15 Ways to Engage Reluctant Learners

I hit a point yesterday where I found myself overwhelmed by the standards. I was trying to make sense out of how to organize them into units and then how to integrate the topics from subject to subject. I became tense, clenched jaw, deep breaths and all. I had unit plans and a week-by-week framework and brainstorms  of different strategies and I began to obsess about what I was missing and how I was organizing it.

Then I walked away and refocussed. I made a web connecting concepts from one subject to another. I saw themes emerge. Real themes. Meaningful themes. I began to ask, “Why does this matter?” rather than “How do I organize it?” I started to picture myself as a student and then I pictured former students.

I pulled out a sheet of paper (yep, I still use that) and write the words, “Be intentional.” From there, I started my own list of what I plan to do to engage students. I’m planning the framework this week, but I plan to look honestly at everything next week and ask myself if my plans have the following:

  1. Be intentional. I understand that I have to teach the standards. However, I don’t want teaching to have the mentality of “we’re learning this because you have to learn it.” I need to have a purpose for what we are doing and students need to see that. Disengaged students are often disengaged because a teacher disengaged. I want to avoid that as much as possible.
  2. Know where we are going. I think this goes beyond simply stating the objective. I want students to see the project framework and know where we are going and why it matters. I plan to let students help develop the project planning before each unit. I want the essential questions to go beyond a question on a paper.
  3. Connect it to a real context. Students can tell when a teacher is giving them a false context. Use the Pythagorean Theorem so that a catcher can find the distance from home to second base? Really? That’s why I tuned out of math as a child. I want the context to be real.
  4. Or better yet . . . connect it to a really imaginary, creative context. I’ve been working on my visual prompts that allow for the fictional and fantastic. I’m thinking of how to allow students to explore more of that on their own.
  5. Let them talk. Often. My students are in sixth-grade and they’re social. They need a chance to talk in small groups and with partners.
  6. Allow for mistakes. I think the biggest enemies to engagement is the risk-averse student. Often he or she looks lazy and helpless. But really, that student is terrified of messing up and gives up instead.
  7. Embed intervention and enrichment. Every lesson should have a way for students to get help when they are struggling and a place they can go if they have already mastered it. Confused students disengage. Bored students do the same.
  8. Give more choices. I find myself thinking, “I could have students do three different things, but I’m not sure what’s best.” Why not let them decide?
  9. Give more freedom. This is different than simply giving choices. Freedom involves creating looser-structured assignments that students can develop on their own. Choice says, “here are your options” and freedom says, “go make your options up on your own.”
  10. Let them move. Create standing centers where students can work on a different task for a little while when they are stuck. Do gallery walks and inside-outside circles and belief walks. Let them change seats often. I know that I disengage when I am at a conference for too long.
  11. Get rid of Try and avoid punishments and rewards. Avoid the temptation to create systems of rewards and punishments. They can become like crack and ultimately the addiction kills the love of learning. No PAT points. No pizza parties for a job well done (though maybe we’ll do a pizza party for the heck of it at some point). (Edited due to some nuanced push back from readers) 
  12. Make it meaningful. This should be obvious, but it needs to matter and students need to know why it matters. It’s okay to state the objective, but I want to articulate why we are learning what we learn. I want to ask students why it matters and let them articulate it in their blogs.
  13. Push critical thinking. Learning is naturally exciting. I see this with my kids at home. There is wonder and awe when they pick up a new skill or expand a new concept. I’ve learned that even at two years old, they are natural critical thinkers.
  14. Create quiet spaces. I need to respect introverts by embedding moments of silence through the day so that they don’t simply tune out and disengage, going invisible and so internal that they aren’t engaged with the learning. I’m not sure how I will do this, but I want to allow for extra quiet spaces in the classroom so that introverts can decompress a little.
  15. Build trust. I used to think team-building was fluff. However, I want to do some team-building exercises, allow them to tell their own story and start building relationships. Students are more likely to engage when they feel like they belong.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

56 responses

  1. John, I like quite a few of these, but I really take issue with #11 because I think it grossly oversimplifies the use of behavioral methods. Consequences are happening all the time, WHETHER YOU EXPLICITLY ARRANGE THEM OR NOT. Why not accept this reality and program the consequences so that kids move to what you would call "intrinsic motivation" (and I would call "automatic reinforcement") more effectively and efficiently. I've written on this topic on my own blog: http://karenmahon.com/2012/07/03/intrinsic-vs-extrinsic-motivation-a-false-dichotomy/

    The oversimplification of #11, for me, diminishes the entire list.

