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.


  1. Thanks for posting these, if only because it serves to anchor some discussion.

    I guess I am of the school of thought that any kind of extrinsic reward and punishment has no place in learning at all, not true learning.

    To say that we need to avoid reward and punishment "as much as possible "is to me to miss the point. What role does ANY reward and punishment have in the learning life of a child? It serves only to manipulate them to do things they don't want to do. We rationalize this behaviour to ourselves by saying that "it's good for them."

    So I'll beg to differ on the role of reward and puishment. I agree with the points about the results of punishment and reward but for me the point is that tweaking a system to just diminish the role of punishment and reward isn't enough. I believe that children actually deserve a learning environment free of punishment and reward, where punishment and reward are not even within the foundations of the model. That was certainly the intention of the project when we started out, to have a truly non-coercive larning environment where our kids were largely motivated to learn together BECAUSE their friends were there, not in spite of it.

    So, anyway...interesting...thanks!

  2. (oops; posted as Markus, the first time...)

    Interesting, Chris. I think I'm missing something, for what Al wrote did seem to me to be pretty blanketing. But it's true that the actual classroom setting isn't as non-coercive as I think it's supposed to be. Take, for example, the notice we received previous to this one, explaining how they had given the older kids agendas and were trying to "teach the grade 4-7 classes organizational skills", as he put it. In my opinion any kind of "teaching" is coercive.

    I did have an issue with the bit about some instances which are "devoid of pleasure or value", so "a little reward is just fine". I disagree with toys from the dentist because going to the dentist is reward in itself, if the visit is interesting (what can be more interesting than learning about your teeth!?), and/or if the child understands the value: healthy teeth. Mine do, and they've always been perplexed about the junky toys offered.

    In general I see that the Learning Centre atmosphere aims to be pretty neutral. I don't think they're totally reaching that goal most of the time, but at least it's a goal to work toward. I think that our being there and participating in the development of the centre can only be better than removing ourselves. Otherwise we're always on the run. I guess I'm trying to make changes instead of constantly escaping in the direction of something different (which I see myself doing in other parts of life, and have been trying to stop). We'll see if it proves to be a good choice.

  3. Nice Emily...and I agree with you about the dentist! My kids are the same.

    Yes the Learning Centre is a better place than a school, and we are largely a part of it because of the community around it. I have always talked about the community as a learning community. Adults and children play and learn and work together.

    Of course we haven't run away from it fact we always had the "distance education: option of belonging to the learning centre so that more families could be included who were doing more life learning activities. We are always available to the teachers at the Learning Centre and to the community in general to share our perspectives and ideas, and we are in active engagement with the community and the place.

    And that's why I am glad for your is such a great way to extend the community's learning about itself.


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