september 2009 for the love of learning by joe bower students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information ~jerome bruner i am not the same teacher i used to be when i started i was very focused on power and control i assigned loads of homework dished out huge penalties for late assignments assigned punishments for rule breaking behavior and averaged my marks to get a final grade i did some of these things because i was trained to do so in university however most of these teaching strategies were being done mindlessly and like a lot of teachers i was simply teaching the way i was taught five years ago i was becoming more and more unhappy with my teaching or lack of and my students learning or lack of i was tired of laboring through marking i hated nagging kids to get their homework done instead of students asking whats this question out of i wanted them to actually get excited about the content i wanted change and i came very close to thinking that change required me to get out of teaching but instead of pulling the plug on what could have been a very short teaching career i started to question the traditional pedagogy that i had so mindlessly adopted i began asking questions that would challenge the status quo many professional development conferences provide teachers with an opportunity to ask questions such as how do i mark better or how do i get my students to do their homework at first glance these look like very challenging and provocative questions but they are still questions that promote more of the same far more powerful questions would be why do i mark or why do i assign homework investigating into the motives for our actions rather than merely examining our methods is a better use of our time particularly if the subject in question is a belief or habit that weve come to mindlessly accept as a given truth it ain t what we don t know that gets mark twain provided us with two very powerful and us in trouble it is what we know for insightful quotes when he said i never let my schooling sure that just ain t so get in the way of my education and it aint what we dont know that gets us in trouble it is what we know for sure that just aint so
three years ago i came to two realizations firstly i was letting schooling get in the way of my teaching and secondly much of my teaching practices were based on pedagogy that was at best unhelpful and at worst harmful through critical questioning and extensive research1 i came to the conclusion that my pedagogy had to revolve around one priority learning and if there were things that worked to sabotage learning then those things would have to be removed for the last four years i have worked to identify and remove those things that traditional schools have done for so long and sometimes so mindlessly such as and if there were things that worked grades homework incentive/reward programs and to sabotage learning then those punishments/consequences and when i share this with things would have to be removed other teachers i get a mixed response some listen intently nodding their heads in agreement as if deep down they have always sensed something wrong with their traditional practices but some listen in shock and awe at how school could even function without such things as grades and punishments it is those teachers who have such a hard time comprehending how kids can learn without all these extrinsic manipulators that concern me the most they are so bought into traditional2 schooling that they have never questioned its foundation or and this possibility is even more concerning they have a very distasteful and distrustful view of the nature of children meaning that without grades rewards punishment and homework there would be nothing to stop children from running amok with sinister intent some of this mindless acceptance for the status quo is driven by our societys obsession with instantaneous results we know what we want but we want it now many teachers will admit that if they could take even one strategy project or idea back from a conference to their classroom and use it the next day they would consider the conference worthy of their time when given the choice how many teachers would go to a session based on theory over a session based on practical application most of us want practical strategies that can be used now rather than having to sit through more educational theory the danger of such a fixation on practicality is that we may adopt a practice based on illogical or disagreeable theory our best practices must be built on a foundation of best theory let us use the following anecdote that happened in my grade 8 classroom as my grade 8 students filed into my classroom i was preparing to gather their attention so we could start our science class when liza one of my students approached me and said mr bower alex wont come and talk to you but he is very upset i turned to look at alex and i could immediately see how distraught he was his head sulked his shoulders slumped and his eyes were red with the beginnings of tears i could tell something was really wrong liza continued to tell me that alex had lost his silver chain i thanked liza and approached alex he told me that he was playing football outside at lunch and it must have fallen off somewhere on the football field.