    1. I appreciate the response, but I think books like "Drive" have demonstrated that there is research behind pushing for intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.

      I think your point about consequences is a bit of an oversimplification, actually. There are levels of consequences:

      1. Natural consequences – this happens regardless of reward or punishment. A student who fails to work fails to learn. That's a natural consequence. Nothing wrong there.

      2. Logical consequences – this is what happens when a structure has to be motivated logically based upon a decision. It's not a reward or a punishment, because it is not the "reason for" doing something. Often, this can be negotiated with a child. "Hey, you didn't do your homework. What should you do instead?"

      3. Behaviorist consequences – this is a much more dangerous form of motivation, because it replaces the natural, intrinsic desire with a carrot and stick approach. Kids do things not for the sake of learning or the meaning but for the golden sticker. There is a time and place for this in short tasks that are not inherently motivating.

    2. I think this is a great list and so much to think about. I do think if someone disagrees with one point that the whole list is "diminished." That is like going on a trip and you have one meal you didn't like and so therefore the whole trip was bad. I use a very minimal reward system that sort of disappears over the year to be honest so I'm not even sure it's beneficial. It does seem to help in the beginning of the year to help kids work together as a class. BUT I also want kids to do things because it's the right thing to do, not because there's a prize. This is something I have been thinking about but not sure how I will implement. John, I really want to learn so what do you do when someone continually makes bad choices? What do you do if the whole class or a student reaches a goal you set or they set for themselves? I am open to learn. Everyone should be. 🙂

    3. Defending Karen: I'd agree your #11 needs to be unpacked a little more. You do a good job of it in the comment but unfortunately the list format in the parent does make it seem like an overstatement.

      Also defending Karen, I don't really think of Drive as evidence.

      Defending John: Karen, I think you're misinterpreting John's statement. Your post itself is mostly strong. I'd agree that we're doing a disservice by drawing a strong boundary between intrinsic/extrinsic. John gets that but it's not clear from the brevity of his parent post.

      I don't think your reading example is strong. Decoding clearly isn't the first step to reading. Listening and telling stories certainly precedes that. (Potty training is a better example. Bribery until the the natural consequence of not sitting in your own urine takes over) Lumping feedback, praise, and stickers together seems unwarranted as well.

    4. The kid who keeps making bad decisions has reasons for making bad decisions. In some moments, I might use a timeout, but I explain to the student that it's to protect me from getting angry and yelling and ruining it for the class. True, that's an example of a punishment, but it's also a natural, relational consequence and one that should be used sparingly. I don't have a set of steps leading through consequences. I don't do PAT time, either.

      For that particular kid, the goal is to coach him or her into a place of better behavior. Sometimes it's a simple redirecting to a task. Other times, it's helping the kid create his or her own barriers. But it's a reflective conversation starting with the question, "What are you seeing happening?" and ending with, "What approach will you try to use next time?"

      I typically have a well-behaved class. I'm not suggesting that the kids are always perfect, though. If you read this blog enough, you'll notice some of the posts where I mention that I've messed up. I get impatient. I slip into behaviorism and then spend a week trying to undo what I just did. It's a process.

      Instead of saying, "What will I do when a kid talks out of turn?" I try to focus on "What can I do that will prevent a student from needing to blurt out all the time?"

      I'm not suggesting that this approach is the best approach around. However, it has worked well for me.

      With regards to celebrating success, it's a little different. I tell kids that when the time for a goal is over, we will have a pizza party (or whatever) regardless and instead of making it about completing the goal, we have a class discussion of whether we made the goal and what we could have done differently, what we did well, etc.

    5. Thanks, John. 🙂 You gave me things to think about.

    6. No problem. I admit, too, that I'm still in the process. I'm on a journey. It's why I probably have no business putting things into a "15 things" type of post.

    7. Thanks for all of the replies to my comment. With due respect, though, John, I think your comments reveal a shallow understanding of behavioral science and behavior analysis.

      Regarding "consequences" versus what you call "rewards and punishers," I'd like to offer the definitions of the terms, because I think you're not using them properly; they're not actually different things. A consequence is an event that occurs contingent upon another event. A consequence has no "value" valence…it is simply a contingent event. What you refer to as "reward" or "punisher" is what behavioral science calls a "reinforcing consequence or reinforcer" and "a punishing consequence or punisher." Whether or not a consequence is reinforcing or punishing depends on how it affects the behavior it follows; it is an empirical question, not an ethical one. If a consequence increases the likelihood that the behavior it follows will occur, then it is a reinforcing consequence (we can get into a further discussion of positively reinforcing or negatively reinforcing, if you wish). If a consequence decreases the likelihood that the behavior it follows will occur, then it is a punishing consequence. So the distinction that you make between consequences and "rewards and punishers" is inaccurate because these are actually the same events.

