24 December 2018

Accidental Behaviorism, Part 4 of 4, Better Behaviorism for K-12 Schools

I'm going to focus a little extra attention on the democratic school context because that is the most foreign to most people. You will recall that, in this context, the kids are free to choose what to learn, when to learn it, and who to learn it with every day without the school imposing any academic requirements. The school structures relationships through requiring the use of conflict resolution and democratic processes. There is a certain motivationally sound logic to the feedback loops that are formed when 1) children have the power to confront any behaviors they don't like, in the context of 2) their freedom to self-select their own activities, in the context of 3) the power to participate directly in making rules that can impose requirements upon them and their fellow community members, thus structuring specific limits on freedom. First of all, the power to confront behaviors they don't like sets up an important feedback loop between individual kids and the community with regard to what is considered a legitimate complaint and how complaints will be dealt with. The freedom to select their own activities provides them with an important communal endorsement of their individual autonomy as a standard measure of the value of any given activity. If they are being made to do something against their will, then they have the power to not only complain, but to have that complaint acknowledged and then mediated and/or adjudicated. The power to then limit the extent of that autonomy through rule making then provides another avenue for the feedback between the individuals and the collective to which they belong.
Consider some potential interactions between Suzie and me in a democratic school setting, where I am determined to be an evangelist for the eternally soul edifying properties of playing soccer. The school expresses a rhetorical emphasis on freedom to self-direct her own learning. However, the provisions for self-direction do not preclude opportunities for me to reinforce some of her spontaneous behaviors. If I see her doing something related to soccer, I am free to give her a compliment or a reward for doing so. If she happens to end up at or near the external regulation end of the extrinsic motivation spectrum, it means that she is aware, at least non-consciously, that her soccer behavior is being manipulated from the outside, regardless of whether or not she can articulate anything about that awareness. The community emphasis on conflict resolution makes it so that if she comes to dislike what I am doing then she can complain and have her complaint supported by the community through the use of structured procedures, sometimes formal, sometimes informal. This means that she is assured that her feedback in response to my behaviors will not be ignored, regardless of the level of skill she uses to express herself or the outcomes. If I am the subject of complaints, those are messages to me that my reinforcement efforts are not being effective in terms of internalization.
If, on the other hand, she accepts my inducements to do the activity then she may start internalizing those activities and begin to endorse her participation as more of a part of who she is. Depending on how much of an endorsement she makes, her interactions with me and the behaviors I have reinforced can feel more or less autonomous.
This means that it is possible that the promotion of self-direction in the context of strong conflict resolution and rule-making mechanisms could in theory enable some skillful behavioral shaping. The self-direction rhetoric means that the feeling of behaving autonomously is endorsed as an internal criterion for her behavior. Unskillful attempts to shape behavior can run afoul of the conflict resolution systems because every complaint is taken seriously, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Skillful behavioral shaping is, on the other hand, likely to become internalized. Since skillful behavioral shaping is based on spontaneous behaviors and individual preferences, it is possible for the subject of such shaping to be entirely ignorant of that process. Ditto for the agents of the shaping process. Even if Suzie becomes aware of some aspects of the process, internalization may be a likely outcome if she has a strong relationship with the person shaping her behavior (me, in this example). The support for autonomy and competence that are already available in the broader school context also forwards the process. This could create, in theory, a school-wide feedback loop that dampens incompetent efforts at behavioral shaping while reinforcing competent efforts. Failing to achieve the right feedback between the individuals and the school would probably spell doom for the school when the individuals have substantial freedom to switch schools when they become dissatisfied. My main point here is that these schools provide structured environments that support primary human psychological needs; this leads everyone in those environments to have motivation to engage with the activities that are made available there. They are inadvertent applications of a proper understanding of behaviorism as it should be understood in light of the cognitive revolution in psychology. The abundance of motivation and engagement in these schools can provide the foundation for deeper learning.
