Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The behaviourism infection

"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. 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."

This quote could be used to describe any idea that we come to mindlessly accept as a given truth, but when Alfie Kohn wrote these words in his book Punished by Rewards, he was referring to Behaviourism.

Behaviourism is the belief that everything we are can be reduced to our behaviours.

It has infected our homes and schools.

And, for the most part, we don't even know it.

When parents and teachers choose to do things to children, we are subscribing to behaviourism. For example, if I use bribes or threats (rewards and punishments) to make children do their homework, their chores, be polite or even to learn - I am really saying that I don't care why they do what I want them to do - it is good enough if they just behave it.

Alfie Kohn, and many others, including me, propose a better way. Rather than doing things to children, we would rather see parents and teachers work with their children.

Rather than ripping my child away from the play area after they stole another child's toy, I might sit with them for a moment and model or discuss the proper way of sharing. Rather than giving my students zeroes or deduct late marks from their late assignments, I would work with them to find out why it was late and then help them to actually learn whatever it was that I found important enough to make into an assigment.

For more on how to work with children, rather than just doing things to them, I have a couple books to suggest to you:

  • Unconditional Parenting, Punished by Rewards and Beyond Discipline by Alfie Kohn
  • Drive by Daniel Pink
  • Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • Hold on to your Kids by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate
  • Kids are Worth It! by Barbara Coloroso
My first 4 years of teaching, I subscribed to behaviourism and I didn't even know it. I was just teaching the way I was taught, but my last 5 years of teaching, I have subscribed more to constructivism and working with my studnets.
Working with > Doing things to. Period.


  1. I just discovered your blog and I am loving it! I'm struggling between behaviorism and ways that you speak of in this blog. Have you read works by Alfred Adler? His view of education is similar to what you speak of... away from behaviorism. I try to apply them to how to conduct myself as a teacher/parent, even as a person, find it difficult at times. Reading your blog and other article hopefully will help me. Thank you for great read :)

  2. Shouldn't it be the parents doing this i.e. working with their children the majority of time, rather than the teacher struggling with 28+ students?

    If my child stole a toy from another kid, I would immediately put them in a short time out, then after the apology I would sit with my kid and work out better ways of coping for next time.

    p.s. Do you ever watch SuperNanny?

  3. Nadine, do you know the origin of the term "time out"?

    No, I don't watch SuperNanny. Pedagogically, I find almost everything she has to offer as utterly and completely counter productive to my ultimate goals for my daughter and students. Alfie Kohn offers up a well articulated explanation of this:


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