      Regarding your discussion of "levels" of consequences, if you had read my blog post that I referred to in my first comment then you would have seen that in that post I describe a "continuum" of types of reinforcing consequences. I also advocate for "natural" or "automatic" consequences, but even natural consequences can be reinforcing or punishing. (Again, please recall that the definitions of those terms are empirical, based on their function relative to behavior).

      Your next point that I'd like to take up is your statement that: 'Instead of saying, "What will I do when a kid talks out of turn?" I try to focus on "What can I do that will prevent a student from needing to blurt out all the time?"' This is exactly in line with a behavior analytic approach. As you probably know, in behavior analysis we talk about a three-term contingency: antecedent-behavior-consequence. And antecedent (or stimulus) control is a major area of study within our discipline. When we are trying to decrease a behavior, intervening on the antecedent (an event that reliably occurs prior to the behavior in question) is one of two fundamental procedures (the other being focusing on increasing the occurrence of a behavior that is incompatible with the one we want to decrease).

      So here is my difficulty, John, and I say this with sincerity, not animosity. I don't think you have the depth of understanding of behavioral science and behavior analysis to cast the aspersions that you do. Your statements are just inaccurate. Behavior Analysis is a much broader discipline than the "carrot and stick" description with which we are often tagged. It makes me wonder if what you know of behavior analysis you have learned from critics of behavior analysis, not those of us who know and practice the science. There are 60+ years of experimental research in behavior analysis and I'd be glad to help you wade your way through topics of interest. I would truly enjoy being a resource for you to help add clarity.

      Miss McLaughlin, the reason I say that the entirety of the list is diminished is this: I am a 15+ year professional, with a doctorate, in the discipline that the statement in #11 refers to; I take exception to the comment and feel it's inaccurate and unfair. I feel the comment reveals lack of understanding of my science. If I feel that way about one comment on the list, why should I have confidence that the rest of the list is accurate?

      (Part 1)

    8. Jason, I appreciate your reading my post. In the reading example, I didn't mean to suggest that decoding was the first step in reading. Certainly we could roll back to identity match-to-sample for letters, and other more basic skills. My point was just that there is no automatic reinforcer for decoding, so we usually need to bridge the gap with something "external," if you will. Regarding the lumping together of feedback, praise and stickers, remember that, for me, they are all simply events. Whether or not any one of them actually functions as a reinforcer must be determined empirically, based on the effect they have (or don't) on the behavior they follow. And certainly practitioners and teachers may choose to avoid using consequences that they feel uncomfortable with…candy is a good example of a very effective reinforcer that has been given up by many due to health and sugar concerns.

      Thanks for the opportunity to have this discussion. It's a lot of fun! For those interested in reading my post that I've been referring to, it can be found at http://karenmahon.com/2012/07/03/intrinsic-vs-extrinsic-motivation-a-false-dichotomy/

      (Part 2)

    9. In response to, "I think your comments reveal a shallow understanding of behavioral science and behavior analysis."

      I think your comments reveal a shallow understanding of John.

    10. Karen,
      I am a 21+ professional with a master's degree and a national certification, and yet I can still think and learn. We all have room to learn from those in the trenches actually working with kids. I have read your blog and your bio. When you say you have worked in educational technology, was it in the classroom or a corporation? Have you taught in school? I find many "theories" and "studies" fall flat when put into practice with children. Yes, it's a good thing to have education but education can fail you. And I find your disrespect and arrogance to John shocking. You can make a point without disrespecting his.
      Carol (Miss Mac)

    11. That would be 21+ years professional. Sorry 🙂

    12. Hi all:

      I'm stunned by these reactions. My comments were made in the spirit of trying to share information about behavioral science in a situation in which I saw some misrepresentations of that science. I didn't intend anything to be insulting, nor do I think anything I said suggested that I don't want to think and learn. I offered these comments with the sincere hope that I could add clarity to what appear to be misunderstandings about behavioral science. Nowhere did I accuse you, John, of intentionally misrepresenting behavioral science or of being anti-science or similar. If my desire to clarify and defend my profession is an "agenda" then certainly I am guilty. The very fact that you interpreted what I wrote as an agenda, not to be engaged with in honest dialogue, along with your apparent anger, are very surprising to me.

