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.
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