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Are We Smarter Than Rats?

Rewards and the Behavioristic Principles

Working as a school psychologist I have learned that we have become very behavioristic in our raising of children and in dealing with them in school. Kids don't behave and work anymore because it's the right thing to do, because it's good for them, or simply because it's what's expected of them. They do it for rewards. The attitude is, I have to get something out of it or I'm not going to do it. Everything is contingent, just like the classic rat studies we learned about in our general psychology class. We should be proud of ourselves. In our sophistication, we have lowered parenting and education to the level of training rats. Many parents and educators of course would disagree. They would explain that along with the rewards and incentives, they tell their kids that they should do something because it's the right thing to do. Parents would tell you that they teach their children such things as values, doing for others, and doing the right thing, but their actions speak differently (source). Classrooms today are fueled by rewards, and parents are told to use them. The more of a behavior problem a child has, the more rewards or incentives are offered to him. Sure the schools do incorporate some type of negatives (can I say that word?), such as time-outs, going to the office, losing points or privileges, but the carrots of rewards are always dangled. Basically, they are bribing their students and children to behave. They tell the child that if he stops being naughty they will reward him. It makes you wonder who is in control. And the same cycle often happens at home. Going back in history, do you think our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were rewarded for behaving appropriately and doing what was expected of them? Let's be honest. Of course not! If our ancestors had to be rewarded the way kids are today, humans would be extinct. So why are kids today different?

Getting back to the rats, something I learned as an undergraduate is that in studies involving animals there is always the "leap of faith" so to speak when you try to generalize your results to humans. In other words, just because something is true or happens with an animal (rodent), does not necessarily mean it is true or happens with humans. Well guess what? We have made a jumbo jet leap of faith. We have religiously followed these behavioristic generalizations without question. In fact, reinforcers (rewards) have become as American in parenting and education as apple pie. Nobody has stopped for a minute to consider the fact that rewards are very ineffective with behavior problem children, and becoming less effective with the rest of the children. The behavior problem children have needs far beyond a simple reward offered in school, and the other children have become so saturated with rewards that they are demanding more.

We cannot forget also that a rat's existence centers around food. Humans' existence does not. Let's give ourselves a little more credit. Rats spend their whole day "thinking" about and scavenging for food. Humans have what is called higher thinking ability. We can contemplate food and what it means to us. Of course we have to have food to survive, but there's much more to us than that. Humans can fast for religious reasons or starve themselves to prove a point. Can a rat do that? We spend our days doing a wide variety of higher thinking activities (that rats can't do by the way). In fact, we're so much more complicated that we have cookbooks, chefs on TV, vitamins, and endless restaurants.

Rewards and the behavioristic principles they are based on are a scary and devastating example of how research can cause deep and long lasting problems. This has happened in education. Rats don't do bad behaviors because of a lack of bonding, nurturing, and love. In fact, they do very few "behaviors" at all. Their behaviors are all based on survival. They don't work for rewards (food pellets) for love, to feel a sense of accomplishment, or for attention; they do it to fill their gut. Circus animals can be trained to do a behavior; but there are no higher thoughts, or feelings involved. An elephant doesn't stand on one leg because he wants to be the best elephant one-leg stander.

More to come.

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Are We Smarter Than Rats?
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