In late 2011 Oak Grove School facilitated a series of one-hour dialogues focused on an exploration of punishment and reward in educational practice. Three separate groups were formed—one of parents, another of Oak Grove teachers, and a final group made up of high school students. In each meeting, a collection of quotes was read (which is also printed below), a time for reflection was established, and a dialogue followed. Given their respective vantage points, each group approached the topic differently, though all with empathy and thoughtfulness, along with substantial congruence. This article outlines several of the themes and challenges that emerged.

By being with yourself you begin to understand the workings of your own mind, and that is as important as going to class.

[J Krishnamurti]

Do you know what discipline is? It is a process of making you do something that you do not want to do by offering a reward or punishment. If you don't understand what you are being asked to do, don't just do it. Instead, ask for an explanation so that you build your own understanding of life. You cannot develop deep intelligence if there is any kind of fear.

[J Krishnamurti]

Instead of getting students to obey, we need to help them develop their own ethical principles.

[Alfie Kohn]

I thought children would only work at something if they were offered rewards but then was surprised to see that children educated themselves when rewards were removed. But it is hard for teachers and parents to not offer rewards because it is a habit.

[Maria Montessori]

Reflection, inquiry and dialogue: the parent group

Attendees of this discussion included the parents of pre-kindergarten-aged children all the way to high-school-aged children. Initially, the quotes above prompted more questions than answers, but in general the group centred on the parents' own habits of punishment and reward learned in childhood and reinforced by society. Additionally, parents also discussed how their own desires, insecurities and fear partly motivate their rewarding or punishing behaviour. Finally, the inquiry turned to categories of behaviours, appropriateconsequences, the value of a loving approach and the role of the parent.

One mother described a challenge she faced. Her young daughter had a difficult time getting ready in the morning, which resulted in late arrivals to school. The parent described her wish to avoid reward or punishment (though these tactics seemed the most immediate to her) and to set up natural consequences for her daughter. She developed a routine by saying to her child ,'We are going to leave at 7:45. You picked out your clothes last night and they are on the dresser, and breakfast will be ready for you at 7:20 at the table. If you don't have time to eat or to change from your pyjamas before we leave, that will have to be what happens and we will go to school.' So far, the child has not arrived at school unfed and in her pyjamas, and the mother is thankful. Her own dread of being viewed as a bad parent if her child arrived at school unprepared made her nervous; but she was committed to this action ifnecessary. She did realize that this fear of judgement from peers made herpunish her child in the past, but that reaction was something she wanted to change in herself.

A father described an example where his son in high school didn't want to play soccer with the team. At first, his son was brief about not wanting to participate, but the parent thought there might be more behind it. The parent created space for his son to speak and be heard, and set up a meeting between the coach and his son. It took a while, but after several conversations his son finally said that he felt uncomfortable with his body, and that the soccer uniforms revealed more of his body than he wanted. Armed with that knowledge, the coach could then offer options, 'Wear sports pants, along with the long-sleeve soccer shirts we have.' The son participated in the team and became one of the players that voluntarily stayed after practice for the pick-up games held in the afternoons. The father describes the process as beneficial hard work. 'It would have been easier to have just said, "You have to play or else …" or to say, "Here is a reward for participating." It was more time-consuming to truly listen to him, to work with him and to offer a loving nudge toward something positive. He became part of the solution, his voice mattered and that was its own positive consequence.'

The group explored these examples and others, and described the importance of approach. Is the impulse to address a behaviour coming from fear or anger, or is the approach truly from love? Everyone agreed that opening a space for listening, for reason and for collaboration had enormous benefits. When children could be a meaningful part of the process they were less likely to need extrinsic motivators.

The attendees also addressed different kinds of behaviour and the consequences that follow. Specifically, some behaviours risk psychological well-being, and others physical well-being. Of course, some risks can have catastrophic consequences. The discussion of behaviour types evolved into a striving for balance. Perhaps not every conflict calls for a long, loving conversation … the parents agreed that sometimes there is a verbal command first (e.g. 'Stop!') and an explanation later, especially when someone might get hurt.

