Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.        ~Daniel H. Pink~

The school year has an ebb and flow to it. The early days of September; filled with the excitement of a new school year, the novelty of a new classmates and the opportunity for a fresh start, are often referred to as ‘honeymoon’ phase. By early November, this early enthusiasm and excitement has usually waned as staff and students have settled into the routines, structures and expectations of daily school life. Honeymoons, after all, don’t last forever and the stresses of academic learning, peer dynamics can lead the children we teach to a wide range of behaviors that would seem familiar to anyone who has any life experience in a classroom or school.

Behavior is communication; we know that actions are a much more reliable source of information about people than words. In schools, we often see children’s behavior as something we (the adults) can control. In the pursuit of this noble goal we often expend a great deal of time and energy designing the type of incentive, reward and punishment schemes that our friends in The Office satirized in the video excerpt above.  I’ve moved around a lot in my career as a teacher, staff developer and school administrator and one common observation I can make from these experiences is how deeply embedded the use of this type practice is in classrooms and schools.

Another observation I can make is for most kids (and especially those kids who are marginalized in any way) these ‘systems’ just don’t work.  People much smarter than me have written and spoken at length on this topic (follow the links) but for me the reasons these programs don’t work comes down to three flawed assumptions:

  1. Our default stance is selfishness
  2. Learning is something we try to avoid
  3. Hierarchy is our natural order

Our history as a species tells us that to be human is to create, seek connections, novelty and networks. These patterns are embedded deep in our DNA; the desire to learn, form communities, follow our curiosity and nurture life, often regardless of the risks and costs. Cognitive and social scientists support this thinking with research on motivation and how cultures and societies reflect these common themes across time and geography.

That is why I struggle when I encounter practices that are designed to coerce, manipulate or intimidate children to learn and behave in a pro-social manner. Points or token systems and other external rewards shift the learning away from the internal (the child’s needs) towards the external (the adult’s needs). It is also why working to change this status quo is one of the areas I’ve focused a great deal of my time and energy on in my role as a school leader.

An important part of being in school for children is it gives them the opportunity to develop as social beings, experience both success and failure and, through these experiences and behaviors, build the resilience that will serve them for life.  The author and provocateur  Alfie Kohn asks us to consider whether our children experience these successes and failures as information or as a rewards and punishments?

I think I know how we got to this place in education-what I wonder is how we can interrupt and begin to develop a set of structures in our classrooms and schools that will lead us away from this place?

  1. November 1, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post. As and educator, a parent, and most importantly, a former child and student, I could not possibly agree more! When a child’s behaviour is not optimal for learning, we need to ask what is driving the behaviour and then how do we need to change the learning conditions to meet this particular child’s needs. Maybe their most immediate learning needs aren’t even related to the curriculum. Maybe the first thing they need to learn is that they are valuable and are a much needed member in the classroom and school community.

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