      Mr. P, I do not know John personally at all. I read his blog and I can only respond to what I read therein. Why is that bad? Isn't that the purpose of these discussions?

      Carol, I have been in both academia and in the private sector. I have trained teachers for years, not only in instructional design, but in behavior management plans, and spent hundreds of hours in classrooms doing hands-on demonstrations of behavioral programs directly with kids. I have worked in both special ed and regular ed settings and have also consulted in adult group homes, healthcare settings, university research settings, etc.. My point in referencing my credentials was not to compare them to anyone else's. It was to explain why it is that I take exception with #11 on the list. I know and like many, many teachers…so it bothers me that you seem to insinuate that I am unwilling to listen to or learn from John or others who are "in the trenches," when in fact, I simply disagree with him. I reread my entire post in light of your saying I was disrespectful and arrogant and I just don't agree that I was. I'd be curious to know what I said that bothered you?

      I certainly apologize for offending any of you. I was excited because I thought this was a forum where we could really talk about issues about which we disagree. I'm disappointed to be wrong.

    13. Karen,
      I just wish you would have asked him about the successes he has found in the classroom without rewards/punishments instead of telling him how it was wrong. If I had spent all the time researching but encountered one who found success without it, I would be curious and want to know more. Apparently it apparently works for him and his students. It's the manner and approach you took. I may have misunderstood your comments but when I saw "you have a shallow understanding" and that you "lack confidence" in the other 14 points being valid because you disagree with 1 of them. It was hard to see it as anything but arrogant. If I misunderstood you, I am sorry for that. Debates are healthy but this took a different turn mainly from your comments. Others disagreed with him but did not get the same reaction.

    14. John, so did I. You had a behaviorist respond in a much different way below. I don't think she agrees with your point of view but she sees that you could learn from each other. I think it's a great post. I wish I was better at not giving so much praise because it makes it harder when I want them to evaluate their own work without me telling them. If I don't say "good job" they assume it's wrong. I'm still working on it. Still learning even after 21 years. Crazy how much there is to learn. 🙂

    15. Carol, the reason I wouldn't ask that question is not personal. The reason I would never ask a question like that is because I believe that if a behavior is occurring, it has a reinforcer, whether the teacher has arranged it explicitly or not. That is a basic law of behavioral science. So for me (and all other behavior analysts), it is impossible to have a classroom (or any other scenario) in which reinforcers are not occurring. For me to ask how it's going in a classroom where a teacher doesn't "use" reinforcing or punishing consequences would be the equivalent of asking how are things going in a classroom where a teacher doesn't "use" gravity. Given my orientation, it would be a crazy question.

      Mostly, though, I think that you guys are going for my jugular on HOW I said things here because you don't have an answer for what I've said. It's unfair to criticize an entire discipline by inventing your own definitions of that discipline's terms. You're offended because I said that you don't understand behavioral science? I'm offended by your misleading representation of it. Perhaps Marleen will be able to offer you information about behavior analysis in a manner that is more palatable to you.

    16. Karen, I have an answer, but my point is that it's not worth the argument.

      Reinforcements don't work long-term. That's the real answer. Learning is not simply a behavior, that's the second point. We see things very differently and it's hard to answer what you are saying (especially when it comes to your tone).

      Voice matters to me. One's approach to language frames the ideas. You were condescending in your tone. You accused me of being shallow and then acted surprised when people responded the way they did.

    17. "I certainly apologize for offending any of you. I was excited because I thought this was a forum where we could really talk about issues about which we disagree. I'm disappointed to be wrong."

      Karen, I'm sorry that it has felt like you were being ganged up on and that people were going for the jugular. I try and keep comments respectful and civil. If it ever felt like I was attacking you, I'm really sorry. If I'm not up for the dialogue, I think it's because there are so many things we disagree upon and the conversation doesn't feel productive.

    18. Karen, I just don't understand the claim that decoding must be specifically reinforced to bridge the gap first. Plenty, probably most, kids are taught to read without any external reward for decoding unless you're counting something like, "the reward for being able to read a word." I'm thinking of parents reading with their children in particular. Direct instruction in decoding is still relatively young when you compare it to the centuries parents and older siblings (and the self-taught) have been sounding out words in the context of books they're trying to read.

      I'm sure I don't know as much about ABA as you. But I do remember the 90s boom of ABA for (mostly) autism treatment and the subsequent bust. It's a typical story. People became very excited over some initial successes. We tried to overexpand into areas that ABA wasn't effective in (language, reading, most any complex behaviors) and the limits became very clear. This isn't to say ABA doesn't have its uses, but any sweeping statements about ABA effectiveness needs to be heavily qualified.

