"How do you sleep with all that racket?" a new neighbor asked my folks one day. He was referring to our old windmill, which turned lazily in the cool summer breeze off Lake Michigan. It no longer pumped water and hadn't for years, so its maintenance was not a high priority, especially since that would involve shinnying up 30 feet of frail-looking ladder to grease the gears.
Racket? What racket?
But our new neighbor was right. The whole contraption complained loudly as the blades turned, in a voice that varied from a long, drawn-out moan in a light breeze to an excited Yip! Yip! whenever the winds picked up as a storm closed in. No matter the weather, the sound was never the kind that would be described as "restful," by anyone, and yet in all my time living there I never lost a moment's sleep to it. In fact, until the neighbor's question, I hadn't even considered the idea that the windmill's noise might not belong. It seemed as much a part of our home as the drafty windows and leaky tin roof.
I think the amateur behaviorists have attained that same kind of existence in our schools. The trappings of faux behaviorism seem to have always been part and parcel with education, and I doubt many of us have even considered that possibility that they might not belong there.
"To induce students to learn, we present stickers, stars, certificates, awards, trophies,membership in elite societies, and above all, grades. If the grades are good enough, some parents then hand out bicycles or cars or cash, thereby offering what are, in effect, rewards for rewards."
This is from Alfie Kohn's 1993 book Punished By Rewards, and in it he discusses the effects of coercion (reward or punishment) on learning. Behaviorist critics of Kohn argue that he doesn't understand Skinner (Who does?), and thus misrepresents behaviorism, but Kohn does understand school and how we coerce students daily to gain their compliance in performing tasks that are, apparently, not worth doing for their own sake.
We act as if all learning would cease if the rewards and threats we currently use were removed, but that would be wrong. Young people are always learning (Even as I write this, my three-year-old daughter is learning how to manipulate a camera tripod. I'm guessing I'll soon be learning how to fix a camera tripod). What children learn on their own does not follow a predetermined, prescribed curriculum, but pursues a course generated internally by curiosity and externally by circumstance. The results of this style of learning, which operated freely, naturally, and effectively for all humankind throughout nearly all of human history, were at some point deemed too random, too unique, and too unpredictable by social engineers who dreamed, and still dream, of an orderly, predictable (and thus controllable) world. The solution was clear: To control how people behave, control the conditions in which they learn. And control is what school is all about. Carrots and sticks aren't necessary to produce learning. They become necessary, however, when you want to make people learn what others want them to learn when others want them to learn it.
I've always been uncomfortable with the amount of carrot-and-stick we rely on in school, and I've eliminated as much from my classroom as possible. I've since discovered that much of it was unnecessary to begin with. I haven't graded a paper since moving to the elementary level, and my students still somehow manage to learn without the invisible dangling carrots, or the threat of the "F" that might go on their permanent (digital) record. They haven't torn my room apart, they haven't left any substitute teachers trussed up in the corner like Thanksgiving turkeys, and they have treated me with respect and courtesy. I think this is because I treat them respectfully and courteously. I respect them as young human beings. They are not white mice, pigeons, or chimps, and because my students are human, the methods of a circus trainer have no place in my classroom.
Now step back and take a look at No Child Left Behind. See it for what it really is; the legalized coercion of the institution of public school - a package of threats and promises passed down from federal to state government, from administrator to teacher to student (and largely bypassing parents). It is not about learning, it is about control. It is not about creating high standards for students, but about imposing someone else's standards on them. And by mandating what will be learned and when it will be learned, a need and justification for the carrots and sticks is created.
This is not "education." It is obedience school for our children.
"Give me a child and I'll shape him into anything." - B.F. Skinner
"Of course, Behaviorism 'works.' So does torture. Give me a no-nonsense, down-to-earth behaviorist, a few drugs, and simple electrical appliances, and in six months I will have him reciting the Athanasian Creed in public." - W.H. Auden