Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Positives and Negatives

One of the favorite educational ideas in the past twenty-or-so years has been the all-encompassing power of positive reinforcement. Rather than punish, scold, or take away privleges from a child, it is best to cajole, praise and rewward your child. Far be it form me to suggest that one should not reward and praise children/students when they deserve it, and I would never argue that punishment is the only effective discipline tool. Like so many shortcomings of the "self-esteem movement," the problem does not lie with the method presented, but with the "all or nothing" way it is held. Parents and teachers need to get back to being comfortable with the idea that positive reinforcement goes only so far, and negative reinfofcement is also necessary.

I recently began thinking about this issue when talking with the behavior interventionist at the school. On several occasions, we have talked about what to do with certain out-of-control students that refuse to follow rules, defy authority, and display inappropriate behaviors. The behavior interventionist always reaches the same conclusion: create a positive incentive plan whereby a certain number of x (days without incident, hours on task, completed homeworks) results in a postive reward (everything from "video game time" to free food in the cafeteria).

I always end up arguing with the behavior interventionist over this method. I ask him questions like, "why are we going to reward this student for doing what other students are expected to do?" and "Why can't we try penalties instead of rewards (as they are often more cost-effective and fair than giving bad students rewards for being adequate). The response I get, in so many words, is that "students are motivated best by working for what they want."

I have heard this platitutde many times, and it has been ingrained in us for so long that many think it is the end of the story. Of course, people are motivated by want of reward, but this misses the other half of the coin: people are also motivated by fear of negative cosnequences. To see this duality of motivations, we need only look at why peolpe hold jobs. We work because we need to have income to live and while we are positively reinfoced by our paychecks, we also work because we fear the negative consequences of failing to do so. (If a benefactor immunized us from the possible negative consequences of doing a poor job, many of us would secretly begin slacking, no matter howm much we were "positively rewarded" by high pay.)

There are two main reasons, though, that I dislike positive reinforcement: first, it is not fair to reward some to do what is expected naturally of most; second, it does not reflect how the post-school world works.

As mentioned in a previous post, the special educaiton world has a bizarre notion of what "equal" means. There, "equal" does not mean that rules are applied to all and all alike, but rather, that rules are appplied in proportion to a stduent's abilities and needs. Where some students are expected to do problems 1-12, others wil only be expected to do 1-7 (for the same grade). While some students have 45 minutes to take the test, others get 90 minutes.

Sometimes, these rules can be justified (the second could be justified for students with documented processing delays, for instance). Other times, it is not (even as a special educator, I cringe the "reduced number of problems" rule). Point-sheets offering misbehaving students the chance to earn prizes for following school rules that others are expected to follow simply translates to rewarding those who behave badly. It gets students used to the idea that kids who follow rules are unrewarded, whille those who don't follow rules earn the chance to win free stuff and benefits.

Not only do misbehaving students see this, but the students who behave also see it. Like the child that acts out because his parents only notice bad behavior, these well-performing students see that it may be in their interest to act up, so that they too might earn a shot at being rewarded for doing what has been hitherto unrewareded.

The second reason I dislike overuse of positive reinfocement is that it gives kids the false idea that this is how the world works. Yes, the world rewards us, but it only rewards us for doing well and going above what is expected. Contra the way point-sheets work, the world does not reward us when we only do what is expected. We might get a positive bonus when we do well at our job, but when we merely show up and do some work, the boss will likely threaten our termination. Students raised on point-sheets and incentive plans will likely not adjust to this very inverse reality, because they were taught that the mere act of sitting in their seat and paying attention could earn them a prize. ("You can't fire me. I've showed up at work every day this week and didn't cuss anyone out!")

I am simply worried bcause for twenty + years, education's zeal to promote "good" self-esteem has made it so that we see positive reinforcement as the only option, rather than one of two options. If we are to train students to adjust well to the post-high-school world, we cannot send them off with the idea that doing only what is expected will be rewarded. We cannot send our children off with the message that an exasperated world will bribe them to do basic things, just because it is the only way to get them to be civil. If we expect them to go to college and/or hold jobs, we need to instill in them that doing good work will get you rewarded, but doing the minimum will get you terminated. (Or should we just give the students' employers point sheets?!)

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