    19. Hi Jason,

      Just thought I’d share a list of authorities in the USA and Canada supporting the effectiveness of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in helping children with autism, also in the area of complex behavior. This list was compiled by Dr. Keenan (University of Ulster, 2010)

      • ABA is “highly recommended” by the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and seen as “highly effective” by the US National Institute of Mental Health, National Academies Press, de Association for Science in Autism Treatment, Autism Speaks, and the Organization for Autism Research.

      • There is also support for ABA from: New York State Department of Health and the U. S. Dept. Of Defense. De Surgeon General of the United States: “Thirty years of research demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning, and appropriate social behavior.”

      • In 2009, the U.S. National Autism Center published the National Standards Report based on 775 studies of treatment with autism. The report recognises “behavioural treatments as established treatments (i.e., established as effective) for individuals with ASD”. “Established treatments” do not necessarily give universal improvements for every child with autism, but: “findings suggests that treatments from the behavioral literature have the strongest research support at this time” (p. 52).

      • US Autism Treatment Acceleration Act (2009): 22 states have determined by law that ABA-treatment is to be funded by medical insurance companies.

      • Supreme Court of British Columbia, Canada (2000), on autism: “… it is beyond debate that the appropriate treatment is ABA or early intensive behavioral intervention”.

    20. Question (regarding this discussion on #11)…..Do we teach just because we like teaching? That's our only motivation to teach? If I decided to not pay (wage) any of my teachers, will they still show up to work every morning at 6:30am and punch out at 4:30pm and work on lesson plans at night for the next day…all just because they like teaching (i.e. 'natural consequence'). Or another example–do we go to college just because we like learning-what if I said the college you attended would not give you a degree upon completion of your classes–would you still attend for 4 years and pay thousands of dollars just to learn? Reinforcers (i.e.Rewards) and punishers (ABA) are part of every person's life-from your paycheck to a speeding ticket to the stop sign or traffic light you encounter every day.

      Also, do you have any research showing "reinforcements don't work long term?"

    21. Subtle distinction here:

      In terms of motivation, you pay me so that I can teach rather than paying me to teach. You pay me a baseline salary, a living wage, so that it frees me up to teach.

      A better way to look at this is:

      Do teachers work off-hours even if they don't get paid for it? Do they join Twitter chats? Do they read books? Do they go to conferences? Do they geek out about the profession? Often, they do, because it makes them better at teaching and not because they are paid to teach.

      This is part of why merit pay fails. Instead of providing a baseline salary so that teachers can teach, it assumes that teachers are financially motivated and will work harder for a bribe. However, that isn't why teachers do it.

  2. I think you have created a great list, and it sounds like it is a list of things you have probably been learning about for many years! I think each of them could lead to hours of discussions about what they really will mean, look like, sound like and result in.

    I look forward to your reflections on each of these and I think you have amazing intentions.

    As for #11, never say never, however, I think you mean that you will not build a classroom on rewards and punishments….you did not say anything about consequences, which are far different than consequences. Bottom line, punishment does not teach new behaviours – if that is what you really want to do. I think there is always a place for a little extrinsic motivation, afterall, we are human, however, I think a token reward system is quite different from what you mean here!

    Great list, I will be printing it off!

    1. What I meant to say, is consequences are far different than PUNISHMENTS!!

    2. Lori, your point about never saying never is well-taken. I appreciate it. I probably did overstate my point a little. I might just edit it right now.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    I draw a line somewhere. I will allow comments, questions and push back. However, if it turns nasty and personal, comments will be deleted.

  4. This is great stuff. Keep it coming. I recommend your blog to my pre-service teachers. It jives with my previous decades of experience and keeps novices from resorting to traditional-teaching-of-the-past.

    1. Very cool! I hope they find a few things useful.

  5. I like your list. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Good work John, I have your list printed off for reference later on!

    1. Thanks!

  7. I like the list but love the discussion more. Great to have honest and respectful debates. Those are what really gets us to think deeper and analyze all of the different things we do on daily basis to make the classroom work best for students. Thanks

    1. I agree. Those types of discussions are important for us to have.

  8. I like your list! As a life long learner, and looking from a student perspective, I would make the positive comments that regarding (8) people learn in different ways and have different interests and regarding (14) it's nice to have quiet time to reflect on some point or another. Thanks for sharing your list.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

  9. Hi John, I found your list interesting to read. Thanks!

    Just wondering, maybe I overlooked this in your text and comments, but how would you define punishment and rewards? E.g., time out as punishment, and tangibles as rewards?
    I’m curious: when a student gives a correct answer, how do you respond?