i asked him if he thought we should go look for it and he asked you mean i could do that i replied with the affirmative i had an idea so i wanted to gather everyones attention and said class we have a problem someone in this class has lost something very valuable to them and this item is somewhere outside alex was playing football at lunch and his silver chain is lost somewhere out on the football field does anyone have a solution to this problem lewis threw up his hand and blurted we could go outside and look for alexs chain and then play football for the rest of class i was impressed with half of lewiss response and concerned about the other hands flew up as every student volunteered to go outside rather than leap from our desks and march immediately outside to find the chain i wanted to clarify something lewis i know that it is the last class on a friday before you leave for a fun-filled weekend and i bet many of us would love to do this just so we could go outside for the duration of this period and perhaps even get to play football however could someone come up with a better reason for why you would volunteer to do this lewis knew exactly what i was getting at and he replied we should go outside to help alex find his sliver chain other students just as quickly blurted their agreement the best reason to go outside right now was to help alex because he needs our help the students quietly went to their lockers and got their jackets because october in alberta can be especially nasty an d today was no exception the good news though was the snow from the previous three days had finally melted and so we marched outside to find another class was outside playing football so i invited them and their teacher to join us we lined up on the end line and began to walk together looking down searching for alexs chain i looked up sporadically to see every student looking intently at their section of ground i couldnt help but get that warm fuzzy feeling my class was working together to accomplish a common goal but that feeling was quickly hijacked by another thought what if we dont find the chain wouldnt it be awesome if we actually found it any thoughts of pessimism i may have had quickly evaporated when colby pronounced i found it you can only imagine the feeling i had and the atmosphere that was created amongst 25 grade 8 students 2 teachers and 2 student teachers everyone had a huge smile on their face but none were larger than the look of glee and astonishment that could be found on alexs while he walked over to colby and accepted the chain and said thank you almost every student in the class came over to give alex a congratulatory pat on the back we were all so very happy for alex not wanting to be done with this experience i asked the students to share what they thought about todays class ethan shared with us a story about when he was in elementary he tumbled down a hill and lost his lens out of his glasses upon returning from recess he told his teacher what had happened and she had told him to gather some friends and go find it because this was important they found it i could tell ethan looked back upon this experience with enthusiasm and joy it was a pleasurable memory jared shared with us a story about when he was in elementary he had lost his glasses on the school yard upon returning from recess he told his teacher what had happened and she had told him that this was class time and that he had lost his glasses during recess so he would have to
look for them on his own time he never found his glasses i could tell jared looked back upon this experience with disgust and contempt it was a vile memory as we concluded the debriefing child after child agreed whole-heartedly that todays activity was the right thing to do the following list of words and phrases were used time and time again by the students to describe the whole event kindness teamwork community motivation doing the right thing good citizenship considerate helpful respectful responsibility and cooperation i was ecstatic over how this entire event had gone over and i was almost equally pleased that my student teachers had witnessed it too the debriefing we had could have filled a university level textbook reflecting upon this situation also summarizes nicely the changes i have made to my teaching pedagogy here is a breakdown of this anecdote natural consequences and punishment because there is such a wealth of empirical and anecdotal evidence to prove that the use of punishment just doesnt work the popularity of the word punishment has decreased significantly unfortunately the use of punishments themselves has not swayed much in todays classroom teachers are less apt to use the word punishment and so they use colorful euphemisms like consequences if you prescribe to this method of doing things to children then my anecdote might have gone in a drastically different direction alex was playing football at lunch and knowing how alex usually played football the boys were yet again playing far too rough so if alex chooses to continue to play in a rough manner and not two-hand-touch football like they should then it is only natural that he would lose his silver chain the theory here is that alex will learn a lesson but what lesson will he really learn those who believe in natural consequences would like to believe that he will learn that rough play leads to injury or loss of valuables so dont play rough lets ponder this do you really believe that years from now he might reflect on this situation and write a letter to me that might sound like this dear mr bower you might not remember me but my name is alex and i was in your grade 8 science class i am writing this letter to thank you for teaching me a lesson i lost my silver chain that my grandfather gave me while he lay on his deathbed during lunch when we were playing football at the time i would have liked to have gone out during your class to find it but you wouldnt let me and because of your high standards toward responsibility and respect i learned a valuable lesson i am a better person today because my chain was lost forever thank you i think we can agree how preposterous and unlikely that would be its far more likely that the lesson he learned is that his teacher could have helped him out but just chose not to what a jerk had we used this natural consequence on alex do you think he could have differentiated between a natural consequence and punishment?
