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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A Deeper Look at Outcome-Based Education and the Role of Behavioral Psychology in Education

I have spent my weekend researching the role of behavioral psychology in education. To most of you, that may sound like a boring way to spend the weekend, but I have been in my element and have enjoyed it very much.

My journey started when I realized that I had misdirected an opinion at Pavlovian conditioning, when I really should have directed that opinion at operant conditioning. This made me realize that I should do some research on just what exactly operant conditioning is, and how it is being used in our school systems.

Operant conditioning is a behavioral theory that uses reinforcement, punishment, or extinction to affect behavior. A reinforcement is a positive consequence that causes a behavior to occur with greater frequency. A punishment is a negative consequence that causes a behavior to occur with lesser frequency. Extinction is lack of a consequence, which can result either in a reduced frequency of an inconsequential behavior, or a reversal in the frequency of a behavior that has either been reinforced or punished.

Educational theory took this psychological theory, developed behaviors that they wanted to see exhibited by children, and created a curriculum around this. Grades are a form of operant conditioning; if a child gets a bad grade, that is the punishment that is supposed to modify the behavior and get the children to try harder to get a good grade.

Educational psychologists have actually come up with four different types of domains for which to produce outcomes: cognitive, affective, psychomotor, and interpersonal. I haven’t yet found out how each of these domains is “graded” but if you are clicking on the links provided, you may find that there is still some debate and research going on as to how to grade for each of the domains.

All of this research has left many questions in my mind, but it has also produced a lot of answers. First of all, I have written posts in the past that view outcome-based education as some sort of conspiracy to gain control of our children. I no longer believe in these conspiracy theories. But that doesn’t mean that I believe that the psychologists are coming from the right angle.

Outcome-based education uses operant conditioning as its base. This means that educators are using extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation to get students to do what they believe they should do. Extrinsic motivation does not motivate students in the same way as intrinsic motivation does, and this is one of the many reasons why our education system is failing us. Students are bored in the classroom, listening to lectures about things that seemingly have nothing to do with them. They have very little intrinsic motivation when it comes to learning more about what they are being taught. Their motivation comes extrinsically – from the threat of a bad grade or a mad teacher or parent.

One of the basic problems is how the child was viewed in the development of these theories. Outcome-based education works on an equation: if you tell the child to do “X” and offer this motivation “Y”, then you should get “Z” as the result. What this doesn’t take into account is that children have free will and emotions. Children need to feel engaged in the learning process. Being engaged does not usually mean that they are sitting and listening to a lecture. Being engaged doesn’t even mean that they are answering questions during a lecture. Being engaged means that they are somehow actively engaged in the topic at that moment, whether through a project or through individual research. Children also need to have choices when it comes to the work that they will do to show their proficiency in the topic. This could also come in the form of projects.

One of the interesting things that I found during my research was the Constructivist learning theory. This theory not only works well with the child’s free will, emotions, and thinking skills, but also allows the child to formulate his own opinions. A teacher is not “indoctrinating” a child into any particular way of thinking, and the child will feel engaged because they are actually using their own thinking skills and making their own opinions. One criticism I have heard about the constructivist view is that the child is being primed to be part of a group rather than an individual. Throughout my research I have found that children do not necessarily have to work in a group for the constructivist theory to be effective. Children could just as easily do the work on their own.

One thing that I worry about with the constructivist theory is that it will get swallowed up in the behaviorist conditioning that we already have, which will make the theory less effective. The key is to try to find ways to increase intrinsic motivation in our students, and the only way that can really happen is if we guide the students rather than bore them to death with lectures; we have to get out of their way and let them live and find out on their own. We can guide their way and provide them with help with the knowledge that we possess, but we can’t make them do anything that they don’t want to do.