It is unrealistic to expect mainstream K-12 schools to immediately adopt the practices of these particular school models, but they can always use the principles that follow from primary psychological needs to set out on the path to improvement. I can help schools apply those principles and it is the subject of my up-coming book More Joy, More Genius

23 December 2018

School-Based Behaviorism, Part 3 of 4, Better Behaviorism for K-12 Schools

Let's think about what we should expect if the behaviorism that scientists study were to be applied in schools. First, we would need to breed “Long Evans” children through a selective breeding program. Maybe I'm cynical, but I don't think that is going to go over well. Next, we need to take total control of the living conditions of the children 24/7/365. Do you think that will go over any better than a selective breeding program would? I don't.
Next, we need to make sure that each child gets the individual shaping that they need to enact the behaviors of schooling since we know that children are not naturally predisposed to sitting still and blindly obeying instructions for hours on end. This means that a specially-trained trainer needs to spend time with each individual child observing their spontaneous behaviors and selectively reinforcing the ones that are approximately what they will eventually be expected to do in the classroom. How do you think one-on-one training for every single child in public schools will go over in your state capital during the budget battle? Not to mention the fact that there are extremely few people with the appropriate qualifications for that kind of behavioral shaping process. So far, scientific behaviorism does not seem to be very practical.
Is behaviorism in schools doomed to failure given all these different problems? It's like the old joke about a couple of hikers and a bear. Two hikers wake up in the morning to discover a bear looking at them. The bear starts to charge. One hiker starts to put on his shoes. The other says, “What are you doing? You can't out run a bear!” He replies, “I don't need to out run the bear, I just need to out run you.”
Innovations in the field of school management don't need to out run scientific behaviorism, they just need to out run the default management model in schools. That default school management model is based on what I call the Skinner Box Myth which has a variation called the Invisible Hand Myth. Some economists convinced funders to pay for experiments in which schools paid for grades or some other desired educational behavior; this is an example of the Invisible Hand Myth.
Here is how journalist Paul Tough reported on these studies in his New York Times best-selling book How Children Succeed:
In recent years, the Harvard economist Roland Fryer ... tested several different incentive programs in public schools — offering bonuses to teachers if they improved their classes' test results; offering incentives like cell phone minutes to students if they improve their own test results; offering families financial incentives if their children did better. The experiments were painstaking and carefully run — and the results have been almost uniformly disappointing. There are a couple of bright spots in the data—in Dallas, a program that paid young kids for each book they read seems to have contributed to better reading scores for English-speaking students. But for the most part, the programs were a bust. The biggest experiment, which offered incentives to teachers in New York City, cost $75 million and took three years to conduct. And in the spring of 2011, Fryer reported that it had produced no positive results at all. (p.66)
So far their results have been underwhelming and the ones with the most promise are where the results might be better explained by how they may have accidentally provided, in addition to the external regulation of their incentives, the kinds of support that would be consistent with how Self-Determination Theory explains internalization. 
It is, naturally, absurd to even consider what it would mean to breed children for success in schools or to take total control of their living conditions. However, mainstream schools can do a much better job of controlling student's living conditions while at school, paying attention to their preferences, and making good use of their spontaneous behaviors. In fact, there are schools that already do all these things, but those schools have been largely ignored for the past one hundred years. In fact, the schools themselves have traditionally talked about their own practices in ways that disguise why and how they actually work. Very recently they have started to get more attention, but they are a long way from causing systemic change. Their limited impact may be at least partly due to their inability to specify scientifically respectable principles behind their practices. These schools also happen to have tended to be hostile to behaviorism, as mentioned before. 
The basic idea here is that we want to get other people to do stuff that we want them to do. But, the science is clear that we don't have control over other people's motivation, so we are forced to control situations instead of people. The term “motivation” refers to the initiation, maintenance, and persistence of behaviors in the pursuit of a goal. So we are, by definition, talking about goals not just behaviors. You probably know the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.” Let's make it a statement about humans: “You can lead a person into a situation, but you can't make them do anything.” The simple reason for this is that you don't have control over their goals. If they are thirsty that makes it highly likely that they will drink, but if they choose to pursue a different goal, then there is nothing we can do directly about that. Recognizing this limitation is the secret to successful leadership. Of course there are things we can do to influence them indirectly.
