Wednesday, March 16, 2022

For What Future Are We Preparing The Children?

I probably learned about Ivan Pavlov's famous experiment when I was in middle school. As I recall, one of my teacher's used the term "Pavlovian response" then went on to tell us about how Pavlov had conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell by ringing it repeatedly each time they were given food. It was a new idea for me, one that made sense in terms of cause and effect, but there was something monstrous about it. 

At the time, I didn't put words to my repulsion, but I now know that what I saw was the potential for abuse, even evil.

In university I heard about the experiments of B.F. Skinner who showed one could use rewards and punishments to condition lab rats to engage in certain behaviors. This was taught to us in a course on persuasion. The experiments of Pavlov, Skinner and others coalesced into a theory of learning called behaviorism, the idea being that humans were born with a few basic emotions and the rest was learned through conditioning.

Even as I was learning about Skinner and his ilk, behaviorism had fallen largely into disrepute as a method of educating humans. It treated human children like automatons and didn't lead to learning as much as a script of behaviors that were largely disconnected from what made things worth learning. For instance, a child taught the alphabet in this way may well be able to recite their A-B-Cs, while having no idea what they were about.

Behaviorism is in the ashcan of history as far as learning theories go, but almost every school in the world continues to employ behaviorist principles. Grades, for instance, are a classic reward-punishment. Tests, especially the standardized kind, don't assess learning, but rather the ability to perform: it doesn't matter if the test-taker understands the materials just so long as they can recite their A-B-Cs. And behavioral management is all about conditioning children to walk in lines, sit facing forward, and remain silent for large swaths of the day. 

And many of our children "learn" these lessons well. Every time a child copies a Wikipedia entry as their essay assignment, for instance, they are demonstrating that they have been conditioned to believe that the correct answer is more important than the learning. The college entrance exam cheating scandal involving Hollywood celebrities was a classic example of the result of behaviorist principles. Indeed, our entire educational system is rife with this debunked and discredited "educational" method, yet we double, triple, and quadruple down on it at every turn.

It still seems monstrous to me on moral grounds, but honestly, it also appalls me on professional grounds. It's not like we don't know about constructivist theories of learning, the well-researched and understood idea that humans learn best when they get to construct their own learning through, you know, actually doing and living. In preschool we call it play-based learning. We usually, out of what I consider to be misguided decorum, call it self-directed learning when it comes to older children and adults, but it's the same thing: the learner becomes the scientist and the educator becomes the observer. This, we know, is the foundation for genuine learning. And, to boot, no one cheats because the reward is the learning not the grade.

It's hard not to conclude that schools aren't concerned with the business of learning at all. All of these teachers should have learned about constructivism as part of their teacher education. Indeed, I receive messages nearly every day from educators who react to my writing about play-based learning to say something like, "This is how I learned to teach at university, but our administration won't let me even offer extra time on the playground." 

One thing I learned in that course on persuasion is that it is most likely to work when you start from a place of common ground. So if I want convince someone to dump their behaviorist ways, I must start from a place where we can all agree. We don't all agree about schools, education or even learning, but maybe we can find agreement over what we want for children. I'm going to assert for the case of this blog post that most of us, at least, want children to be prepared for the future . . . Whatever that means.

None of us can possibly know what the future holds, of course, but let's work it backwards and take a look at the prospective future that will have to exist if we are attempting to prepare children through Pavlovian conditioning and Skinnerian rewards and punishments. This would seem to me to be a future in which proper behavior is clearly important, in which correct answers are tantamount, where wrong answers are punishable, and where actual knowledge or unorthodox thinking, as opposed to conditioned responses, might just get in the way. 

I sure hope that's not the future for the kids in my life. I expect that no one wants that.

The future envisioned by self-directed play is one in which proper behavior is dependent upon the circumstances, in which answers are not given, but rather sought after, changing as the evidence changes, and where knowledge and unorthodox thinking are the motivating forces of society.

I hope that this is more like the future we all want, although we know that the actual future will likely contain elements of both of these visions. Today's children will find themselves confronted to various extents with any and all of these future conditions, for better or worse. For me, then, the question is which direction to we want to go?

I cannot argue against those who insist that the behaviorist approach "works." Pavlov's dogs are evidence of that. Scores on high stakes tests prove it. But at the same time, my soul tells me it's monstrous. It's preparation for a future I hope we all want to avoid.

The science of actual learning is squarely on the side of play. It's in that direction that we find a future that most of us want for the children in our lives. And it's that, or any future for that matter, for which play prepares them.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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