given the identical assignment with no grades involved?

The students who are offered a grade and trying hard to get a good grade, three things tend to happen. One, they become less interested in whatever the task is and are less likely to want to think about and learn about that topic when they have a choice later.

Second, students trying to get a good grade tend to pick the easiest possible task if they're given a choice. This is not because they're lazy. It's because they're rational. Clearly, if the goal now is not to understand an idea but to get an A, you're more likely to get an A if you're doing something really easy.

Third, students tend to think in a shallower fashion — a more superficial way — when they're focused on getting a grade than when there's no grade involved. That's why the best classrooms and schools do not give grades. They use other, more substantive and less destructive ways of communicating information about what and how the student is doing.

Now you really make things worse if you tell kids, “Not only are we going to dangle an A in front of you, but if you get enough A's, we're going to give you cash,” or some other goody. You can almost watch students' interest in learning evaporate before your eyes when you use this kind of manipulative technique.

Mark: That's a real shame. I'm glad you brought it back to that first point about grades in themselves being a reward. You talk about offering goodies to people. I guess lack of goodies is a different form of punishment.

Alfie: Especially when you think you're going to get one and then don't.

Mark: Right. What you're saying reminds me back to the writings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who is familiar to most of the listeners here. Dr. Deming was very straightforward in his books as saying, “Abolish grades.”

Alfie: That's right.

Mark: He lumped it into all of the corporate rewards and incentives that he also railed against.

Alfie: Yes, absolutely. Dr. Deming is an expert in statistics, among other things, and yet he understood the limits of measurement. He also understood the limits of the difference between extrinsic motivation — when you're doing something to get a dollar, or an A, or a sticker or whatever it is — and intrinsic motivation, which is doing something because you get a bang out of it.

Because you want to do a quality job in the workplace, or because you want to figure out why the character in this book left home, or figure out an elegant way to solve a math problem. To some extent, Dr. Deming understood that intrinsic and extrinsic are not only different but that they tend to be inversely related.

More than 70 studies have found, the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. That's why the best workplaces would never dream of having any kind of pay-for-performance system.

Dr. Deming understood that what goes on in quality workplaces is you pay people well, and you pay them fairly. Then you do everything you can to take money off of people's minds. If they come to work in the morning thinking, “What hoops do I have to jump through to get more money?” their commitment to quality and their job will tend to be reduced.

That's because they're now thinking of it as just a means to an end. Exactly the same is true with children in school with one important exception. The important exception is, in the workplace, you have to pay people somehow, so you have to figure out a way to do that without pushing money into people's faces. You don't make it conditional on what they do.

In the classroom, there's nothing analogous to that, to money. You don't have to give students grades at all, and as I said, the best schools don't.

Mark: You talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Some of the people have commented on the blog post who are critical of this whole idea that you're talking about, and I believe in very strongly.

They were critical in asking — we're talking about high school students at this point, with the Chicago program — “What about students who don't have intrinsic in high school? Why not pay them if it motivates them?” We need to look at people individually. If some people want to learn for the sake of learning, then great. Why not pay some students, and this is in their words, “If it works, why not do that?”

Alfie: Number one it only works — often it doesn't work at all — but the best possible scenario is it works to get mindless obedience. It works to get students to open a book and memorize facts for a test.

They will pick easier tasks and be less interested in the topic and learning in general and will think less deeply. Even in the short run, you are likely to pay a very high price in terms in the quality of education, in order to get that obedience. That's the first thing.

Second, some people may be visual learners or some are auditory learners, there are different learning styles, but intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are not different styles. When people are extrinsically motivation more than intrinsic, that's not a style to be accommodated, that's a problem to be solved. Intrinsic motivation is what all parents and teachers are hoping for.

That's exactly what rewards tend to kill. If, by the time they get to high school, you get kids that don't seem excited about learning and just say, “Am I going to get a good grade or test score?” alarm bells should go off. That's not something where you say, “Well, for those students let's continue feeding the fire here.” Rather you figure out, “What did we do wrong and how can we reverse the damage?”

I've written books about education too, as have many other people of course, that try to address the problem. How do we revive the intrinsic motivation, the curiosity that all students started out with? There are various ways that that can be done.

First, you stop doing more damage with rewards and punishments, but then there are things that you have to do proactively. For example, if you are giving kids lectures, worksheets, quizzes, and homework, where the point is to memorize facts and practice skills by rote, of course the intrinsic interest in those tasks is likely to be low. Most members of our species are not interested in filling out worksheets.

That's not a lack of motivation on the part of the kids, that's an indictment of the curriculum and the style of instruction. The more you do — what people like Arne Duncan are suggesting, keep the basic approach of teaching intact, leave the curriculum as it is, but bribe the kids to do it — the less likely it is that people are going to address the problem and try to solve the underlying problems.

Mark: I'm laughing, not because there is anything funny about this, but it's frustrating. It's unintentionally funny that it seems people would think that would work.

To paraphrase what you are saying, by the time they get to high school, if their intrinsic motivation is gone, the real leverage point is to go back to early elementary school and figure out how to quit killing that intrinsic motivation.