    I also wonder what you mean with “I slip into behaviorism (and then spend a week trying to undo what I just did)”? Like Karen, I’m a behavior analyst. I guess you could say that us behavior analysts have an agenda. But the agenda is to improve the learning environment, making it more effective. Isn’t that the same agenda you have? 🙂 You have clearly put a lot of thought in how to improve your students' learning environment. Hats off to you for that. Who knows, we could learn something from each other.

    1. I define behaviorism as a system of rewards and punishments or negative and positive reinforcements. I'm not referring here to changing behavior. Behaviorism can work in some settings when there is a bad habit, a lack of intrinsic motivation, etc. I don't claim to be a behavioral expert. I do, however, claim to be a teacher who knows pedagogy well. Children are naturally inclined to learn. We don't need to give them anything when they learn. We don't need to set up systems to help motivate them, because the system ends up superseding the natural inclination.

      In other words, rewarding a child for learning is like rewarding a child for eating or playing.

      I'm not sure how to answer your question, "When a student gives a correct answer, how do you respond?" Often, answers are neither correct nor correct – at least not in language arts or social studies. In those cases, I give feedback. Sometimes I ask reflective questions to get students to see the pros and cons of their work.

      In a more objective work (certain skills or objective knowledge), I give them the correct answers and let them self-correct and then reflect on why it was wrong or right.

      I rarely, if ever, say, "great answer" or "nice job."

      What I mean by slipping into behaviorism is more about switching to a system of punishments and rewards rather than dealing with the whole child. Behaviorism works short term but it bombs long-term, often because it focusses on the behavior rather than the person.

    2. Hi John,

      Thanks for your reply. You say you're not a behavioral expert, so I hope you don't mind me telling you a bit more about it.

      Behaviorism/behavior analysis is not a system of rewards and punishments.
      Sure, within behavior analysis we sometimes use reward systems (for example, when working with children with autism. Mind you, we gradually fade the reward system. We hardly if ever use punishment though). But more than anything, we analyse behavior and its consequences. Consequences in turn affect future behavior.

      Consequences can be very subtle. Even without using rewards (e.g., "great answer/nice job") or punishments on your students in response to their behavior, I'm sure they'll be able to tell from your behavior (however subtle, e.g., facial reaction) when they got it right or when they made a good contribution to a discussion. Why don't you ask them how they can tell whether they've done well even if you don't tell them explicitly. Their responses may surprise you. Of course, when you give them the correct answers and let them self-correct, the "rewards and punishments" are clear. Seeing that you've got an answer correct is rewarding, seeing that you've got it wrong usually works as a punisher.

      To give you a daily life example of the subtlety of consequences: if I'm in a group of people and I make a joke, this has consequences (e.g., no response, soft and brief laughing from a few or from the whole group, louder and longer laughing by some, loud and long laughing by all). These consequences, and the subtle differences, will affect my future behavior of joke telling. These consequences can be rewarding (everyone laughing) or punishing (the joke falling flat), without there being a "system of rewards and punishments".

      Behavioral principles have been used in all kinds of areas, and this has been shown to be beneficial not just in the short term, but also in the long-term. Behavior analysis doesn't just work in some settings when there is a bad habit, a lack of intrinsic motivation, etc. It works for any behavior. I've had the pleasure of visiting Morningside Academy, a school in Seattle where behavioral principles are put into practice. They also have a summer school for students in grades 1-10: "four weeks of attendance guarantees 50% of a year’s growth in the skill of greatest deficit or your money back". Behavioral principles are an incredibly powerful tool to help people do better in any area and certainly also in the classroom.

      It is definitely worth reading more about it.
      As you can probably tell, I'm a passionate supporter of behavior analysis. 🙂

    3. Thanks for clarifying that.

      When I wrote the original post, I avoided the terms "reinforcement" for that particular reason. I am not opposed to looking at behaviors as long as it is coupled with looking at motives regarding why people do what they do. I see some real value in Choice Theory, in Economic Behaviorism, and in other theories that look into the personal and social layers of motivation.

      If you go back to my post, I wrote "punishments and rewards" for a reason. I don't see wrong and right feedback as a reward and a punishment, but more of a natural consequence. I think there is a distinction and one that many behavior analysts refuse to admit: punishments and rewards are a different, external, artificial method of reinforcement. It's a bait and switch method that works short-term and fails long-term.