Several parents encouraged the group to reflect deeply on the role of parenthood. Parents often feel that they know more than their children, and this must certainly be true sometimes. But if parents can sincerely pause and ask themselves if they are reacting from habit, fear, or insecurities; if they can ask themselves, 'Do I really know what is best here? Am I ready to try another way?', their relationships could strengthen. Finally, the group agreed that children are looking for parental approval; and the parents asked themselves how often they say 'good job' in a thoughtless way (everyone agreed that they say 'good job' to a child almost every day).

Reflection, inquiry and dialogue: the teacher group

Oak Grove's teachers echoed many of the themes in the parent group, and also touched on practical matters. These additional topics included classroom management, dealing with diverse abilities, balancing group and individual needs, and the focus of observation. Embedded in the school's curriculum and culture is a programme called The Art of Living and Learning, which includes inquiry, communication, academia, engagement, aesthetics and relationship. Of these arts, inquiry and communication were focused on during the dialogue, and the language of observation instead of praise became a central theme for the group.

One teacher explained what she means by observation rather than praise: 'When a student finishes his or her piano practice, it feels natural to say "good job", but if you simply observe and say something like "I notice that you smile when you are playing piano. Do you enjoy it?" suddenly you have moved from praise and reward to engagement. The motivation for the student can move from outside to inside.'

Another theme that emerged in the inquiry was student self-regulation. The teachers discussed the practice of having the class itself determine and promote the class-wide rules it will use to foster learning and deal with conflict. When students become a valued part of the decision-making process, their approach changes—something that the parent group also noted earlier. While students at Oak Grove are encouraged to question everything, including authority, the teachers discussed some risks that are non-negotiable. These risks concern student safety. Still, the teachers agreed that when students are shown the reasons for non-negotiable rules, they fundamentally understand and agree with them.

Several questions were brought up by the teachers:

  • How did a system of reward and punishment become so prevalent? Is it instinctual or conventional?
  • Can explanation get everything done? What if you need something accomplished immediately?
  • As a school, how can we de-emphasize grades in the high school, given that the college system our students are graduating into requires them?
  • It seems that competition gets some people to perform better. What do we think of that?

The teachers reaffirmed that the mission of the school includes every student taking responsibility for the world, and that the use of reward and punishment thwarts this effort. Finally, the teachers agreed that a climate of inquiry and mutual respect discourages thoughtless and selfish behaviour …in fact, it supports the opposite.

Reflection, inquiry and dialogue: the high-school student group

Our high-school students were engaged with the question of reward and punishment in education simply because they were asked, and their responses were listened to. What was interesting in this group was that several of the pointsmade seemed contrary to those heard in the adult groups.

'I realize that getting a grade is a reward, a judgement, and that we are all working together to understand ourselves and our world … but I'm definitely motivated to get that A.'

'I've gone to Oak Grove most of my life, and I couldn't wait to get grades in high school.'

'When I am competing in sports, I play harder and better than I would otherwise.'

Perhaps the high-school students illustrated the point best that rewards are culturally very powerful and formative, perhaps even 'natural' for us as humans. 'Getting paid for work is a reward. It is something you wouldn't do (like washing dishes in a restaurant) without getting paid.' One student explained, 'But doing your best at your school work, or your art or music … or even being in your family … those are things that you should not get paid for. They are good things by themselves. Like the community service we do … if you are getting paid for that then it's not service.'

Similarly, punishment was described as motivationally powerful but lacking care. Several students had the same sentiment: 'If I get a bad grade in school, I'm not happy about it and I know my parents are going to talk about it with me, probably with my teachers too. But if I get grounded as a result too, I just get mad. I would rather be treated more like an equal … I would like a chance to make it better.'

Several students echoed the point raised by their parents and teachers when they said: 'I don't like being forced to do things. I like it when my thoughts are considered … if I can have some part in deciding how things are going to be, I will agree to do it.' Further, one student explained, 'I really like the Krishnamurti quote … if people just say "do this" or "do that"… right away I am defiant. But if they say "Hey, here is something that needs to be done and here is why … can you do it or help me think of another option?", then I am happy to be a part of it and don't need anything else to motivate me.'

These dialogues were intended to inquire from all perspectives, to begin a conversation with the potential for each group to learn from the others. Mutual respect, active listening, collaboration and reason over reactive emotion: all of these principles were central in each group's inquiry. Oak Grove will keep this exploration alive with more questions of vision andpractice for school and home. Stay tuned!