Alfie: That's absolutely right. That's not to say it is a lost cause for the current high schoolers, because there are some really terrific, interesting, exciting programs that are involved, even in high school, that can help to revive or resurrect that desire to learn.

You don't do it by bribing and threatening. You don't do it by uncritically accepting the basic approaches to schooling that have gone on. Most high schools in the United States are not really places for learning. They're places for listening and coughing back information on command. Of course, kids say, “You better give me an A for it.”

Then the question is to what extent are they real learners? Are they readers? Did they want to pick up a book? Did they have some excitement about creating a science experiment or understanding current events critically?

A proposal like paying kids for good grades is multiply flawed. It doesn't help create learners, it actually does damage, first. Second, it doesn't solve the underlying problem, as Dr. Deming would say, the systematic problem in the school and the school district and the culture.

Third, it distracts us from solving the real problems by thinking that the problem is with the kids. They are insufficiently motivated so let's give them a bigger doggie biscuit. Thus, we'll have more generations giving the same kind of outdated, unengaging types of teaching. We will have to keep jacking up the rewards to get them doing it.

Mark: You've mentioned Arne Duncan. I wanted to ask about him. He was what most of us would think of as superintendent. Somehow, he ended up with the title of chief executive officer.

Alfie: That's telling that he ended up with that title. It says a lot about the corporate-style education that we think of as a good thing in this culture.

Mark: He was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. President-elect Obama has nominated him to be Secretary of Education. That begs the question, is this going to be pushed nationwide in the name of “reform” that we should pay students across the country?

Alfie: I fear it does. That's only one thing that worries me about Arne Duncan and other big-city superintendents who are more corporate managers than educators. They are privatizing the management of many schools, militarizing many schools as Arne Duncan has done.

They talk, not about helping children understand ideas and to get excited about them, but they talk about competitiveness and the global economy, as if that is what our primary purpose is for schooling children.

Arne Duncan has no real understanding, that I can see about better and worse ways of engaging students to make sense of ideas in classrooms. He's not an educator himself. He's more interested in the top-down, bribe-and-threat, raise-the-test-scores approach.

He doesn't understand that sometimes when test scores go up, parents should be worried and should be asking what did you have to sacrifice for my child's education to get that kid good at filling out a multiple-choice exam?

Sometimes, in fact, these pay-for-performance programs for children are based on test scores, not grades. There we've got, not just a bad method, but a bad end. We're not even using a counterproductive technique to achieve something valuable, like helping kids to become good learners. We are using a counterproductive technique to raise scores on bad tests.

I wouldn't want to use a better technique to achieve that goal, because standardized tests tend to matter what matters least. That's something Dr. Deming understood as well, by the way. He was consistent in his understanding and his application to learning.

When he used to teach of course in statistics, at New York University, and he had to give them a grade at the end and he gave them all As. When asked, “Why would you do something like that?” he said — I don't know if you have ever heard him speak, but he used to speak in this bull frog monotone that would originate deep in his bowels — “How do I know what grades the Students deserve? I'm only grading the system.”

Mark: That's great, and we'll have to end on that point. Alfie Kohn, I want to thank you so much for joining us. It's exciting to have you here on the Podcast.

We'll point people to your books via the blog, including Punish by Rewards: The Case Against Standardized Testing” and as you might not be surprised to hear as a title, Beyond Discipline; From Compliance to Community.

Real provocative thoughts and really timely. I appreciate you being here with us today.

Alfie: Sure, it's my pleasure.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the podcast with Alfie and I really like the relationship that you bring up between behavior, leadership and Lean. I still remember a comment I heard from someone who went on a plant visit to Toyota. The comment described the person’s surprise at the level of motivation of the worker at the plant as they were complying with takt times. “… they are working as hard as they can, sweating to hit the takt times, for the same pay as the guys at the GM plant down the road.”

    BTW Toyota and other Lean companies are not the only ones who have mastered this ability to foster performance thru inspiration and motivation. I have seen it in many industries, academia and even military organizations. I believe that it is the fundamental element to organization performance.
    (I have a relevant blog post on this)

  2. I’m really looking forward to listening to this one: I’ve been an Alfie Kohn fan for more than a decade, and a lot of the thoughts in his early books (Punished by Rewards, especially, but also No Contest) would fit very well into a lean context. I really need to go reread his books, maybe listening to this will give me a nudge!

  3. Q&A from a reader:

    Reader question:

    Can you point me towards a good source for guidance on properly rewarding employees? I loved the podcast with Alfie Kohn, but he told us what not to do and didn't tell us what to do(a good reason to have him on again?). Should we reward for good results or for employees following the process? What is a sustainable way to truly motivate and inspire employees? What variables effect the process of rewarding? How much(if any) will the process change if we employ mostly Spanish speaking low-income workers?

    Response that I got from Alfie via email:

    Thanks for your note. Rather than doing another interview, I think I'll just refer this listener to chapter 10 of Punished by Rewards ("Thank God It's Monday"), which talks about alternatives to rewards, not alternative ways of rewarding people. The answer to the question "How should we reward employees, then?" is "We shouldn't. They're not pets. We should pay them fairly and then do everything we can to take their minds off of money.


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