What Would It Take to Turn Back the Wave of Behaviorism in American Education?

Public education policy these days is trapped in behaviorist thinking about rewards and punishments.  We have zero-tolerance charter schools that award demerits to children for failing to exhibit good posture, track the speaker, and even wear the socks that are part of the school uniform. We close or privatize schools for failing quickly to raise overall test scores, and we downgrade teachers in their formal evaluations for failing to raise their students’ test scores fast enough. Now the U.S. Department of Education says states must rate colleges of education by tracking whether their graduates, once they get hired as teachers, can produce students whose test scores rise quickly.

David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, thinks our education policy’s reliance on behaviorist psychology is technocratic nonsense.  His article in Sunday’s NY Times explains why.

Kirp describes three research studies about interventions by teachers “to combat students’ negative feelings.  I’m dumb, some believe; I don’t belong here; the school views me only as a member of an unintelligent group.”

In one study, “sixth-grade students… (were) taught, in eight lessons that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort.”  This kind of teaching “aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work.”

In a second study, when teachers wrote comments on the school work of African American male adolescents, no matter the other critiques on the students’ papers, the teacher explained: “she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards.”

In the third study, “sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends.”  Such assignments invite students “to situate themselves on the path to belonging or to connect with their values in a classroom setting.  The goals are to build up their resilience and prepare them for adversity.”

Kirp explains: “The impact, in all these studies, is greatest on black and Latino students. That makes sense, since as adolescents they are far more inclined to see teachers as prejudiced and school as a hostile environment. As these youths come to feel more secure they are likely to make a greater effort.  Success begets success… An unpublished study by social psychologists shows that the impact echoes years later.  African-American seventh graders who were asked to write about the most important value in their lives were propelled on an entirely different path from classmates who wrote about neutral topics… The reverberations persisted beyond high school.  These students were more likely to graduate, to enroll in college and to attend more selective institutions. Can this kind of intervention work on a grander scale?  A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Texas suggests so.”

Paul Tough has written extensively about character education.  In his recent book, Helping Children Succeed, Tough explains that research conclusively demonstrates the failure of behaviorist rewards and punishments:  “(W)e are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions, but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us….”  Teachers can motivate children to learn by meeting three basic human needs—for competence, for autonomy, and for relatedness.”  (p. 63)

In his wonderful little book, Why School?, Mike Rose, the education writer and teacher in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, would attribute our adoption of behaviorism in the schools that serve our society’s poorest children to the way privileged policy makers stigmatize the poor: “Historian Michael Katz has detailed the ways we in the United States have stigmatized the poor through our definitions of them (for example, as undeserving or morally weak) and through the policies we establish to provide assistance to them, such as our narrow and punitive welfare system. Appearance, race, language, and neighborhood are intimately involved in this construction of the poor as different and inferior… The label ‘the poor’ itself becomes a categorial term freighted with deficiency…  If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate. And it is from those attributions that we develop both our personal and public policy responses to poverty.” (pp. 188-189)

We have David Kirp at Berkeley and Mike Rose at UCLA,  a body of academic studies on motivation theory, and Paul Tough a popular writer summarizing all of this. They all  contradict the behaviorism that dominates school policy today. Finally there is the liberation pedagogy of Paulo Freire, the philosopher of education who suggests that teachers must help students become the subjects of their own education, not merely objects manipulated by the behavior codes and high stakes tests of their schools: “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming…  (S)aying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone… If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 69)

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3 thoughts on “What Would It Take to Turn Back the Wave of Behaviorism in American Education?

  1. Another powerful piece of writing, Jan. The most salient sentence for me is “the ways we in the U.S. have stigmatized the poor through our definitions of them and through the policies we establish to provide assistance to them.” We do have a caste system in this country that other first world nations like Sweden, Finland, and Norway must find appalling. Both political parties have abandoned the poor in America. Why haven’t we seen a revolution from the oppressed in America? Perhaps John Steinbeck had it right when he said, “…the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The American Dream has been held up like a carrot on a stick, and we have convinced everyone, seemingly, that the adage “if you work hard enough, you’ll be successful” is still true, and if you’re not, well, then there is something wrong with your character, effort, or intelligence.

  2. The technocratic encroachment into public education is even more insidious than the heartless reward and punish policies that affect the disempowered so disastrously. The Common Core ELA curriculum itself is a tour-de-force in shaming the encouragement of student voice and empowerment. David Coleman (in)famously said that the adult world doesn’t give a shit what you think and feel. Well, the adult world better give a shit, because we’re talking about the psyches of America’s children. What’s happening now is even worse–the encroachment of 1:1 digital learning, which effaces the human teacher/human student relationship and doubles down on standards/skills with canned programs in which children proceed to “mastery,” shepherded by non-transparent algorithms. On another note, I’ve been wondering where the impetus for online college education came from, other than the greed of hedge funders. Which group in the country has at many points taken an active role in dissent–college students and their professor allies. Well, if students are each doing their own thing on a digital device–where are the masses of people who mobilize each other through discussion and camaraderie?

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