It's time to talk about schools that use behaviorist principles effectively, though they do not realize it and sometimes hold antagonistic attitudes towards “behaviorism.” There are three kinds of schools that I know maintain motivation and engagement, which are important indicators that the psychological foundations for deeper learning are in place. I know because there are studies published in peer reviewed journals that report those results, and I conducted one of those studies (published in the journal Other Education in 2013). The types of schools are democratic schools, home school resource centers, and some schools that claim to support deeper learning. These types of schools operate in very different ways from each other, and from mainstream schools, too. (There may be other kinds of schools which maintain motivation and engagement, but no peer-reviewed studies have been published on them.) 
These schools do not use the behaviorist assumptions that we know are impractical to apply to human children. None of them have controlled breeding programs, none of them take complete control of the 24/7 living conditions of the children, and none of them provide one-on-one behavioral shaping as a means of preparing them for their schooling. As mentioned previously, the behaviorist assumptions that could be used to good effect consist of taking control of the living conditions at school, paying attention to preferences, and utilizing spontaneous behaviors for educational purposes. 
I am going to tell you about the two schools that I studied formally, one democratic and the other a home school resource center. My focus will be on conflict resolution and how they structure their organizations to support primary psychological needs (which is known to produce motivation and engagement). The primary psychological needs are for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Relatedness is the need to feel that you belong and that you are recognized for who you are. Competence is the need to feel that you are effective at accomplishing your goals and aspirations. Autonomy is the need to feel that you are the causal and volitional source of your own activities, that you are not being controlled by other people or external circumstances.
The democratic school I studied had students across the whole K-12 age range from 5 to 17 years old. One of the main ideas of democratic schooling is that the kids themselves make and enforce the rules. The school operated on the formal end of the spectrum with regard to conflict resolution at the time of my study. They had a formal write-up process in which anyone who was not satisfied with the results of informal conflict resolution processes could write a compliant against any other kids and/or adults in the school. They had a justice committee of kids with one non-voting adult facilitator that would meet once or twice a week to hear all the written complaints. They also had older kids who were specially trained in conflict mediation techniques who volunteered in shifts to be available to help with active conflicts so that there would be less use of the formal written procedures. This particular school was founded with three rules that have never changed and all the other rules for managing the school on a day-to-day basis are created using the democratic process. Their three immutable rules are: 1) take care of yourself and others, 2) respect the stuff that the school and other people own, and 3) remember that your freedom ends where other people's begins.
It is interesting that since I did my study they have moved to new campuses three times and in the process of the first move they dropped their justice committee and have not yet re-started it. So, over the last few years, they moved away from formality in handling conflicts. The conflict resolution processes and how they operate are still a central feature of their school; they just handle everything more immediately than before. The first two campuses they moved to were smaller than the one where I first got involved and they told me that they found it was just more practical to resolve conflicts immediately. Since they had already developed enough organizational skill with conflict resolution, they are apparently fine without the more formal structure.
That school does not impose any academic structure. They provide academic structure upon request and also the staff and volunteers sometimes experiment with making academic resources available in structured ways. But if the kids do not respond positively to those experiments then they are not continued. The students in “Room B” (who are mostly within the range of nine to twelve years old) have found for many years that having a structured “project time” almost every day has been a successful method of facilitating the pursuit of self-selected goals, which often happen to have academic components. The community also has structured and enforced expectations around clean-up at the end of each day and periodically deeper cleaning duties for nearly everyone. The school is one of hundreds around the world that are committed to maximum self-direction of learning and the idea that real democratic decision making should be a central feature of children's education.
