Sunday, November 11, 2007

non-coercive learning

Tali's teacher recently sent these comments out to Learning Centre parents. I like them so much that I asked him if I could post them here. So his words follow, for your enjoyment and inspiration.

A Reflection on Some of the Values of our [Homelearners'] Program
by Alan Saugstad
A while back we had a group of teachers and parents visit from the sunshine coast. When they came into Collins Hall, the kids were all working in their math groups. They noticed how intent all the kid's faces were, how focused. One of them said they'd never seen kids so into Math before. It surprised me a little, as those groups are just part of everyday for me now, but when I paused to reflect, I knew why they worked so well. They were all doing Math because they wanted to. They had made a conscious decision to be there and to do it. No one was making them do it. No one was rewarding them for doing it. They were not being graded. In the everyday experience of doing Math, it was a subtle difference, but it made a profound effect on their attitudes.

It kind of shocked me when I realized this. Never in all my 10 years of teaching before coming to Bowen did I experience this in a school. I remember an experience I had as a vice-principal in Vancouver. I was teaching a group of 11 year olds how to design their own web pages. These kids were very computer literate but had never done this kind of thing before, so they LOVED it. They worked hard, they shared ideas, they experimented. I was enjoying to teach them because of this enthusiasm. I decided to try something. I told them that I wanted to make it even more enjoyable for them by eliminating the grading process. "Let's just enjoy doing this and keep doing it until we are done". Every last one of them told me that they wouldn't continue if they weren't getting graded. "What would be the point?", they said. I couldn't believe it.

This was a pivotal moment in my career. My eyes began to see things differently. Everywhere I looked, it was all about punishment and reward. Every part of their day was controlled. If anyone acted out or rebelled, it was time for punishment, clear and simple. And almost all
"positive motivation" was based on reward; grades, stickers, prizes, etc. Comparing kids to each other also served this purpose well. Intimidation and coercion were everywhere; never called that of course, rather they were called "motivating techniques" or "behavioural management".

Reward and punishment is clearly both addictive and seemingly effective. You want to motivate a kid to clean their room? Tell them you'll give them $5. If you give them a pokemon card every time they complete a math worksheet, they'll be math wizzes in no time! But what is the cosequence of this? The problem is that they end up like those kids I taught in Vancouver. They become hopelessly addicted to it and won't work without it. They lose touch with deeper, truer reasons for engaging in learning. They don't know what they want or like, they're just used to playing the game, without thinking too much. Most kids grow up with absolutely no idea what kind of career they want to go into. They've never been asked or had time to explore what they are passionate about. They've been trained their whole lives to follow, not to lead.

Reward and punishment is also deeply disrespectful to those it is imposed on. Imagine saying to your partner that you will give them a box of chocolates if they massage your back. What this says, of course, is that you don't expect them to want to rub your back, so you'll pay them for it. It's prostitution, really. And imagine how they would feel if you said that to them. They would feel cheap and disrespected. Yet we do this to our kids and their learning. By offering rewards, we tell them that WE don't believe the value of the learning is self-evident, and that they need to be tricked into doing it. Sort of Pavlovian.

I think there is still a place for assessment and evaluation in our program. It can be very valuable for a child to know where they stand. Most kids like to know that they have progressed from point A to B in their skills, and I don't see a problem in recognizing and celebrating that. Good teaching is a lot like good coaching; you expect your coach to watch you carefully and correct you if need be. That's how we get better. But the act of giving letter grades, especially publicly, is mainly an exercise in comparing kids to each other and it serves mainly to punish or reward behaviour.

It's probably impossible to attain true internal motivation to learn or do at all times. I know that many of the kids go along with activities at the centre because their parents and teachers want them to, which is most likely a mix of wanting it themselves and having some faith that their parents are right that it is good for them (even if they can't see it themselves). I know that for a lot of them, their motivation is based on being with their friends. Even though these reasons for learning are not completely intrinsic, at least they are much, much better than outright manipulation. I also think that there are a few instances when experiences are so devoid of pleasure or value that a little reward is just fine, like going to the dentist!!

I know most of us agree on this, and we have naturally avoided reward and punishment. I can see it in our kids. In the few situations when I have seen them be exposed to it, they feel crestfallen. They see the unfairness of it, they worry about those who don't get the prize or
are left out. They have not been numbed by living a life of constant R & P. Our kids have a beautiful sensitivity which I want to preserve.

By avoiding reward and punishment as much as possible, it is clear to me that our program maintains an integrity and deep respect for both learner and subject that will make a huge difference in the lives of our children. And like those visitors from the sunshine coast noticed,
you can see it in their faces and their attitudes on a daily basis.

Friday, November 9, 2007


We're all fighting a pretty awful combination of viruses and infections, here (nearly 2 weeks of it, now!), as well as being intensely busy with various sudden and urgent projects and looking for work (Markus was unexpectedly laid off on the 30th). Sooo... posting is not a priority. Hopefully in a few days I'll update, further. There's lots going on, just no time to photograph or describe.
Check into our dragonfly site for a couple of brief updates, though.