The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Alfie Kohn on Systems Thinking, Human Behavior and Education

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cover of Punished by Rewards

Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, No Contest: the Case Against Competition and many other books on human behavior, management and education is the guest on this Deming Podcast.

Alfie explains that, as a contrarian, he searched for issues where logic and research suggested certain action while practice differs from those expectations. His research into competition showed the practices in our organizations ran counter to the evidence of what is beneficial to achieving the best results.

We [in the United States] don’t like to look at systemic explanations. If you take a systemic or structural explanation seriously, as he [Dr. Deming] did, then you have to start questions all sorts of basic management beliefs, not just Taylorism, but the whole idea of rewards and punishments, and performance appraisals based on the premise [that] I accomplished as much as did, or didn’t, alone and need that pat on the head or a bonus or whatever if I have done well or the punishment of being deprived of a bonus or promotion because I screwed up.

book cover of No Contest

Alfie also discusses the different philosophies on education in the early 20th century. John Dewey and Jean Piaget supported the supreme value of the experience of the student. While the other focused on rules, curriculum, numbers and behaviors (Skinner and Thorndyke). Sadly Dewey lost the battle for what would set the fundamental groundwork for education philosophy in the 20th century. Alfie, and others, are helping increase the adoption of education methods growing from the John Dewy.

It is a shift from the question, “How do we get the child/student/worker to do what we tell them? How do we get compliance? How do we get efficient production? [That] is a very different starting point from asking, “What does this person need? And how can we meet those needs?

The aim you accept will make a huge difference on how you will seek to create systems. If you focus on extrinsic motivation you will create systems that undermine intrinsic motivation. And doing that is damaging to organizational performance as well as students.

Alfie will speak at the First Annual Deming in Education Conference in Seattle (8 November 2015).

Related: Cash Incentives Won’t Make Us Healthier by Alfie KohnFundamental attribution error: attribute fault or defect to the individual without first considering the systemic effect.Peter Scholtes on Managing People and Motivation


Categorised as: education, podcast, psychology


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  1. […] Alfie Kohn on Systems Thinking, Human Behavior and Education – Cash Incentives Won’t Make Us Healthier – Schooling Beyond Measure – […]

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