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Students Aren’t Lab Rats. Stop Treating Them Like They Are

Scientists have moved on from behaviorism. Why haven’t educators?
By Alfie Kohn — September 04, 2018 5 min read
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Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism—a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience, and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement—and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of the psychologists John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on—in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in so-called competency- and proficiency-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.

Some of these variants are marketed as new innovations. But if competence or proficiency is still defined as the mastery of discrete skills or bits of knowledge, it reflects the same Skinnerian model that was developed on rodents and pigeons. Similarly, grades are no less destructive just because they are “standards based.” Formative assessment can be as reductive as summative tests, particularly if it’s done continuously. Reward programs are controlling and counterproductive even when they show up on a screen.

With every child, we need to keep in mind that behaviors are just the protruding tip of the proverbial iceberg.”

In finalizing a newly updated edition of my book Punished by Rewards, I sorted through scores of recent studies on these subjects. I was struck by how research continues to find that the best predictor of excellence is intrinsic motivation (finding a task valuable in its own right)—and that this interest is reliably undermined by extrinsic motivation (doing something to get a reward). New experiments confirm that children tend to become less concerned about others once they’ve been rewarded for helping or sharing. Likewise, paying students for better grades or test scores is rarely effective, never mind that the goal is utterly misconceived.

Over and over, researchers continue to find—in schools, families, and workplaces—that people who are rewarded tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Often, too, they end up not doing it as well as those who weren’t treated like bundles of behaviors to be managed and manipulated.

But the enduring lesson for educators isn’t just that “positive reinforcement” turns out to be anything but positive. It also concerns the conceptual dead end of behaviorism more generally. Every day, and with every child, we need to keep in mind that behaviors are just the protruding tip of the proverbial iceberg. What matters more than “what?” or “how much?” is “how come?”

A few illustrations:

• The best predictor of how well students will fare in school later may not be how well they fared in school earlier. It’s why they think they’ve done as well as they have. The key is not measurable achievement, in other words, but how students experience and explain their success or failure.

• Someone preoccupied with behavior may say “grit” or self-discipline is desirable without bothering to consider the child’s possible motives. Does she love what she’s doing—or keep at it because of a desperate need to prove her competence? Whether persistence is constructive depends, among other things, on whether it’s animated by passion or compulsion.

• New research confirms that financial incentives fail over the long haul to get people to lose weight, quit smoking, or use the gym. Partly that’s because what matters is under the surface. So, too, for students who eat too much or too little, or who struggle with substance abuse. “How do we get a young person to change his behavior?” is a shallow and unproductive question. Try: “Who is this kid? What needs or fears might explain what he’s doing?”

• Behaviorists may monitor whether kids’ eyes are on the teacher, but this means very little. More than 30 years ago, two University of Wisconsin researchers videotaped elementary math students, then interviewed them later and assessed their understanding of the lessons. Whether students had appeared engaged was unrelated to what they had been thinking about—and the latter better predicted achievement. A student might look like she’s paying close attention while she is actually preoccupied with her performance. As the researchers concluded, “Behavioral measures, such as observations of on-task behavior (‘time on task’), convey limited information about classroom learning.”

• In 2006, Suniya Luthar at Teachers College, Columbia University, and her colleagues set out to determine whether affluent kids are stressed out because they’re overscheduled. They found that a high number of extracurriculars—the measurable behavior—was not itself a significant risk factor for anxiety, substance abuse, or depression. What mattered was how students thought their parents felt about what they were doing.

These examples could be multiplied indefinitely—and of course they apply to parenting as well as teaching. What matters isn’t whether a child says “I’m sorry” after hurting someone, but whether she actually feels remorse. If not, then insisting she apologize just teaches insincerity. It applies to adults, too. For example, a 2005 study showed that sacrificing for one’s spouse doesn’t predict the relationship’s length or quality. Rather, the relevant variable is the reason people do so.

It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as It’s About More Than Just Behavior

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