The home school resource center I studied operates like a community college but for pre-K to 12th grade. They have three campuses now and they have a catalog of about 200 courses. At the two main campuses where I did my study they devote about a third of their space to non-instructional purposes. There are lounges that have comfortable furnishings and numerous toys and games. They create a welcoming space for the families they serve and make it clear that families are the responsible parties in conflict situations, not the school. The job of the school is to coordinate instruction and instructional supports. Families are responsible for the children. I suspect that they don't find a need for formalities for the same reason you don't find formal conflict resolution at the local park or most other gatherings of self-selected groups of people with shared interests. The general social expectations and interpersonal camaraderie are enough to make it work.
Both the democratic school and the home school resource center take responsibility for creating a certain kind of environment for the children while they are at school. They ensure that the children have personal relationships with other people of diverse ages, both children and adults. And importantly, they value those relationships as demonstrated by their investment in resources that create comfortable welcoming environments with clear expectations of socially appropriate behavior. They go about ensuring the appropriateness of behavior in very different ways, but the expectation is still there. The way they structure their environments demonstrates that the schools are highly committed to ensuring that the school itself is a safe place for kids to initiate and maintain relationships. One of the most frequent answers to the question of what kids like about these schools is that they get to play—a lot.
The structures of these schools provide clear support for the autonomy of students. In the democratic school they get to choose moment-to-moment and day-to-day what to do and who to do it with within a broad set of rules and expectations that they have real power to change. In the home school resource center they call it “family-directed education” and the school does not require any particular courses. In my research on both of these schools I asked parents about the amount of control they think their child perceives them to be exerting over course work. I also asked the children to tell me how much control their parents actually exert. All the children and their parents had some degree of influence over the courses the children took. So the extremes of all-child or all-parent driven choices were not represented in these schools despite rhetorical flourishes in some segments of the home schooling and democratic school movements. The vast majority of the parents were either accurate in their estimation of their child's assessment of how much control they exerted or else they thought that their child would perceive them to be morecontrolling than the child actually reported them to be. In other words, the errors the parents made were almost entirely in a motivationally desirable direction, since the children felt lesscontrolled than the parents thought. This pattern suggests that autonomy support is a standard feature in the decision making procedures for these families even though many of them may not be aware of it. 
The schools also support competence. A sense of competence is a natural outcome of a fit between the level of challenge that a person faces in doing a task and the level of skill that they bring to the task. Too much challenge and they get frustrated. Too little challenge and they get bored. The level of self-direction with an abundance of available support in these schools enables the children to find the right combination. The fact that my study showed that the kids maintain their intrinsic motivation for the most common activities of schooling suggests that both their autonomy and their competence are being supported.
The point is that, despite very different ways of organizing themselves, both of these schools create environments in which children can have confidence that the environment is friendly to them and their interests. The school organizations ensure that the kids are taken seriously when addressing their concerns. The schools don't take control of the living conditions; they share control with the children. They honor the preferences of the children through their lack of imposition of academic requirements, yet make generous provisions for self-selected pursuits, academic or not. Both schools also honor the spontaneous behaviors of students at least to the degree that they do not punish them reflexively.
Part 4 is called “Accidental Behaviorism.” It will be posted tomorrow.

22 December 2018

Psychology is a Proper Science, Part 2 of 4, Better Behaviorism for K-12 Schools

In the early 20thCentury the field of psychology was struggling with whether or not it constituted a proper science. One of the main people credited with enabling the field to establish a proper scientific foundation was B.F. Skinner. Prior to Skinner, when a psychologist wanted to explain an animal behavior they would describe some set of circumstances as inputs and then say that some mysterious unobservable processes, like thoughts and/or emotions, would occur within the hidden recesses of the mind of that animal and result in some behavior. Skinner asserted that psychology must conform to the basic scientific tenet of objective observation in order to act like a proper science. Therefore, it was not scientific to explain an animal's behavior with reference to any mysterious unobservable event that could occur in the “black box” of the mind. The resulting scientific enterprise has been impressively productive. And, like other well-grounded sciences, it produces reliable results. 
