11/02/2013 08:06 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 10:52 EST

Axing the honour roll: Do rewards hinder learning?

A Calgary school’s decision to axe all certificates and ceremonies honouring academic and athletic achievement is garnering the support of a controversial author and education critic who says rewards aren't at all useful to students.

St. Basil Elementary and Junior High School is doing away with all certificates and ceremonies honouring academic and athletic achievement, saying awards eventually lose their lustre to students who get them while often hurting the self-esteem and pride of those who don’t get a certificate.

The school cites the work of Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards and No Contest: The Case Against Competition.

“There’s a difference between what psychologists call intrinsic motivation to learn, which is where kids are excited about the learning itself, and extrinsic motivation, which is where they do something to get a goodie — a trophy, a pat on the head, a dollar, a grade,” Kohn told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

“It’s not just that those two things are different. It’s that they move in opposite directions, so 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.”

‘Everyone loses in a race to win’

Kohn dismisses the argument that rewards and certificates help motivate students to perform well in school.

“It may motivate them to get rewards, but that’s likely to be at the expense of engagement with the learning itself,” Kohn said.

“I don’t care how motivated students are. I care about how students are motivated. Awards are even worse than rewards because an award is a reward that has been made artificially scarce, so if I get one you probably can’t.”

But Kohn doesn’t stop there. He says grading students at all is counter-productive.

 “Grades are a perfect example of extrinsic inducement,” he said.

“The research shows very clearly that three things tend to happen when students are encouraged to focus on getting good grades. The first is that they become less excited about the learning itself. The second is that they tend to become less likely to think deeply … The third thing that happens is when you get kids focused on grades they pick the easiest possible task when given a choice — not because they’re lazy, because they’re rational.”

Kohn says teachers and schools should instead be providing feedback aimed at helping students succeed.

 “If a kid clearly isn’t getting it in math, the last thing you want to do is say to this kid publicly, ‘You’re a loser,’ or put an F or a low mark on the paper. For most kids that almost guarantees continued failure in the future,” he said.

“[But] you don’t just get rid of awards assemblies because they make the kids that don’t get rewards feel bad. You get rid of awards assemblies because they’re not useful for any kids. Everyone loses in a race to win.”