The Failure of Behavioural Education

Motivation is a human trait that affects our behaviours and choices. Educational institutions seem to have become a battleground for how best to interact with the resulting human behaviours stemming from our motivations. I say a battleground because there is a war going on in educator’s minds and schools. The war is loosely a contest between two schools of behavioural thought, behaviourism and humanism. I’m not suggesting that these two choices were laid down before those that run our schools and they made a selection. On the contrary, what appears to have happened is that, over time, cultural choices have been made and behaviourism has become the fundamental approach used in most schools.

For the uninitiated behaviourism in psychology is basically a school of thought that says if you control a person’s environment and use rewards and punishment effectively, you will produce certain responses in people. Bear in mind I am not an expert psychologist and this a teacher’s simple communication of a very complex field. The most famous behavioural experiment was probably conducted by Ivan Pavlov on dogs. Pavlov used a stimulus such as a bell at the same time as giving the dogs food. He did this a few times, and then found that if he rang the bell the dogs would salivate in preparation to eat, even if he rang the bell without giving them food. In other words, the dogs had been trained to connect the sound of the bell with being fed. Pavlov’s idea, like most behavioural psychologists was that it was best to focus on what was observable and objectively recordable, rather than worrying too much about interpreting why a conscious being might act in a certain way, especially at a higher philosophical level.

You may be thinking to yourself that you’ve been in schools and this type of hard-core training surely isn’t happening today. Well it is, and it is experiencing a billowing renaissance. School buildings are full of behaviours being modified. In most schools one of the first things you will notice is the school bell. They are usually loud enough to be heard in all corners of the school and from about 3 blocks away. The noise conditions children just like Pavlov’s bell conditioned his dogs. So much so that you will often here teachers say “the bell doesn’t dismiss you, I do!”, in an attempt to stop students scurrying out the door as they are used to in response to the noise, before the teacher can wrap up an important part of the lesson.

Bells though are a subtle example of behaviourism when compared to how students are trained by other aspects of the modern school institution such as lining up outside classrooms, wearing uniforms, behaviour management (rewards and punishment), controlled curriculums and subject choices, and responses to data – to name just a few. As Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in a famous talk, schools are trying to meet the student’s future needs by doing what was done in the past. A basic behaviourist structure to schools has always worked, in a way, in educating and preparing young people for the ‘real world’. It trained them how to perform rote tasks in response to stimulus. It did so because the world needed workers who could perform those rote tasks. But the world is changing, and schools are not. The behaviourist mentality did an ok job, for a while, but it is now lacking the nuance that young people headed into a rapidly changing world really could use.

It is my belief that the inherent behavioural ideology used in schools, is the number one reason western schools are failing. In England, the USA and Australia for example, educational results have more or less been dropping, and these once powerful educational nations are being surpassed by smaller nations, in both approaches and outcomes. In response to worsening results, educational leaders have leaned further into behavioural type approaches. “How do we train the students to perform better” they muse, “what does the data tell us is going wrong with our kids?” they ponder. The problem is, and was, that it is this very type of approach to our young people that is causing the worsening results in the first place. The core idea of most of these educational systems is that young people can be trained to reach certain standards at certain times, usually based on their age. And if they aren’t reaching those standards at the right time, the training should be intensified, or better targeted, or made more efficient. Considerations are given to ideas like perhaps it is teachers that need to be trained to be more effective, or that it isn’t the subject matter that needs revision but the way it is delivered. No one stops to think, just for a moment that it is the training itself, the way it is performed generally, that is the cause of the problem. That by classifying students as smart, or non-academic, or as an ‘A’ student or a ‘C’ student is a huge reason why our young people are disengaging from the system designed with the original intention of helping them. That by boring kids with things that are far less stimulating than the world outside of the school grounds can offer, we are setting them up for failure.

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