positive reinforcement rewards and verbal praise if a child does something good and parents and teachers feel like we have to positively reinforce that goodness what does that say about our opinion of children doesnt it imply a rather distasteful and distrustful view of them positive reinforcement really implies that if you are fortunate enough to actually catch a child doing good then you had better reinforce that behavior because that good behavior is not natural and without our intervention chances are you wont see that behavior again still not convinced what if i had used positive reinforcement in my anecdote there were a couple opportunities for me to do so i could have positively reinforced liza for going out of her way to tell me about alex lewis for suggesting we go outside and look for alexs chain the entire class for going outside to look for the chain and/or colby for actually finding the chain however could you imagine how much i would have cheapened everything had i given colby a gold star a green card a check mark on an incentive chart money coupons or even verbal praise what happened in my anecdote was bigger than any individual including me the teacher that warm fuzzy feeling that we all felt when we saw colby hand the chain to alex would have been only diluted had i been arrogant enough to intervene to do so would only distract liza lewis the whole class and colby from the real extrinsic manipulators such as reason we did what we did rewards positive reinforcement verbal praise and punishment create without a reward who was the classes attention on if i selfish and narcissistic people reward colby what happens to their focus positive reinforcement and rewards are distracting and ultimately create selfishness motivation if i told you that a student returned a lost wallet to the office or a foster mom drove her foster child to his 6:00 am hockey practice what would think of these acts your first reaction may be something that reflects approval these sound like people who are doing good things for others however do any of these statements provide the peoples motivation for doing what they are doing and do you care what if i told you the student only returned the wallet because he figured out the reward was worth more than the contents of the wallet or that the foster mom was only driving the foster child to hockey practice because she got paid mileage when you are privy to these individuals motivations does this change your impression of their actions in each situation these people are doing what seems like good things however we all know that people can do the right thing for the wrong reasons if we prescribe to use extrinsic motivators to gain compliance from students we are really
saying that we dont care why people are doing things we are willing to manipulate children with rewards control through seduction or punishment control through fear despite this argument some teachers and parents may suggest starting with the extrinsic and then simply remove it the idea being that the extrinsic is needed in order to initiate an interest in the student but this doesnt translate into anything but the ol bait-andswitch and i think we can all envision the greasy used-car-salesmen who probably invented this innately disrespectful tactic as a professional i am convinced that the use of extrinsic motivators is morally objectionable and dehumanizing for argument sake though lets pretend someone found extrinsic motivators morally there are two kinds of motivation acceptable it would be interesting to know if intrinsic and extrinsic and they are extrinsic motivators are in fact effective extrinsic inversely related meaning that if motivators are usually promoted by people with one grows the other is likely to good intentions but have gross misconceptions about diminish motivation most people ask the question how motivated are my students but this question would lead someone to believe that motivation comes as one brand and you either have lots or little of it there is a plethora of research that shows us that motivation simply does not work this way rather the question we need to be asking is how are my students motivated this question implies that there are different kinds of motivation and it very much matters which one is dominant on this issue the research3 is clear there are two kinds motivation extrinsic and intrinsic and they are inversely related meaning if one grows the other usually diminishes the research also clearly shows that extrinsic motivators are only effective in gaining temporary compliance4 and tend to diminish genuine interest in the original task in other words when someone is told do this and youll get that they almost immediately begin to lose focus in the this because they are so distracted by the that i would hope that teachers would openly admit that a student who volunteered to look for alexs chain because he cared about alex is far more desirable than the student who volunteered because he thought he could personally gain from alexs misfortune but even if we didnt care it is important to recognize that the research shows that the use of extrinsic motivators simply does not have any long lasting positive effects at best rewards and punishment can create short-term compliance for low-interest activities but as soon as the reward is removed people go back to their previous habits in other words the student who volunteered to help because they were extrinsically motivated to do so will not be more likely to volunteer for others when given another opportunity behaviorism most parents and teachers are probably not intimately familiar with behaviorism which is ironic because many of the practices including the tricks and gimmicks teachers and parents use every day are based on the behaviorism theory behaviorism is a philosophy of psychology based on the idea that all things which organisms do including acting thinking and feeling can and should be regarded as behaviors on the surface this