The central premise of behaviorism is that behaviors that are reinforced increase in frequency. Behaviors that are not reinforced decrease in frequency. Reinforcement is created by setting up a contingency which boils down to if you do this then you get that or if you do this then you avoid that. The science is concerned with the details of how and when this kind of contingency situation works to get or prevent all kinds of behavior. This generalization covers only the central premise, there are numerous caveats and nuances that complicate the full scientific understanding.
An interesting thing about what constitutes a reinforcement is that it can be a very individual thing. When I was in second grade I went over to a friend's house for pizza. In the American culture of my childhood pizza was assumed to be universally liked by kids. Later in the evening I got sick to my stomach and most of that pizza came back up in a veryunpleasant way. For the next ten years I was prone to becoming nauseated whenever I smelled cheese and for most of that time I did not even consider eating anything I knew had cheese in it. So, for a kid in that era I had a very un-American attitude towards pizza. During that decade of my life, offering me a pizza to reinforce a behavior would have deterred me from the behavior instead of attracting me to it. In fact, I am still sensitive to certain cheeses. Today pizza is only enjoyable for me if it does NOT have parmesan, feta, or similarly strong cheese flavors. These days I usually enjoy it because the usual cheeses on pizza are mild. 
The majority of behavioral research has relied on food as a reinforcer. Much of the research is done in “Skinner Boxes.” A Skinner Box is a device in which the typical contingency is that when a rat or a pigeon in the box presses a lever or pecks a button, it gets a pellet of food. We can all understand why food works as a reinforcer. If you get hungry enough then you will do almost anything to get food. But remember my decade of hating pizza. Since you probably like pizza, consider whether you would enjoy eating an insect. Eating bugs is repulsive unless you grew up in a culture in which bugs are food. So my point is that just because you, and maybe even a majority of people, consider something to be a positive reinforcer does not mean it will be so for everyone all the time. Saying that “food is a reinforcer” is true in a general sense, but as they say, the devil is in the details. If by “food” you mean bugs or pizza then you have to be mindful about which direction the reinforcement takes each person and even that won't matter if they are not hungry.
In 1973 a trio of researchers named Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Richard Nesbitt decided to find out what would happen if you reinforce 3- to 5-year-old children for something they normally do on their own without any apparent form of reinforcement, such as drawing with crayons. What do you think the prediction from behaviorist theory would have been? There are only three logical possibilities: the drawing behaviors must either increase, decrease, or stay the same. Think about the basic tenet of behaviorism and the possible effects of adding reinforcement to a behavior that appears spontaneously without it. Take a moment now to think about what the prediction would have been, consider what each possible outcome would mean for the theory, and continue after you have answers.
So the question is: what did they observe after they reinforced kids for drawing? Behaviorist theory predicts that they should draw more with reinforcements, though there could be a plateau effect that makes further increases in reinforcement ineffective (beyond whatever it was that got them to draw in the first place) and that makes staying the same a plausible outcome. Finding a decrease would present a challenge to the theory. What they found, in fact, was that the children drew less after being reinforced. The experiment was widely replicated with all sorts of reinforcers and with a variety of activities other than drawing that children were observed to do spontaneously (or not). The results reveal that there is something else besides reinforcement contingencies in the environment that determine the frequency of a child's behavior.
So where does that leave the theory? Does this experiment mean that the central tenet of behaviorism is wrong? That is what some people thought, but that's not true. These experimental results are only truly a problem if you insist that allhuman behavior mustbe explained entirelyby directlyobservable conditions in the environment. We should respect Skinner for his caution against filling the black box with inexplicable mysteries, but it is perfectly reasonable to posit the existence of at least one thing within the black boxes of human minds as long as we can explain that one thing in non-mysterious theoretical terms with solid experimental evidence to support our explanation.
Taking these results to be an indicator that there is something going on in the black boxes of human minds, then we simply have to do more studies to carefully discern what it is that is going on in those black boxes that changes how reinforcement contingencies work. In fact that is what hundreds of researchers led by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci have been doing ever since the 1970's. That research helped kick off what is now known as the cognitive revolution in psychology. Deci and Ryan formulated the leading theory of human motivation in psychology, Self-Determination Theory (the primary basis of my work).
