The Chilling Effects of Behaviorism

As someone who has subscribed to the views of Objectivism, I believe in the power of the self. I believe in each person’s unique ability to create, shape, and define their own destiny using their intelligence and their power of reason.

Imagine reading about a viewpoint that negates all of those things.

I am currently reading “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes” by Alfie Kohn. The first chapter is devoted to an explanation of operant conditioning, the cornerstone of B.F. Skinner’s contribution to the study of behaviorism. Skinner’s views, as related by Kohn, would be something requiring a much more in depth look if it were not revealed that Kohn had personally interviewed Skinner several times. As it is, what Skinner relates certainly follows sound logic, if it doesn’t follow reason.

For example, Skinner believed that humans are no different in how or why they behave from any other animal on earth. Our behaviors, he claimed, are simply reactions to outside environmental factors. If this is the case, then there is no self, we have no will – there is no ability to reason in us. Everything, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Steve Jobs’ creation of the iPhone, simply happened because the stars aligned just right – the environment and genetic makeup surrounding Beethoven and Jobs was precisely what each individual needed to be able to create what they did.

This argument seems to be precisely what has fueled the nature/nurture argument for so long. Which has more affect on how a person turns out: their genetic disposition (nature) or the environment that they grew up in (nurture)? No wonder that battle has raged on and on. The one thing that each of these arguments fails to consider is the self – the individual inside the body that is able to think and create and reason. Rather than viewing anyone as a person, we are viewing the people around us as a ball of chemicals and experiences. We count certain chemicals and experiences as handicaps; we see someone from a single parent home and use that environment to justify poor performance in different areas of their life. We then develop statistics that back up our justifications, and when one person from a single parent home bucks the trend, we discuss how they overcame such great odds. But this person is not part of a group – the group of those from single parent homes. This person is an individual who is able to control their own destiny, whether they are from a single parent home or not. All individuals have this capability, and placing individuals into categories based on genetics or experiences does nothing but hurt the individuals involved.

Now, granted, certain genetic diseases can be a handicap, but that still does not and should not negate the fact that the people that have these genetic diseases are still individuals that can shape their own destiny. We have become a culture that allows people to justify their behaviors based on experiences and genetics, thereby releasing them from personal responsibility for their actions. We have become a culture that holds individuals back through the use of conditioning rather than stand back and watch them reach their full potential.

I chose the name “Uplifting Freedom” for this blog because I believe that every individual should be afforded every opportunity to realize their full potential. As teachers, it is not our job to assign children to groups based on their genetics or their environment in order to figure out how to deal with the group as a whole. Our job is to look at each individual child – their capabilities, their strengths, and their interests – and help them figure out how to maximize these individual traits in order to learn more about their world. Our job is to help them as they realize their individual dreams and goals, and to challenge them to take personal responsibility for the actions that they take to reach them. In this way, we create a truly free individual.

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Exploding the Myths of Progressive Education

John Dewey

Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr

While going through my Facebook wall this morning, I came across this article from Capitalism Magazine about violence in our school systems.  It is an old article, from 1999, but since I have the background of someone who has studied both the traditional view of education and the progressive view, I feel that it is important to shed some light on the beliefs that progressives hold. Especially since I know, having studied traditional educational views, that their views toward progressive education haven’t changed much in the last ten years.

I particularly like this quote from the article:

“In attempting to explain why this is happening, sociologists and educators have advanced several possible causes. Some think that the shootings are a consequence of America’s “gun-crazed” culture. Others blame Hollywood, video games and the Internet for their gratuitous glorification of violence. And yet, we seem to be missing the obvious. The shootings have one thing in common: they all took place at school. The boys didn’t kill on the weekend, they didn’t kill after school, and they didn’t shoot up the local Dairy Queen.

So what’s happening? Why are America’s adolescent boys so angry, and why are they expressing their anger through mindless acts of violence?

That they all killed at school is a fact worth pondering. The explanation for all these shootings might very well be found in the destruction of the minds and souls of America’s young people by an education establishment bent on using our children as guinea pigs for their bizarre experiments in schooling. The fact of the matter is that most of our public schools today are intellectual and moral wastelands.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the above passage from the article. Most of our public schools today are intellectual and moral wastelands, but I don’t agree with Mr. Thompson (the author of the article) about the reasons why this is. I do agree with him about one thing, though: The crisis of our schools is definitely a philosophical issue. And here we come to redefining and uncovering the myths that not only surround progressive education, but traditional education as well:

Myth #1: “Progressivism holds that children do not learn by thinking but rather by feeling and doing.”

