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The Problem with Classroom Teaching

This book was part of my 2009 teacher credential program. I was explicitly taught how to manage a classroom of students such that they become, through my instruction and guidance, cooperative learners.

I'm not going to say what is in the book is misguided, because there are obvious concepts and ideals expressed in this book that are valid and worthwhile from which any new teacher would benefit. What I will say is that this is one of many books that insist that I, as the teacher, am solely responsible for the learning that takes place in my classroom and that the students assigned to me, under my care and tutelage, must learn to abide by rules by which they can become cooperative learners.

For example, a section in this book talks about creating a positive climate through incentives and rewards, stating that "praise, symbols, or prizes should be tied as specifically as possible to positive behavior." Today, we call that a form of Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS), and is inherently a behaviorist practice by design. The book does address negative uses of this practice of tying rewards to behaviors, particularly when rewards are removed as a form of punishment for undesired behavior, but it is all rooted in behaviorism as a theory of instruction.

Behaviorist practices take the position that strategic use of interventions can preemptively develop desired behaviors. Much like signaling to children that it's time to stop talking by holding up two fingers while standing in a designated spot in the classroom, or pressing a clicker twice to signal that students are to line up at the door, trained behaviors have come to be known as a reasonable means for creating a "positive climate".

Many teachers have experienced firsthand how these kinds of behaviorist practices can create a "positive climate" such that students learn to behave in ways that allow the teacher to engage, instruct, model, guide, and assess student learning throughout the day. These teachers are actively teaching in classrooms around the country as a result of university credential programs hiring experienced teachers-turned-college-professors promoting such practices. The result is students being trained to behave according to teachers' cues and commands from one year to the next for the purpose of improving academic learning.

Historically and philosophically speaking, behaviorism developed out of a deep-rooted belief that students are empty vessels passively receiving information from expert instructors. However, there has long been a contrasting belief, one that today is referred to as constructivism, that views students as conduits of all the world's knowledge who discover and construct meaning for themselves, and are limited only by their developing cognitive and psychosocial capacity.

These two contrasting beliefs have largely guided the last hundred years of instructional theory in what has been an evolution of schooling in the U.S., beginning with the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner in the first half of the 20th century, followed by the works of social constructivists Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. However, more recently, small groups around the world have become increasingly aware of ideas related to self-directed learning from the likes of Malcolm Knowles, Gerald Grow, Peter Gray, and Kenneth Danford. One area of theoretical evolution often overlooked is Metacognition, a term first coined by John Flavell in the 1970s and has since seen numerous books and studies on metacognition in psychology and education from experts around the world.

The problem addressed in this post today is how schools largely rely on behaviorism as a primary theory of instruction, incorporating constructivist and metacognitive ideas as optional or makeshift salves for problems largely due to a heavy reliance on maladapted behaviorist practices.

The fact is that behaviorism is a valid and effective means for managing behavior and should be considered a highly effective intervention approach for addressing individual needs. In fact, teaching students about such behaviorist interventions by incorporating metacognition would make it an even more powerful approach for addressing undesired student behaviors by empowering students to become part of the intervention design itself. Yet, this is not and has not been the case in schools and classroom across the country.

The trick in addressing this problem is helping teachers and administrators to recognize how much of their classroom management approach is rooted in behaviorism and how often they are conflating constructivist practices within that behaviorist mindset.

When it comes to constructivist classroom management approaches, it's important to note that constructivism as an instructional theory is actually a collection of management practices that address individual student cognitive and psychosocial development. This directly contrasts behaviorist practices that insist a teacher can change an undesired behavior if an intervention is applied proficiently and with fidelity - the contrast in belief is profoundly evident when this behaviorist mindset is applied to a classroom of students rather than an individual.

Again, behaviorist practices can be highly effective as an approach to intervention for a specific behavior, but are too often used to pre-emptively train a group of students in what are desired behaviors for the benefit of a teacher and their role and responsibilities over the learning which must take place in that teacher's classroom.

To be clear, when it comes to behaviorism and constructivism, as theories of instruction, there's little benefit in labeling either as simply 'good' or 'bad', as both can prove beneficial in an educational setting. In fact, approaching most things with such a simple right-or-wrong perspective, more often than not, results in incomplete conclusions as well as disillusioned and uncooperative perspectives. Understanding the value and purpose of each theory of instruction and differentiating practices rooted in both theories can help teachers adopt and adapt more meaningful classroom management approaches in the long-term. (I say long-term because the prevalence of behaviorism in classrooms today is largely due to its short-term benefits in maintaining control over groups of students an hour or day at a time.)

The good news is, constructivist practices are beginning to find themselves in more schools across the country, commonly referred to as restorative practices. Often, a school will replace their detention model with a restorative practice designed to help students discuss openly how and why their behaviors have resulted in them being required to participate in such discussions about their behavior. While that may be effective for building a positive and effective relationship between the student and whoever is leading that restorative practices, when the student returns to the classroom, that approach of helping a student construct meaning for their behavior in context of their environment is again replaced with a behaviorist approach that places the teacher in the role of warden, rewarding positive behaviors and punishing negative behaviors.

The concern being addressed here is that, when a school inconsistently combines behaviorist and constructivist practices among teachers, counselors, and administrators, the result is an inconsistency in expectation as to who has the authority and responsibility for learning, the teacher or the student. For students, years of this kind of inconsistency can create doubt in the leadership of the teachers and administrators, a doubt that is rarely expressed verbally with clear and concise arguments but rather as undesired and seemingly irrational behaviors while at school - this is particularly true for students who experience a similar inconsistency in leadership at home. This means it isn't one teacher or one parent but the collective disagreement in leadership that is at fault in such cases, which is an idea that can be difficult to reconcile, especially for those who believe behaviorist practices efficiently and effectively solve most any behavior problems.

The result of this inconsistency is a campus climate that is as confusing and frustrating for teachers and administrators as it is for the students, so it is important to determine which instructional theories are primary in your classrooms and whether that may be negatively impacting the overall climate in your school.

The first step in determining whether your school has developed such a conflicting climate across your classrooms and collective student body is to consider how teachers are being assessed (e.g. rewarded or corrected) on their classroom management approach, and compare that to how undesired student behaviors are being managed by the school's leadership team. If the school is praising teachers on their behaviorist approach to classroom management, while also promoting constructivist solutions to undesired student behavior, then you are likely creating a confusing climate for students and teachers alike.

How to identify this kind of inconsistency is a conversation for another post, and how to incorporate the kind of self-awareness and self-management necessary for shifting the practices across classrooms, you would likely find it helpful to look into metacognition as a theory of instruction - it is likely one that is little known to the teachers in your school.

To learn more and discuss your particular school's practices, feel free to reach out via my website or peruse my social media feeds with plenty of thoughts and insights on innovations in education regarding #SelfDirectedSchooling. I have a model for empowering student learning that addresses the following metacognitive goals:

- Identify strengths and areas for improvement.

- Design goals for monitoring progress.

- Prioritize resources for effective learning.

- Explore strategies for learning with intention.

- Present new learning with pride and value.

The image above is a model I designed for what I call #SelfDirectedSchooling and is included in my book, 'Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning' (Corwin, 2018).

Greg Mullen

November 19, 2021

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