The experimental evidence on the role of external reinforcers on human behavior shows that when the tasks being reinforced are ones that are not intrinsically interesting and/or do not require much creativity, then external reinforcers, like giving small children food and stickers, work pretty well. So the basic behavioral paradigm is applicable under certain circumstances, but we need a more nuanced conception in order to explain most of human behavior.
More importantly, the basic tenet of reinforcement has never actually been undermined. I do not believe that there is any evidence that reinforcement does not work on individuals, but in order to explain why children drew less after being reinforced externally you have to allow for the possibility that there is a process inside the black boxes of human minds that alters the relationship between behavior and how it gets reinforced from the outside.
The particular process that is posited in this theoretical framework is a self-concept that maintains a boundary against other people and forces in the world. Antonio Damasio, a leading neurologist, has written a book called Self Comes To Mind that establishes a detailed case for the self being not only real but multifaceted and vital to human functioning in the world. It has obvious biological precedence in other kinds of boundaries. Taking cell walls as an example, we can see that the maintenance of boundaries is a crucial function throughout all biological systems. And biological boundaries are complex. Cell walls don't just define what's in or out, they have extraordinary molecular mechanisms for keeping some things out, letting some things in, and changing what is kept in or out based on how the cell's situation changes. The self concept is also complex like a cell wall and it has required equally rigorous scientific investigation to figure out how it actually works. 
To summarize decades of research, the self concept moderates how energy is applied to the behaviors that occur. In Self-Determination Theory the self/other boundary affects motivation, which is the process for the initiation, maintenance, and persistence of behaviors in the pursuit of a goal. The quality of motivation varies according to where the source of the activity is located between the self and others. I'm going to refer to Suzie and her soccer playing as an example. We are going to pretend that she has just one exclusive source for her soccer playing activities.
When the source of Suzie's soccer activity is located at the center of her self then the activity is intrinsically motivated. She finds that it is inherently enjoyable and will do it without any external contingencies to support the behavior. This is the level at which she will invest the best quality of energy and attention.
When the source is located anywhere away from the center, then it is extrinsically motivated. But extrinsic motivation has four different values depending on how far from the center the source is located; those values are each forms of regulation. And the further out you go the quality of the energy and attention applied to the activity is diminished.
The most internal form of regulation is called integrated. In much of the research this one is barely distinguishable from intrinsic motivation and is sometimes left out altogether. When Suzie recognizes that the activity is fully consistent with who she is, even if it might not be inherently enjoyable, she integrates it into her behavioral repertoire anyway. Doing soccer drills, such as dribbling a soccer ball through a line of cones, is not as interesting as the game, but the connection to it is obvious.
The next step out is identified regulation. When Suzie can justify the activity as being of value to her goals then she willingly invests her efforts and attention. Physical work outs, like weight training, are not soccer, so Suzie may not find them inherently enjoyable. But she will likely understand that being stronger and developing physical endurance would enable her to do more and better soccer playing, so she is likely to work out.
The next level of regulation is introjected. This is where Suzie is clear that some outside force, like her Mom, is at work. Due to the value she places on her relationship with her Mom she is going to behave accordingly. This level of motivation is accompanied by feelings of guilt, anxiety, pride, or other social emotions. If Suzie's Mom is pressuring her to play, then she may do so, but what is at work is Mom's manipulations of how Suzie values her relationship with Mom, not Suzie's desires.
The final form of regulation is external. This is experienced as pure environmental contingencies, popularly known as rewards and punishments. If Suzie is being lavished with gifts or threatened with dire consequences, then her participation is purely driven by the contingencies. If the contingencies disappear, so will the behaviors.
