Behaviorism 101

December 29, 2008 at 9:59 pm 1 comment

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RATS working in close collaboration around the clock have successfully trained a human being to do their bidding for hours, even days on end. Rats around the world are abuzz at the breakthrough.

Teams of rats have proven again and again that a human being can be trained to give them food repeatedly whenever they push a bar.

Boy, have I got this guy conditioned! Every time I press this bar he drops in a piece of food. Cartoon from the Columbia Jester in 1928.

Boy, have I got this guy conditioned! Every time I press this bar he drops in a piece of food. Cartoon from the Columbia Jester, 1928.

The rats have yet to explain why the humans should behave in this way.

OK. Sorry, it’s an old joke… dating back to 1928. But I still think it’s funny.

Behaviorism as a credible theory to explain human behavior is supposed to have been in its death throes sometime back in the late 1960s, early ’70s and certainly was buried by the 1990s.

But as an opinion piece published by the Association of Psychological Science claimed on the 2004 centennary of the birth of behaviorism’s apostle BF Skinner commented, “behaviorism is alive”.

I agree. It’s virulent. From the little things like the gold stars right through to the biggest… the grades. Defeating learning. And rarely mentioned.

Behavorism is the biggest and most studiously-ignored elephant, 800-pound gorilla, most-naked-emperor in the room.

Alfie Kohn notes in his detailed critique of behavorism, Punished by Rewards:

“There is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and there is a time to fear its hold over us,” writes Kohn, before adding possibly the best definition of hegemony I’ve ever read.

“The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense.

“At the point when objections are not answered anymore because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control: we do not have the idea; it has us.”

Such an idea is behaviorism: The best way to get something done is to give a reward to people when they act the way we want them to. Or, punish them when they act the way we don’t want them to.

Do this and you’ll get that. After all, it’s just common sense. Except… the research shows it makes no sense at all.

Like tens of thousands of schools around the USA, my school regularly gets caught up in a wrestling match with the 800-pound gorilla, and wonders why either little appears to change or sometimes things get even worse.

I teach in a very kind school. It’s quiet. Teachers don’t shout. It is supportive. And genuinely sensitive to the needs of its students. But, like in thousands of others the gorillas, elephants and emperors in their behaviorist clothes stalk the corridors and classrooms.

Our latest, and well-meaning, attempt to unwittingly mobilize an elephant in aid of our students came with the printing of hundreds of little green bucks. Whenever we catch a student doing good, they get a buck and bucks means prizes… or something.

Millions of similar fraudulent bucks, or their sticker-star-grade equivalents, have been printed and doled out in classrooms in tens of thousands of other schools all over America.

Not quite on a par with the real bucks for good grades (up to $4,000 a year!) proposed by President-elect Barack Obama’s nomination for Education Secretary Arne Duncan in his September 2008 plan. But behaviorist rewards nonetheless.

After much initial enthusiasm, the modest initiative seems to have fizzled rather than be trampled… no one was sure exactly what the bang was you got for your buck. And that was the first question asked by students. Not, you note, what was it you wanted us to permanently change in our behavior?

Pretend bucks traded for compliance is not a new idea. Two centuries ago, in the first decade of the 1800s the first public school in New York City had tried giving out tickets (exchangeable for toys) to students who did as they were instructed. This early behavior modification experiment in bribery was abandoned because, said the trustees, the use of rewards “fostered a mercenary spirit” and “engendered strifes and jealousies”.

Those bicentennial quotes could pretty well describe the effects of grades and grading today.

Even the best of intentions of one person might not feel like that to someone else, the object of the intentions. On the other side of rewards, my school, like many others, has also implemented mandatory after-school tutoring, with the label “support”, for seniors with failing grades. Hardly any students have turned up. Support when it’s mandatory perhaps feels a bit like punishment. Or, at least, humiliating.

Kohn’s review, sub-titled “the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise and other bribes”, gives a blow-by-blow account of the research over decades that has similarly concluded that rewards (and punishments) — much bigger than a few good-humored pretend bucks — do not make sense. They not only don’t work, but defeat the very purpose for which they ostensibly are frequently being used.

The risks of rewards include:

Rewards and punishments are not opposites, just two sides of the same coin,

❏ The more rewards are used, the more they are needed,

❏ Rewards don’t lead to lasting change,

❏ Rewards serve the interests of those giving the reward, not necessarily those receiving the reward,

❏ Rewards avoid asking about the reasons behind the need for rewards,

❏ Students working for a reward, do what is necessary to get the reward and no more.

❏ Rewards motivate… they motivate people to get rewards,

❏ Rewards are experienced as controlling, students recoil from anything that appears to diminish their autonomy,

❏ Consequences, positive reinforcement, tough love and student choices are just other ways of packaging behaviorist rewards and punishments,

❏ There are at least five good reasons to stop saying Good Job, praise can be a dangerous reward,

And most alarmingly the research reveals…

❏ The more you want a reward, the more you may come to dislike whatever you have to do to get it,

❏ Extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation,

❏ Extrinsic motivators, rewards and punishments, are most dangerous when offered for something we want students to want to do.

The elephants and gorillas do, indeed, trample everything under foot.

But as Kohn warns: “If a teacher stops using extrinsic motivators tomorrow, dumps the stickers and stars and certificates in the garbage can and puts the grade book away, students are not going to leap out of their seats cheering, ‘hooray! Now we can be intrinsically motivated!'”

But at least without an 800-pound gorilla in the classroom there’ll be the room to start to focus on the task at hand: helping students find and construct their own meanings on the road to learning.

For a thought-provoking discussion of behaviorism and the issue of classroom management see Beyond Discipline.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Leif Andersson  |  October 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Thanks for an interesting and revealing text about behaviorism. The things you point out are some of the problems that we who work with reinforcement encounter almost daily. It seems so common sense that the important details are missed. The problem is that the common sense definition is insufficient, few people understand the details. It is similar to Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Survival of the strongest/the winner” is the common sense definition. Actually it is “survival of the fittest” which is something else.
    Contemporary research like Relational Frame Theory supports Skinners findings and uses them to describe and understand thinking and the “self”. CBT therapy is the most validated treatment for a range of different psychological problems. The evidence that behaviorism works is everywhere.
    The problem with behaviorism is not that it has become common sense. Your text is a good example on how misinterpreted both the theories and the applications are.

    Reply

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