Progressivism does hold that children learn by doing, but there is a lot of thinking that goes on as well. This goes back to the philosophy argument that Thompson alludes to but never expands upon. I will attempt to expand upon it here.

Traditional education stems from the belief that children are “tabula rasa” at birth, and it is the job of the educator to provide that child with knowledge. If you think back to your time in school, you will recall that most of your time was spent at your desk listening to the teacher talk or filling out worksheets pertaining to the subject matter. There were some projects thrown in, but the projects had very specific directions, as the teacher had specific content that he/she wanted you to know. The system of grading in traditional education stems from behavioral psychology. It is a form of operant conditioning in which good behavior (or correctly done school work) is assigned good grades, and bad behavior (poorly done school work) is assigned bad grades. The good and bad grades are supposed to motivate students to try harder and do better. In reality, however, they only motivate students to memorize the information given long enough to pass the next test. Students are not actively engaged in the material because they are sitting listening to lectures.

Progressive educational philosophy, on the other hand, holds that children should be actively engaged in their work. Usually the child or the teacher poses a question relevant to a topic that the child needs know, and the child goes through experimentation and research to find out the answer. The experimentation is facilitated by the teacher, but not totally directed by the teacher, as an important part of experimentation is making mistakes. The teacher can use questions to the child to help direct them on their path, but in Progressive education it is important that the child come to the conclusion on his own. The reason for this is because intrinsic motivation and self-worth is built up by doing for yourself; if a child has all of their knowledge handed to them by someone else, then they have accomplished nothing on their own. The answers to the posed questions only become real and relevant to a child when they are actively engaged in finding the answers. (Myth #2) Progressive education does not state that there are no wrong answers, as many traditionalists claim, but it does state that each child may have a different way of getting to the right answer, and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, as an adult, you know that you and a colleague have different ways of doing things and finding things out. The same is true of children. And the more practice they have at experimenting and finding answers to their questions, the better they become at it. And at each stage of the experimentation process, the teacher poses questions that the child has to think about as they experiment and research. The questions are geared toward helping the child on their way to the answers, but not giving them the answers.

Rather than being graded on a scale as in traditional education, progressive education usually uses documentation to trace the journey of the child while gaining knowledge. In some cases the teacher stays with the student throughout their journey through their school and documents their journey throughout the years. This allows the teacher to become very familiar with the student and their learning style, so that they are better able to guide them through their learning path. This also allows the child’s parents a much more personal view of their child’s learning process, rather than just seeing a bunch of letters or symbols on a grade sheet, which tells them nothing at all about how their child thinks or what they are learning.

Myth #3: Getting rid of the traditional grading system will decrease competition and put all children on the same level – a form of Socialization.

I have already stated that, rather than motivating students to be better learners, grades motivate students to be better at memorization. The quality of work actually goes down, as does the level of comprehension and retention.

I would argue that there are places for competition, but school is not one of them. School is a place for learning, and competition could actually hurt the learning process. Everything that I have learned in the last six months about education, I have learned from the work of other people. If I had viewed learning as a competition, it would have been harder for me to learn anything because I wouldn’t have been as willing to look at the views and knowledge from other people. Children that are in the same class together can have differing levels of knowledge simply because of what they have been taught at home or what they have learned through reading or other methods. Rather than viewing each other as competitors, children can become collaborators, working together to build their knowledge. This will help them out later in life, as employers tend to look for people with people skills.

Working in this way does not mean that children lose their individuality and become “socialized”. Children can work on projects alone and confer with another student about a problem that they are having. This communication is another part of research and building knowledge. Adults know that in order to build your own knowledge you need to refer to the knowledge that has been built by other people. The same is true of children. Instead of relying on one source for knowledge (the teacher), which won’t work because one source can’t possibly have the amount of knowledge needed to thoroughly educate yourself on any given topic, children can ask other children or use other sources to gain knowledge. Other children may even be able to give ideas about how to find information as well.

Myth #4: “Teachers should always praise children for their unique and inventive answers regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Knowledge (e.g., the rules of grammar and mathematics, and the facts of science and history) is explicitly not the goal of Progressive education.”

The idea of praising a child on method is entirely different from praising a child on their answers. In most areas of knowledge, there is a right or wrong answer (such as in grammar, mathematics, science, and history), and it makes no sense in traditional or Progressive education to praise a child for answers that are wrong. In a progressive setting, if a child gets a problem wrong they are posed a question by the teacher (who is helping to guide them to the right answer) that challenges their current thinking and will help them discover a new solution. In the cases of middle and higher education, this may lead the child through history as they do research to find out how the answer to their problem came about. The questions posed by the teacher cause what is known as “cognitive dissonance,” an uncomfortable feeling caused by the brain trying to reconcile two pieces of conflicting information. The uncomfortable feeling persists until the conflicting information is resolved through research or other means.

