Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Catching Kids

I think most of us can agree how utterly ridiculous it is to say to students:

Don't let me catch you doing that again!

Some kids might understand this as a warning to stop whatever it was that elicited the comment, but how many will really think to themselves:

Okay, I won't let you catch me next time!

Just like it's not what we teach but rather what they learn that matters most, how kids perceive our words and actions is infinitely more important than how we perceive our intentions. If you say something that you intend to be information for kids to think of in order to learn a lesson, but they perceive it is a punishment - then it's a punishment. Whether we like it or not, their perception is our reality.

We may be able to agree that threatening or punishing children to encourage "good" behaviour is not something we should be doing; however, coming to a consensus on the idea that we shouldn't reward them either, is an entirely different challenge.

Many teachers and parents subscribe to the "catch-them-being-good" strategy. Let's consider this stategy for a moment.

Alfie Kohn provides this description of rewards and punishments:

Rewards and punishments are not opposites - rather they are two sides of the same coin - and it doesn't buy us very much.
There are two themes to the coin analogy. Firstly, rewards and punishments are devices from a behaviourist's tool box. Remember B.F Skinner?  Secondly, too many people see rewards or punishments as the only two choices - this is a false dichotomy.

We should be thankful there are other choices because, as Alfie Kohn explains, there are serious problems with rewarding children to get them to learn, share or even be caring kids.

In general terms, what the evidence suggests is this: the more we reward people for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Extrinsic motivation, in other words, is not only quite different from intrinsic motivation but actually tends to erode it.[3] This effect has been demonstrated under many different circumstances and with respect to many different attitudes and behaviors. Most relevant to character education is a series of studies showing that individuals who have been rewarded for doing something nice become less likely to think of themselves as caring or helpful people and more likely to attribute their behavior to the reward.

"Extrinsic incentives can, by undermining self-perceived altruism, decrease intrinsic motivation to help others," one group of researchers concluded on the basis of several studies. "A person's kindness, it seems, cannot be bought."[4] The same applies to a person's sense of responsibility, fairness, perseverance, and so on. The lesson a child learns from Skinnerian tactics is that the point of being good is to get rewards. No wonder researchers have found that children who are frequently rewarded -- or, in another study, children who receive positive reinforcement for caring, sharing, and helping -- are less likely than other children to keep doing those things.[5]

In short, it makes no sense to dangle goodies in front of children for being virtuous. But even worse than rewards are awards -- certificates, plaques, trophies, and other tokens of recognition whose numbers have been artificially limited so only a few can get them. When some children are singled out as "winners," the central message that every child learns is this: "Other people are potential obstacles to my success."[6] Thus the likely result of making students beat out their peers for the distinction of being the most virtuous is not only less intrinsic commitment to virtue but also a disruption of relationships and, ironically, of the experience of community that is so vital to the development of children's character.
We could learn a lot from people like Jerome Bruner who once said:

Students should experience their successes and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.
When we trigger the reward or the punishment, it is awfully hard for our students or our children to see us as a caring ally who is on their team - rather, it is more likely that they will start to rationalize the relationship as 'us' and 'them'. They see us as a judge in-waiting who holds the carrot in one hand and the stick in the other. All this completely contradicts Jerome Bruner's wisdom.

There is a big difference between working with children and doing things to them, and Coaches like John Wooden offer us an alternative to the behaviourist's coin. Wooden's athletes didn't need his judgement; rather, they needed his support - his guidance - his wisdom.

No longer are we bound to simply manipulating children's behavior.

If we are truly interested in something more than short-term compliance, then we need to seriously rethink whether we should be catching kids doing anything.

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