Bruner’s Law

Bruner’s Law -we want kids to regard success and failure as information not as reward and punishment.

Last week, I had the pleasure meeting and listening to Alfie Kohn talk about the topics of homework and grading.  At one point he mentioned the something he called Bruner’s Law.  Of the many things that struck me during the discussion (or lecture, I should say), this one was the most important.

Kohn referenced the work of Carol Dweck and others who have worked with motivation, praise and punishment and studied the effect of all three on learning over time.  What they’ve found, and I know that I am over-generalizing here, is that students who are rewarded with grades do poorly when compared with students who are not given grades on similar assignments.  Interestingly too, is that the bigger the reward promised, the worse the graded group did.

The room, at this point, was full of shaking heads and “that can’t be true’s” and “not in my experiences’s.”

There would be no more radical shift in education as we know it to remove the concept of reward and punishment.  Think deeply about the ramifications that would follow: A’s are good, A+’s are better.  This college is good, that one is better.  Behaving this way is good, but that way is better.  Behaviorism still dominates many of our practices, both in the classroom and in our institutional structure.  What worries me most is that we have begun to educate students in the practices of doing school and succeeding in this system–will they be able to recognize that there is  better way?  How many times will we have to hear “is this graded?” or “will this be on the midterm?” before it is lost in the name of taking risks for the sole purpose of getting information about what you can and cannot do yet?

In regards to Bruner’s Law, Kohn gave us a choice:

If you agree:

  1. You have to get rid of grades
  2. If you are going to sit down with parents and students to think about constructing assessment from the ground up, what can we do so that we don’t violate Bruner’s Law. How do we assess their learning so that they are more likely to regard their successes and failures as information.

And if you don’t agree, you better have a good reason for dismissing what the data shows about homework and grading and their effect on student motivation and learning.

I highly recommend hearing Alfie Kohn speak if he is coming to your area.  Find a listing of his speaking engagements here.  And here are a copy of my notes from the session: feel free to add your own ideas too!


4 thoughts on “Bruner’s Law

  1. There are a lot of books and studies talking about how the behaviorism of the 20th century, simply doesn’t add up with what we have learned about people and motivation.
    Another great book to read about the subject is called, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.

  2. This makes me think of a new reply to the “is this going to be graded” question. How about turning the question back to students? Do you think it should be graded? Why is this learning important? What do your grades represent? Do grades represent real learning or do they represent compliance?

    1. Nancy,

      Right on. The types of cognitive dissonance that would set off in students is frightening. We’ve come to this point in education where we “do” school–from those of us in teaching to our students. We all understand how to play the game so that we can stack it in our favor.

      Something has to give.

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