Alfie Kohn is an American author and lecturer who has explored a number of topics in education, parenting, and human behaviour. He is considered a leading figure in progressive education and has also offered critiques of many traditional aspects of parenting, managing, and American society more generally, drawing in each case from social science research.
Kohn's challenges to widely accepted theories and practises have made him a controversial figure, particularly with behaviourists, conservatives, and those who defend the specific practises he calls into question, such as the use of competition, incentive programs, conventional discipline, standardised testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling.
The premise is that the reward system is a very flawed one, as I had strongly disliked the behaviourist ideas when I studied them in my psychology degree course, this book offered a mirror to my own feelings. It is not just punishment that is harmful, but rewarding children (and people in general) for doing a task, reading a chapter in a book, solving a maths problem, etc. greatly detracts from the enjoyment of the task itself. It moves the person from intrinsic motivation (and a love of learning) to an extrinsic motivator (I will learn because I have been promised a reward, who cares what it is I am learning... I will probably forget it all after I have received my prize).
The book looks at the punishment and reward system in parenting (he is also the author of Unconditional Parenting, another huge eye opener of a book), education and the work place. Kohn offers ideas and solutions to the problem and advocates a respectful approach towards children and workers alike. These ideas are very controversial as they ask us to question our whole culture and the way we do things, but I think that our strength as human beings comes from a drive to question and better the world around us, just because things have been done in the same way for generations does not mean these things are right for us, now.