I want to use myself as an example here. As early as six months ago I was a huge believer in traditional education methods, but I encountered something that made me question this belief. This “something” is similar to the questions offered by the teacher to the student in order to make them think about their answers. In order to put the questions that I now had to rest, I went through a lot of vigorous research until I came up with answers. The research took me through the history of the role of behavioral and cognitive psychology in education and how they have changed our past views about how children learn.

On another note, I had gone through classes about this exact same thing when I took college psychology and education classes. I sat through countless lectures and read passages out of textbooks, but none of the information that I learned stuck with me. In fact it made no sense to me whatsoever, and caused me to be very apprehensive about returning to school or entering into a career in education. But when I researched it and learned about it on my own, not only did it make sense to me, but it was very instrumental in changing my beliefs and my approach to teaching the children in my care. And I may not have what some people consider the “right” answer, but I have what is “right” to me until I encounter another question that will cause me to do more research until I reach a new conclusion. This learning process is continuous in many different areas of our lives (in fact you may recognize it in some areas of your own life), and illustrates how learning happens in progressive education. And it also addresses this quote from the article:

When I talk to high school students they tell me, virtually to a person, the same thing: that high school is boring and unchallenging. It’s not that they don’t want to learn or that they find subjects such as algebra or history intrinsically boring; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. When I press a little deeper, I learn that for most students the problem is that they have teachers who aren’t particularly good at what they do: the teachers don’t seem to know their subjects very well and they don’t have a passion for teaching.

Teachers don’t have a passion for teaching because students don’t have a passion for learning; students won’t have a passion for learning until they are actively involved in what they are learning and actively involved in finding the answers to their own questions. I found that lectures and textbooks did not make the information understandable, and caused me to not want to attend classes. The children in our public schools have no choice about whether or not to attend classes; they are forced to go through the boring process of listening to lectures and reading textbooks, totally disconnected from what they are “learning”.

For a closer look at the goals of Progressive education, see here.

Myth #5: “Progressive education replaces [learning a body of pre-established information] with a child-centered approach that emphasizes a child’s self-expression and spontaneous impulses.”

I will agree with two parts of this quote from Mr. Thompson’s article: Progressive education is a child-centered approach, and it does emphasize a child’s self-expression. I’m not sure what Mr. Thompson means by “spontaneous impulses”. The children in my care don’t tend to have too many of those (I will explain this in a moment). I would like to re-phrase Mr. Thompson’s sentence to make it a little more true to Progressive education: “Progressive education uses a child-centered approach to teach children a body of pre-established information, while emphasizing a child’s self-expression.”

Examples of this happen in my class all of the time, but I will use a specific project that my class is working on to illustrate the point.

The children in my class love to build things. I’m sure that all children do, but most recently my children have been interested in building houses. I found this out not only through observation, but through conversations that the children and I have had during our circle time. Every conversation that we have had has moved inevitably back to building houses. So one day I got down on the floor with the children and we built a house together. We discussed what shape the house should be, what kind of rooms the house should have (since they are three-year-olds, they seem to be focused mostly on bedrooms), and they provided occupants for the house (our toy dinosaurs). We counted the blocks that we used and made chimneys (they weren’t sure of the word for “chimney”, referring to it as a “thing for smoke”).

As you can see, through this one activity the children were learning math skills and new vocabulary words, as well as being able to express themselves by using dinosaurs in the house rather than people. But this project is far from over. It will be revisited again and again, to build vocabulary as we add more rooms besides bedrooms, to build knowledge of the world as we expand from one house to a neighborhood, to continue to build math skills as we experiment with houses of different shapes and sizes. There is a wealth of knowledge that can be gained from just building a house from blocks – an activity that the children in my class are already interested in.

To go back to the quote about spontaneous impulses, I would like to point out that this activity did not just come about spontaneously. Most three-year-olds are interested in building all kinds of things with blocks, from houses to towers. I have simply taken something that they were already interested in and turned it into a rich learning experience for them. One of the keys to being an effective educator under the progressive philosophy is to be an avid observer of the children you are teaching, finding their interests, and using these interests to teach the children things that they need to know. In using this method, the children become engaged in their own learning because their interests are involved.