could sound harmless but if you investigate further are you really prepared to reduce everything we think feel and do to behaviors this question has serious implications if i was a behaviorist consider how my anecdote could change lets pretend liza didnt approach me and alex comes into misbehaviour is not the problem my class and is very upset he is so upset that he sits down rather it is a symptom of a much throws his binder that hits another student far too many larger issue parents and teachers simply see the behavior as the problem rather than the symptom of a larger problem lets pretend i fixed alexs behavior by forcing him to apologize and i ostracize him from the rest of the class with a timeout until i welcome him to rejoin the class he comes back in and behaves himself problem solved or is it knowing what we know you would have to admit that the problem is far from solved sadly it is more likely that i have probably made the whole situation worse can you see how dehumanizing this is if focusing on behavior and misbehavior is what we call discipline then the best we can hope for is that discipline has no effect and hope that it wont make the situation worse accountability when i had the opportunity to speak to a member of albertas legislative assembly about our provinces provincial achievement tests she pronounced well you know joe what doesnt get tested doesnt get taught too often shes right but shes not right in the way she thinks she is i would hope that most parents and teachers would see the value in taking time out of class placing the curriculum on hold so that we could go outside and find alexs chain and i would suspect that the mla would agree but if i took what she said to heart and allowed those high stakes tests to hijack my teaching practices could or would i have taken the time to help alex out show me the test that ensures that i am held accountable for helping alex if anything i might feel pressure to not help him out because im simply too busy preparing my students for a test that i desperately need them to do well on moreover some students might be too busy preparing themselves for a test that they desperately need to well on and so they might object to wasting their time going outside when they should be studying albert einstein may have summed this up best when he said not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted there is a big difference between people who value what they measure and those who measure what they value the use of high stakes testing is inherently distrustful and disrespectful of teachers because it attempts to make school teacher-proof even more disturbing is that most people dont understand that these high standards that high stakes tests promote to keep
teachers and students held accountable do not allow all students to succeed not convinced imagine if everyone in a class performed exceptionally well what would be the reaction would everyone rant and rave about how good the teachers were i doubt it more likely it would be deemed that someone needs to raise the bar because by definition high standards means some kids must be made to fail not because of accountability but in spite of it did i make sure to find the time and effort necessary to work with my students to do the right thing and help alex find his silver chain there is no shortage of literature available for parents and teachers who are looking for advice on how to discipline children but if you are ready to move beyond doing things to kids and start working with them then you need to read alfie kohns beyond discipline from compliance to community whose book flap aptly reads beyond discipline has entered the status of an education classic a vital alternative to all the traditional manuals that consist of techniques for imposing control trying to define good teaching and good learning is no easy task but if we always keep our ultimate objective in mind the love of learning and we allow nothing to sabotage us our children will be afforded the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning in a safe and caring learning environment 1 when i started researching i started looking for alternatives to grades i stumbled upon an article titled the costs of overemphasizing achievement by alfie kohn and it saved my teaching career and many students learning careers for that matter this article can be found on kohns website at www.alfiekohn.org i went on to read many articles and books on education psychology and parenting 2 i say traditional in quotes because learning has not always revolved around fabricated tactics such as rewards punishment grades and homework learning was alive and well long before we ever had classrooms red pens and poster projects so in the true sense of the word traditional learning is the kind we actually need to return to however because we consider the way we have been educated as traditional the word remains tarnished 3 for more on the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation consider reading richard ryan and edward decis self-determination theory 1985 and their further articles such as intrinsic and extrinsic motivators classic definitions and new directions along with alfie kohns book punished by rewards 4 in the short-term extrinsic motivators can have what appears to be desirable results and intrinsic motivation can prove to have sluggish progress early on however in the long-run intrinsic motivators have far longer more meaningful effects this is very unfortunate because in our results-oriented profession we can become quite impatient in our search for student improvement even one year can prove to be very short-term if you consider the length of an entire life few teachers will see a student for longer than one year and so we cant really see the long-term effects we have on children.