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 is posted here.