There are a few things to note about complications. There can be multiple sources of motivation and they can each be located differently. The locations of a given source may change over time. Think about the difference between Suzie as a toddler versus a teenager in terms of crossing streets safely. When Suzie was a toddler she was extrinsically driven by her mother to holds hands in order to ensure a safe crossing. Flash forward to her teenage years and if her mother tried to hold her hand as they crossed the street there could be a violent reaction. We would not expect that Suzie, the toddler, is intrinsically motivated to enact safe street-crossing behaviors, but we would expect that Suzie, the teenager, has integrated them into her identity or at least identified them as instrumental to her goals. While she was born without any notion of traffic safety, over time the expected behaviors have become internalized.
The leadership challenge in school and classroom management is not in establishing the right external contingencies, it is establishing a process by which the available activities in the school/ classroom environment can be internalized such that the students and teachers integrate those realities into their self-concepts. It is their attitude towards those activities that will determine their ultimate educational value. No matter how perfect the teacher and their lesson, if the student does not accept them as valuable, then there is no value. And most important, we don't control their motivation. They do. No matter what we do, they have the ultimate control over how they cognitively evaluate the location of the source of every one of their activities in relation to their self concept. And the kicker is that they don't do it consciously. Motivation arises from internal cognitive processes that are entirely outside of conscious awareness. We can each reflect on the results of the process but we don't have direct influence over it or access to how it works.
I contend that behaviorism is a perfectly valid model for humans, even though there is a self in the black box of the human mind that alters the contingencies in the environment. SDT has a plausible and scientifically respectable account of how it works. The challenge is how to use the behavioral paradigm to enable school and classroom leaders to improve their practices. If the methods do not take into account the nature of the self and how it affects internalization, then they are not going to be optimally effective.
Part 3 is called “School-Based Behaviorism.” It will be posted tomorrow.

21 December 2018

Better Behaviorism for K-12 Schools, Part 1 of 4

There is a contingency of folks in the alternative education world that are die-hard anti-behaviorists. One source of this ire is a book-length case against “behaviorism” as a tool for school and classroom management called Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn. Kohn makes some good points about ineffective school management practices, but from my perspective he misrepresents and/or misunderstands behaviorism. 
I consider myself to be a behaviorist since I have participated in the training of both rats in scientific experiments and pack llamas in the real world. Having lived on a llama ranch for years and worked with them on pack trips into the wilds of Oregon and Washington (though I have never owned one) I have directly observed extremely skilled animal trainers who were not behavioral scientists. But I also have a co-author credit on a published research paper in a well respected peer-reviewed behaviorist publication. I mention my minimal behaviorist credentials because for decades of my adulthood I have participated in alternative school communities which often have a decidedly anti-behaviorist attitude. But what I discovered in the process of being formally trained in the theory and practice of scientific behaviorism is that there are significant assumptions made by practicing behavioral scientists that are ignored in the applications of behaviorism in mainstream K-12 schools.
This was brought home to me by an interesting challenge posed in a class I was taking from Reed College emeritus professor Allen Neuringer, who was acquainted with B.F. Skinner himself (more on Skinner in part 2). He had us read a chapter of Alfie Kohn's book and at the same time a chapter from Karen Pryor's book Don't Shoot the Dog. Both are excellent books and I highly recommend them. Pryor believes that behaviorism is the solution to most of the world's problems while Kohn believes that it is a heinous crime against humanity. They both oversell their positions and, for contrast, I have overstated theirs. 
The question Professor Neuringer posed was, “Who's right?” They are firmly entrenched on opposite sides of the question of whether behaviorism works or not. So whom should we believe? My answer is that they are both right and we should believe both of them. But that only makes sense if you accept my contention that while they both use the term “behaviorism” they are not, in fact, talking about the same thing. Almost everything that Pryor references as effective practice in behaviorism is confined to dealing with people and other animals one-on-one, while almost everything that Kohn references asineffective behavioral practice is confined to dealing with groups. What I suggest is that Alfie Kohn was not talking about behaviorism, at least not as it is practiced by scientists. He was talking about a version of “behaviorism” used in mainstream K-12 schools that may sometimes borrow the name but fails to bring with it key assumptions. If those assumptions were brought along then they would guide teachers and administrators to different means of managing the behaviors of children and, if I am correct, then much of Kohn's criticisms would no longer be valid.
