October 11, 2007

What about kids who are not eager to learn

In response to Palisadesk's post on positive behavior techniques, NYMath Teacher offered the following comment:

I have a deep philosophical problem with rewarding kids for something that they are supposed to do as a matter of course. Perhaps I am just being stubborn in the face of the evidence supporting positive reinforcement, but why should I offer up rewards to my (non-emotionally disturbed 6th grade) charges just for remaining quiet and on task? Doesn't that send a poor message to the kids -- that normal behavior must be remunerated? Doesn't that show them how low our expectations for them have sunk? I have children of my own and I would never, for example, offer to pay them for doing everyday household chores; they are to do that because that is their responsibility as members of my family. Am I off base here?

For most people, this is a common view. parents for get the years spent shaping the behavior of their children such that they know how to act like responsible children. They know how to act and what is expected of them. They do not need elaborate behavior modification techniques and token reinforcements. Usually, some social praise for good behavior and gentle reprimands for bad behavior is sufficient.

However, some children have not been taught how to act and do not find academic work reinforcing to them. What is the teacher to do in this situation? Engelmann has observed:

The traditional educator often does not accept the possibility that a child may not come to the classroom with wide-eyed eagerness to learn. The reason may be that the educator doesn't view the "indifferent" or lazy child as his responsibility. For this child the school often becomes punishing. The child's initial indifference to academic learning becomes active resistance, and the child is labeled.

There is ample research showing (which Palisadesk alluded to) that it is difficult to teach a new behavior to a child through negative reinforcement techniques. A child can be reprimanded for bad behavior, but that won't necessarily teach the child the right behavior. Positive reinforcement is much more effective in changing behavior to a desired behavior.

What the teacher wants to do is shape the desired behavior by offering the minimum reinforcer that will elicit a change in behavior and then gradually fade the reinforcer as the desired behavior is achieved. Eventually the bad behavior will be extinguished and the good behavior will continue without a minimal reinforcer, such as verbal praise.

(Bear in mind that these techniques are effective with "non-emotionally disturbed" kids as well. It is thought that most emotionally disturbed kids are that way due to years of enduring a punishing environment.)


CrypticLife said...

It should be noted that "negative reinforcement" is being used inaccurately. What is meant here is punishment.

Negative reinforcement is used to increase behavior. If, for example, a child asking to go to the bathroom gets him out of a class he hates, that's negative reinforcement -- the noxious environment of the class is taken away.

Punishment is used to decrease behavior. If a teacher yells at a student for talking and the student stops, it's punishing the student (and, incidentally, negatively reinforcing the teacher's behavior). One of the problems with punishment is its unpredictability. The student might stop talking, but they might start to whisper. . . or pass notes, use sign language, text message on their cell phones, or show up to class late and conclude conversations in the hall.

Punishment does have the advantage of showing a result quite quickly. The effect won't be long-lasting, though, particularly on a variable schedule (which is all punishment unless you have total control of the subject's environment).

Maybe NYC Math teacher can look at it a different way. Speaking in one's native language is a "normal" activity, right? For an eight-month old infant, it isn't. They don't know how, and have little incentive to learn, except that their parents go ga-ga over them when they make the littlest noise that might be comprehensible. Parents who say to themselves, "Well, babies are supposed to babble. They're just making random noises." have kids who don't learn the language as quickly. Parents who put their kids in high chairs in front of the tv for hours at a time end up with children who struggle with basic vocabulary.

"why should I offer up rewards to my (non-emotionally disturbed 6th grade) charges just for remaining quiet and on task?"

Because it will work to keep them quiet and on-task? Look at the you-me game used to get the children's attention. The example is identifying numbers. Clearly, the teacher starts with numbers that are pretty trivial for the children to identify. It doesn't work if she starts with 54.3*10^5. It probably doesn't work if she starts with 23 (given that they had trouble with 13). Eventually it will get there, but the idea is to start the goalposts low. If your students already pay attention and stay on-task, you don't need to reward them for it.

Anonymous said...

I always wonder why anyone would assume that kids *want* to learn. Most of them don't. So what? Teachers that expect this are doing a lot of harm by demanding that their students assume one particular value system.