Myth #6: Students primarily follow feelings and emotions, rather than reason and logic.

Dissuaded from making moral distinctions, fed a daily diet of an “I’m okay, you’re okay” philosophy, denied logic, knowledge and truth, and driven by unknown fears and anxieties, today’s young people are left with nothing but their untutored “feelings” and “emotions” as their guides through the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

This myth is the one that kept me away from progressive education for so long (as well as the research of it). As someone who follows Objectivist philosophy, I firmly believe that one should look primarily to reason and logic for answers about life, rather than feelings and emotions. But as I researched progressive education, I found that this is one of the worst misleading myths about it. Once again I will dive into a personal story to prove why:

My initial baby steps into progressive education happened as I was looking for a new classroom management system. I had a few children in my class that were a little harder to work with than the others, and punishments and rewards weren’t working at all. I stumbled across a system that uses education as the tool – educating the teacher how to deal with students in a respectful manner, and educating the students in how to handle their own emotions and how to deal with their fellow students in a respectful manner. This is part of the “whole-child” philosophy that is referred to by many progressive educators; one of the “parts” is their socio-emotional well-being. A lot of traditionalists (myself included at one time) look at the word “socio-emotional” and conclude that progressives are trying to “socialize” the children – they are trying to turn them into Socialists and make them so “group-oriented” that they will lose their individuality. This is not the case. They are merely trying to teach the children how to effectively handle their emotions (such as how to handle anger effectively instead of lashing out, bullying, fighting, etc.) and how to respect the emotions of the people around them. One of the first things taught in the classroom management system that I am working with is effective anger management, not just for the children, but for the teacher as well. This is the first step to self-control within the children and within the classroom, and it is a far cry from Mr. Thompson’s claim that progressives make children deal with life with “untutored” feelings and emotions.

This brings us back to the main point of the article: Why is there so much violence in public schools?

Mr. Thompson infers in his article that our public schools adhere to Progressive educational policies, when in fact they do not. The few progressive ideas that have been implemented in public schools do nothing to address the fact that students are unmotivated. They do nothing to address the problems of the lack of respect between students and between student and teacher. They do nothing to address the fact that students are forced to sit at a desk for hours every day and listen to a teacher talk while they sit and listen. They do nothing to address the competition that is present in schools, namely the competition to be popular and fashionable, which leads to many children being ridiculed and demoralized because they do not follow the trends of the day.

I’m not saying that Progressive education will get rid of all of these problems, but these are the main problems that lead to violence in public schools. Progressive education practices address many of these problems, and lead to the school becoming a place where children can not only gain knowledge of the world around them, but about their place in it as well. Aren’t these the big issues that lead to major disconnections in children during their teen years? With traditional education, we have not allowed children to pursue topics that interest them and engaged them in those topics in a way that is educational; rather, we have forced them to learn in the way that we have dictated. In any other area of our lives, such coercion would be decried as immoral and unjust. In the lives of our children, it is allowed to go on and on, leading our children to behave in ways that people who don’t receive the respect that they deserve usually behave. And yet we wonder why there is so much violence in our public schools.

A Word About Motivation in the Classroom

Since recently doing research on past and present studies on child psychology, child development, and the way children learn, I have been extremely interested in what motivates children to learn. Actually, I have been interested in it longer than that; I have watched as children in my own class have seemed bored or listless, fighting over the same toys for lack of anything better to do, and have seemed bored or talkative during circle times.

I have completely changed my approach to each of these areas, making each optional for the children rather than mandatory. I have even made art optional and more child-directed; I set out the supplies and stand as a guide and the children can come do their art however they wish. Since I have three-year-olds in my class, more guidance is required than would be for a six-year-old or even a four-year-old class, but when the children sit down to do their art now, they are engaged because they made the choice to do art. Just yesterday I sat and watched a boy cut paper with scissors for over an hour, watching the way his hands worked the scissors and trying to figure out the best and most effective way to cut the paper. It is moments like these that make my job worth it – the moments of watching a child explore and discover and show in many ways the fact that they are learning, even if they don’t have a teacher there to tell them what to do all of the time.

So after that experience, added to the research I have recently been doing, I was delighted to come across this blog post talking about motivation. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did!

The Pitfalls of Punishments and Rewards

I have become very interested in the topic of punishments and rewards since implementing a classroom management program that does not use either one. Today I discovered the writings of Alfie Kohn, an ex-teacher and proponent of Progressive education. He has written about the hazards of teaching using punishments and rewards.

Here is an interview he did with Ron Brandt in 1995 about punishments and rewards.