In my experience of behavioral research there are some interesting things that are essentially assumed. My co-author credit is for a 2014 article in the Journal For The Experimental Analysis of Behavior, a leading behavioral science journal. The article is about a set of experiments co-created by graduate student Lavinia Tan and Professor Tim Hackenberg and conducted with the participation of a class of undergraduates, including myself. I am going to quote for you one paragraph of that paper which is interesting because of how it can illuminate certain assumptions behind behaviorist research. 
Ten male Long Evans rats served as subjects, five in each phase of the experiment, which were conducted separately, several months apart. Rats were approximately four months old at the start of the experiment, and pair-housed. Note that due to the odd number of rats per phase, one subject in each group of five was housed with a sixth rat not used in this experiment. Colony rooms were programmed on a 12 hour light/dark cycle. Food was restricted 22 hours before experimental sessions.
First thing to notice is our subjects. “Long Evans” refers to a specially bred strain of rats that are supposed to be ideally suited to behavioral research. Notice that they were housed in pairs so that they always had access to a playmate. Notice that we restricted their access to food as experimental sessions approached. When your work depends on a rat eating food there is no point in doing the experiment if he is not hungry. Another way that experimenters can manipulate the effects of reinforcement is to take note of each rat’s individual preference for different flavored pellets, though that was not relevant in our experiment.
Our experiment involved just the observation of feeding itself, but if the experiment was about specific behaviors that rats are not inherently inclined to do, then “shaping” would be done to ensure that the rats are at least minimally capable of doing something like the desired behavior. That term “shaping” refers to reinforcing certain spontaneous behaviors to encourage them to act in the ways that the experimenter needs them to behave. For instance, rats are not inherently inclined to press levers for food. They have to go through a process of behavioral shaping in order to be able to reliably exhibit that behavior when they are hungry. While the process starts with spontaneous behavior it can lead to quite extraordinary feats.
You can see how elaborate animal training can become by checking out YouTube. I have collected a few choice examples for your convenience on my YouTube channel in a playlist under the name Behavioral Training. The first one is of B.F. Skinner himself demonstrating shaping on a pigeon. If you don't know who Skinner is there is more about him in Part 2.
One final thing to note is that behavioral research has been carried out almost exclusively with individual animals, not groups. The experiment that we conducted was innovative because it dealt with five rats simultaneously in one large box. We did not even attempt to train any specific behaviors, we were interested in how they would distribute their eating behaviors across two sources of food without training. Our box dispensed food at certain times at two different spots regardless of behavior.
So in behavioral science articles, they use a well-established shorthand to encode assumptions about breeding, feeding, and preliminary training plus they normally deal with only one animal at a time. That makes complete sense for behavioral scientists because they all presumably know what their colleagues are talking about and the frameworks they use are focused on the behavior of individuals. They are psychologists, not sociologists. But when behaviorism gets translated into schooling, then we should question whether or not those assumptions still hold true and, if not, raise doubts about whether the result should properly be called “behaviorism.” Despite this fact, many behaviorists count the applications in schools as a vindication of their work because those applications are measurably effective. The latest example I'm aware of is in the book The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives & Our World by Anthony Biglan. 
The use of behaviorism in schools is also notoriously controversial. Newer programs avoid using the term “behaviorist” for fear of political backlash. If they use the term “behavior” they usually attach the word “positive” to frame their program favorably and avoid associations with some very cruel animal experiments from the past that do not sit well with the general public. So this brings us back to the question: Does it work or doesn't it? If the behaviorists are taking credit for applications in schools and have data to support their case, doesn't that mean it works? But then there is the controversy over these programs; if they really work then why the controversy?
Part 2 is called “Psychology is a Proper Science.” It will be posted tomorrow.