I don't think that a disdain for learning is restricted to one particular income or social class. The expectation that students *value* learning, however, seems to be in part class-based--with a boost from ideology.

Anonymous said...

Well, I teach three classes. One -- the highest performing one -- does not need any intervention. Of my other two classes, one is particularly difficult (in part because I usually teach them right after lunch). I'll try to come up with a pilot program for them and examine the results.

Unless I am misunderstanding you, you seem to be placing "disdain for learning" and desire to learn on an even keel -- both are simply of different "value systems". I guess that disdain for learning can be considered a "value", though the word connotes something at least marginally positive. Am I on the wrong track here?

I suppose I cannot force certain students to value learning, though, so to that extent you are right.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call them value systems, just preferences.

The value system comes into play with the teachers who think that students who want to learn are morally superior than students who don't.

To these teachers, a student who doesn't want to learn has something wrong with him entirely apart from his lack of knowledge. The teacher disapproves of the student's preferences and in part blames the student for his failure. The teacher's failure, in this view, lies in not convincing the student to adopt a different, superior preference more aligned with the teacher's values.

In fact, most students don't object to learning, whether they want to or not. Some just don't respond because the proffered rewards (good grades, parental approval, college) aren't sufficient. One of the most effective motivators for an underachieving suburban white boy is "I can help you get your parents off your back about school". That, they want to hear. Another that works well is "I can help you feel as if school is less of a monumental waste of time."

Most students aren't terribly interested in learning--in fact, most *people* aren't terribly interested in it, either. If manufacturing jobs were still plentiful and paying $100K/year, I suspect male college enrollment would be even lower than it already is.

I teach Asian American kids composition in an extracurricular program and trust me, they aren't there because they want to learn. They're in this Saturday class because their parents demand it. (I tease them all the time that if they went to family counselling, the shrink would tell their parents to back off from the abusive demands for perfection. They love hearing that.)

So I just assume most kids aren't eager to learn. What I don't understand is teachers who are flabbergasted by the norm.

Tracy W said...

why should I offer up rewards to my (non-emotionally disturbed 6th grade) charges just for remaining quiet and on task?

Because then you can teach them more and have a better time with them than if you are struggling to control the classroom all the time?

Doesn't that send a poor message to the kids -- that normal behavior must be remunerated?

I don't know, do you object to being paid for the normal behaviour of going to your job and doing your work each day?

In my own life I don't do things unless I see value in them. For example, I don't watch sport on TV because I don't get anything out of it. Of course I do a number of things because of what a psychologist would probably call "intrinsic motivation" - I enjoy viewing art so much I am willing to pay money to do so. But if your kids are not intrinscily motivated to learn, then it makes sense to provide external motivation. After all, sixth grade is a little young to be able to make wise decisions about long-term future goals.

Also note that positive reinforcement starts off with rewarding children for meeting very low standards, and then progressively raises the bar. So you may start off the year rewarding kids simply for sitting at their desks and listening to you, and then as the year goes by that would become your base expectation and you'd stop rewarding them for that and instead move on to rewarding them for meeting higher expectations - eg rewarding them for getting up in front of the class and making a speech.

Doesn't that show them how low our expectations for them have sunk?

Well more precisely it shows how low the expectations of previous teachers and schools have sunk.

I suspect that if your six-graders had been rewarded consistently for remaining quiet and on-task previously, they would show up in your class already doing it automatically and you wouldn't need to specifically reward them for that.

Anonymous said...


I don't know, do you object to being paid for the normal behaviour of going to your job and doing your work each day?

Yes, I suppose there's positive (extrinsic) reinforcement there for doing at least the bare minimum. But in the work world there's also a heavy dose of negative reinforcement -- if you don't perform well, slack off, etc., etc., you can be fired (though public employees are largely protected from such performance incentives). The threat of that may very well be a motivating factor for someone who wants to pay the rent.

My misgivings have nothing to do with young kids needing to make long-term goals. They are simply a reflection of the values that I believe must be instilled in children -- even young 'uns. I do see the potential benefit, though, of a modest positive reinforcement system. In the end I guess I am willing to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.