Emerging from the Dark Ages of Educational Behaviorism

March 18, 2014

 

Wes Weaver is the principal of Licking Valley High School in Newark, OH.

 

In the 1930s, psychologist BF Skinner created what became known as the Skinner Box, a device he used to test out his theories on lab rats. Using "operant conditioning," he designed and implemented an increasingly complex set of stimulus-response trials.

 

In its simplest form, the box contained a response lever and food-pellet-delivery port. The rat pushed the lever and got the food-pellet reward immediately. This cycle, when repeated, led to rat behavior that was predictable. Skinner eventually added various factors to the conditioning, like variable-frequency rewards (10 pushes = pellet), light, heat, and electric-shock stimuli.

 

Followers of Skinner, the founder of behaviorism, theorized about how this conditioning could be applied to humans, and indeed subsequent psychological experiments - with humans - followed the same framework.

 

Eighty years later, most modern psychologists have discarded pure behaviorism as a model for explaining human behavior, in favor of other, more sophisticated models. Those models are informed by an exponential increase in knowledge about the human brain. We've learned more about the brain - and learning and motivation - in the past two decades than in the previous two hundred years.

But in 2014, two groups of people still rely heavily on technology tools aligned to behaviorist theories: school teachers and casino owners.

 

Casino owners' technology of choice is the slot machine, a marvelous device that mesmerizes users with a specific pattern of rewards calibrated to separate patrons from their money. Ever seen someone addicted to the slots? It ain't pretty.

 

School teachers' technology of choice is the modern electronic gradebook, which has created entirely predictable - and deleterious - student and parent behavior.

 

As a teacher, I was an early adopter of the electronic gradebook. After fiddling with a grade spreadsheet, I picked up a CD version of a now-popular gradebook program, and I was hooked. Kids loved it. Later, when I started posting grades online, parents loved it.

 

Now I'm a principal, and my school is in its last year of using that gradebook program. We're piloting JumpRope's gradebook in several classes, and we are heading out of the dark ages of educational behaviorism, grading-wise. We can do better than traditional grading, and we can do better than feeding metaphorical food pellets with a web-accessible gradebook.

 

Here are the reasons why a non-standards-based electronic gradebook needs to be confined to the dustbin of history, along with Skinner's theories:

  • Posting marks for assignments (Tuesday's homework = A, Thursday's quiz = B+, Monday's test = B-) leads to parent-teacher and student-teacher conversations about letter grades, not student performance against standards. This gets in the way of meaningful feedback about learning. Research studies demonstrate that the constant presence of a letter grade on assignments halts such conversations, in fact.

  • Constant communication using letter grades builds bad teacher habits. Such practice reinforces good students' propensity to value the next assignment as a way to change their grade, not as a further opportunity for learning. It leads to overuse of summative assessments at the expense of formative, unweighted (ungraded) ones that inform teacher instruction. Hattie's Visible Learning documents the power of formative assessment in instruction - his meta-analysis compiles numerous studies that document its power in producing higher levels of learning.

  • Slapping a letter grade on every assignment and communicating such a grade to parents creates the mindset that grades are compensation for work, rather than communication about performance. Parents rightly assume that good grades = learning, when in fact, they don't. Anyone who assumes differently looks for a different explanation when students don't meet with success upon graduation. The current obsession with standardized testing, blaming high schools for poor student performance in college, and evaluating teachers based on student performance are all indications our grading system has gone awry. Such phenomena are our own fault: We are complicit in the establishment of student, parent, and politician habits that we loathe.

  • Our use of grades as tools of compliance has been enhanced by instantaneous electronic communication of marks for tests, quizzes and especially homework. We use grades to punish, to force students to conform, and to sort the "good kids" from the bad. It is educational malpractice to use the blunt weapon of the letter grade as a cudgel, and the electronic gradebook means we can wield it daily, not once every nine weeks when the grade card is mailed home. Rick Wormeli speaks eloquently and authoritatively on the use of the zero as negative reinforcement, and the research is clear: It doesn't work. (Anyone who subscribes to the theory it does is being very selective in their reading of years of psychological research beginning with Seligman's work in the 1960s - more than fifty years old!)

The traditional electronic gradebook is the equivalent of an updated Skinner box. We can do better, and we must.

 

Shifting the grading paradigm requires the use of technology tools that fit our knowledge of how learning - and motivation - work. It's time to discard the assignment-based electronic gradebook in favor of tools like JumpRope's planning and grading tool, which enable teachers to give students feedback on what they've actually learned. When we do, our own habits and those of our clientele will improve.

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