The focus of the interview will be on classroom management and student motivation which is by far the biggest challenge facing many schools today thanks to NCLB which has placed enormous pressure on schools to teach students that were "getting left behind." This meant that teachers would have to teach students they had been unable to teach in the past. And, in order to accomplish this, they would first have to get their classrooms under control and establish an atmosphere conducive to learning. Many teachers, especially those teaching in low-SES schools, would find out that this would be a challenge of first magnitude. Teachers would be forced to confront the fact that they lacked the critical classroom management skills needed to control an unruly classroom.
This dysfunctional state of affairs in our education system can be concisely summarized in two sentences:
Our observations of many failed schools would ... disclose that most teachers either completely fail to manage children or rule through intimidation (yelling at children, issuing demeaning comments, but rarely praising children). The instruction that we see is technically unsound according to all the evidence on how to communicate effectively, how to achieve mastery, and how to reinforce and manage children effectively.
Generally, new teachers are thrown to the wolves, so to speak, when they get their first teaching assignments and are expected to teach with little or no training in classroom management techniques. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most teachers also have received little practical training in effective instructional techniques, making classroom management all the more difficult:
Teachers lecture for long periods of time. What “tasks” the teacher presents occur at a very low rate. There are no systematic correction procedures, no attempts to repeat parts that are difficult for the children, and no serious concern with whether children master the material. The pacing of the presentation is laborious. The material the teacher uses is far too difficult for the skill level of the children. Most of the students’ time is often spent on pointless “worksheet” activities. The students don’t like reading, math, or any other academic activity.
Most teachers are left to fend for themselves when it comes to classroom management and because education is filled with unreliable and unscientific nonsense they have no way to sort the good techniques from the bad ones. The result is that many teachers settle on the old parental stand-by of "negative reinforcement," punishing children when they misbehave, to deal with behavior problems in the classroom.
I could go on at length on why negative reinforcement is a less than optimal technique for classroom management and why other techniques, like positive reinforcement, are much more effective. But, I thought it would be better for teachers to hear it from an actual teacher who has been successful using these techniques. So, I'll start the interview off by having Palisadesk explain why negative reinforcement is not effective and give us a few examples of classroom management techniques she has successfully employed:
Negative reinforcement almost never changes peoples' behavior. That's virtually an axiom. If you want to change behavior, you have to organize the environment so that you can reinforce (reward) the behavior you want. The behavior you notice, pay attention to and reward is what you will get more of; positive methods are far more powerful than negative ones. I think every teacher (and even more critically, every administrator) should be required to read Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training.(It's about people, not dogs) That's the book that changed my life, so to speak.
There are many ways you can implement positive behavior management and the exact strategies you use depend in part on what situation you are in. If you teach a different class every period, that's quite a different environment than if you have a self-contained class most of the day. The age of the students matters, too.
For example, one year I was assigned to a new school and an extremely difficult group of fifth and sixth graders, all with both learning and behavior problems, and most seriously delayed academically. Some had intimidating discipline records; at least one was probably clinically psychotic. They were oppositional, violent (towards each other), screamed and yelled and threw things, or were passive-aggressive, and generally did nothing of what you assigned them to do. I was desperate -- every day I went home feeling like I was escaping a war zone -- and so I set up a classroom economy, a variant of what the behaviorists call "token reinforcement." I printed up bills for $1,$5,$10 etc., as in "real" money, set up bank accounts, wage and price schedules, the works. Everything students might want to do cost something, whether it was visiting the restroom between recesses, computer time or using art materials. In turn, they could earn money in a variety of ways.
This takes a lot of time-consuming preparation at the front end -- getting the "money" ready, having a schedule of available things to purchase, and scheduling in time to keep the records, exchange and deposit money and so on. I hated the complexities involved, but I did like the results -- I saw a turnaround almost immediately.
Initially, requirements were quite easily met to earn classroom dollars -- so many minutes on task, so many items completed, homework handed in etc. Every week the prices changes (not unlike the real world), and the most valued reinforcers, like computer time, went up in price while less popular ones (like using the library) went down. A by-product of this system is that students got fairly proficient at operations with decimals and real-word money skills as well as understanding some basic economic principles around supply and demand. It was possible for every kid to earn enough to get something s/he wanted, and over the course of the year all of them developed reasonably good work habits.
I could have phased out most of the system -- in fact I did "fade out" many of the specific rewards -- but the students enjoyed being little capitalists so much I couldn't shut it down completely. An unexpected result, which I have never had a behaviorist explain convincingly to me, was that the kids were so thrilled with the secondary reinforcer (classroom paper money) that they stopped trading it in for rewards (the real reinforcer, supposedly). They sat there at their seats like youthful Scrooges gleefully counting their piles of bills! It was a riot. But it was a lot of work to set up and administer. I had the help of a bossy but well-organized girl in the class, whom I appointed banker, and a teaching assistant part time who helped with keeping the paperwork and money supply straightened out.
In any system that uses concrete reinforcers, you have to keep raising the ante, so to speak, and demanding more for the same payout. That year was the only time I did the full classroom economy deal, but it saved the day. An important point: we did not have fines. It wasn't necessary. If kids didn't do what they were supposed to do, they didn't earn the $$ they needed for whatever. The rules stayed flexible so that I was in the position of controlling the environment, not the kids -- I wanted the kids to learn to control themselves.
Once the system was up and running, I had no further serious compliance problems, and could get on with actually teaching them with good curricula (including DI). In the second half of the year we did some cross-curricular project work on ancient civilizations, forensic science and other interesting topics that we could not have considered doing with the mayhem at the outset. This was before the internet was a valuable resource, and I had only books to go by, but I think there are web resources about classroom/token economies now. It is a lifesaver in seriously disruptive classes, but it is imperative that the teacher understand something about the process of "shaping" - getting incrementally closer to the behavior you want. Karen Pryor's book is a good introduction; it's well-written, very funny and easy for a non-behaviorist person to understand.
We'll pick up the interview in the next post, with a discussion of another effective classroom management technique--the "You-me" game.
Continue to Part II.