  10. Wow! This is quite the angry discussion. I have to say several things. First of all, I am a Precision Teaching person, so if anything, more behavioral than ABA folk. Second I run an extremely powerful teaching environment that uses highly effective instructional tools and a LOT of positive reinforcement.

    I see some of the statements here as falling into formulaic responses rather than dialog. "Behavior," is what we can change, while to me, "whole person" is something we can't change. I am all for providing the skills and tools that students need to reach a point where they CAN make sense out of the learning process–and delight in it. But reaching that point without instruction and guidance strikes me as kind of like expecting someone to play Mozart on the flute without lessons. As teachers we have a major responsibility to our students to teach well and provide the tools that they will use for life.

    I agree with John that there will come a point at which we release our students to become self-guided learners. But if they cannot read well, write well, know math facts, that point will never be fully realized. They will be hamstrung for life.

    Any my experience is that discouraged students, and even students who simply have inadequate skills, will require positive reinforcement to help them take the serious and challenging steps that will set them free.

    I can see that all of the folks on this list are dedicated to student improvement–I hope each one continues to help their students become stronger and more able!

    Check out my website at http://www.fluencyfactory.com

    1. I'm not sure where you are thinking that I am against reading, writing or math facts. I'm simply suggesting that students can be motivated to engage with these concepts and skills in a way that is meaningful, personal and connected to a context rather than having to get a golden star and "good job, buddy" comment for it.

  11. John, your thinking and language reminds me very much of Mindset by Carol Dweck and Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston. You seem to have internalized their research-based findings about the language we should use with students and embedded them into your daily instruction. I bet your students are very successful in the classroom and as citizens.

    Speaking of books, have you read Concept-Based Curriculum by H. Lynn Erickson? I will be using it with my staff to build units of study around a concept, incorporating CCSS and the content area subjects such as science and social studies. It's ten years old but still very relevant, highly recommended for those like ourselves trying to bring the common core into the classroom in a relevant and meaningful way. Good luck!

    1. I'll have to check those out.

  12. A very interesting thought stream here. Not wanting to get embroiled in the finer points and nuance within, I do think there is somewhat of a continuum along which pedagogies may lay. Although learning philosophies all have their own unique/distinct frameworks upon which they are formed, talking pedagogy is often messy, as we may draw upon a variety of them. Someone may embrace and practice some form of "behaviorism" without being a "behaviorist" just as someone might practice elements of "constructivism" without being a "constructivist". This can make such discussions somewhat messy and hard to unpack.

    If I teach a course on classroom management in upcoming semesters, this would be a great post to use with my students as they struggle with it all. It's also a great post to use to think about the messiness of asynchronous dialog. I take my had off to everyone for keeping things "above the belt" and do agree with you, John, that there can be comments that are simply mean and inappropriate, warranting removal from the conversation, as they can quickly derail the discussion at hand.

    1. I think you're onto something with the idea of nuance and a continuum. It's never truly either/or.

  13. hi, John: how do you define critical thinking (i only ask because it often means diff things to diff people).


    1. I think the definition can be a little elusive, but here's a stab at it:

      The ability to:
      1. Analyze information for bias, credibility, verisimilitude
      2. Construct an argument using logic and reason
      3. Have an open mind: use flexibility, see multiple perspectives, understand nuance, show empathy
      4. Figure out what is important – get past superficiality
      5. Think in terms of paradox
      6. Create: sometimes it's simply the act of seeing things differently, other times pulling together pieces from various sources

      I think it's a complex concept involving picking apart, putting together, leaving alone. Bloom had it right when he thought about synthesis, analysis, evaluation; though I see those more as inter-related skills rather than separate silos.

  14. I just want to point out a frustration I see in this:

    I never said reinforcements or consequences were wrong. I understand that there is a cause and effect to why people do what they do.

    I wrote, "punishments and rewards" and rewards for a reason. The first being that negative and positive reinforcement doesn't have to be internal or external. An intrinsic motivation can be a positive reinforcement (I love my wife, because I love her, but also because it validates a sense of purpose or I take care of my kids because I care about them but also because if I didn't they would end up screwed up). Second, I wanted to make a distinction between meaningful motivators and ones that are not.

    Bribes are reinforcements that say, "I know that this should be meaningful, but here is a short-cut. Get a gold star for reading instead of learning to love reading." Can the love of reading, the feeling of accomplishment or the empowerment that reading naturally leads to be a reinforcer? Probably. Can it be a bribe? Nope.

    Punishments are systems that use coercion rather than reason to get someone to stop doing something. I can drive safely because I generally want to be kind to other drivers (intrinsic), because that's what others are doing (social, thoughtless, but mostly internal) or because I want to avoid being caught by the police.

    I understand there is nuance here, but I feel that some people within this thread have lost the distinction of the original post. Bribing kids to read is dangerous long-term, because they do it for the bribe rather than the love of reading. Doing step systems in class is dangerous because it teaches kids to be compliant rather than to think ethically.

  15. I am not a teacher, but I found this post really useful as a framework to help my company reach out to people who are reluctant to what we are seeking to do. We are a digital advocacy startup that encounters reluctance on the part of people who have experience doing on-the-ground advocacy, who are reluctant to go digital because they worry that digital advocacy will be an inadequate proxy for grassroots, on-the-ground work. Using these steps will help me to craft a narrative to help people realize that we are working with them, to create another layer to their efforts, and break down their reluctance to learning about the benefits of using the Internet for social change. Thanks for these tips. – nicole Corre: http://amplificationproject.org/

    1. Wow, that's really cool that it was helpful outside of the context of the classroom.

  16. My frustration is that out of 15 points, the discussion mainly hinged on one. There are so many great points in this posts that we need to focus on as educators. I love the focus on including enrichment and intervention in each lesson. I find most help ones who struggle but the ones that master the content do not get a needed push. I know I struggle with this and want to do better. The other point I loved was giving students choices. Yeah, why not give them all the choices you thought of and to also give them a chance to create a equivalent option. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. It's bizarre where the discussions go (or don't go).

  17. I agree that it is important for parents and caregivers to have access to quick, behavioral tips and techniques that are helpful for general behavior management. While the wording on point #11 appears to simplify the matter (re: intrinsic/extrinsic), I agree that parents and caregivers will want to plan for naturally occurring consequences. For example, rather than promising children a prize for eating all of their broccoli or threaten to take away a privilege if they don't, consider something that is naturally occurring and more directly related to the desired (or undesired) behavior. So, perhaps if the child tries their broccoli and doesn't like it they can opt for an alternate vegetable or they can refuse to try it and forego dessert with the rest of the family. I also think for some children, it can be important for their parents to pair social approval (smile, hug, high-five, thumbs up) or disapproval (frown, scowl, shrug) with the consequence. Ultimately, through pairing, one can transfer the effects of the extrinsic item to a more intrinsic sense of pride or disappointment. For more specific information on applied behavior analysis (ABA): reinforcers, punishers, shaping, fading and more, please consider visiting my site: http://www.behaviorbabe.com. To access the list of "quick tips" I have compiled for families, go to: http://www.behaviorbabe.com/behx101tips.htm.

  18. Behavior babe -I agree with you completely. I teach a high school self contained class of high school students with autism. As a teacher and a parent of a child with autism, I understand the effectiveness of applied behavior analysis. It works! BLUF (bottom line up front) anything no matter how big or small that occurs after a behavior that increases it, is reinforcement and anything that occurs after a behavior that decreases it is a punisher. So for ex. If completing homework earns a student extra points on a quiz and the kid consistently completes homework to earn the points, completing homework is the reinforcer. However, if the teacher stops checking to see if students complete the homework and the students no longer complete the homework, the teacher no longer checking the homework is the punisher because it has decreased the behavior of homework completion.

  19. Wow! what a debate!

    I found it very interesting to see the confrontation between the teachers and the "expert". I always have a problem with doctors who do not teach students on a day to day basis and therefore have no idea on what it means to actually teach and then talk down to real educators.

    I found your article interesting John because it is a personal reflexion by a teacher looking for better ways in his class room. It is a very refreshing article amidst all of the super experts educational websites that are out there. Nothing against those ether, but it's just nice to see a blog by an actual teacher once in a while.

    Will all of this fit for everyone? No. Because teachers everywhere have different background, education, experience etc. And schools are all dealing with different realities. For example, if a teacher is teaching in an upper class school in Toronto where most students come from families with education and a certain culture, he would have to adapt his approach to class discipline in accordance to that reality. His approach would have to be very different if he were to teach in a first nation school up north. Over there, the idea of automatic sanctions or consequence would be inapropriate and ridiculous. One has to adapt to the reality of their school, and the reality of their students as well. There is no such thing as a cookie cutter approach in education… or at least, those who try that usually stop teaching and start doing conferences on the subject.

    (hope my english is acceptable as it is not my first language.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *