BF Skinner associated punishment with avoidance. For example, he is often cited as having said that a child may be forced to practice playing his musical instrument no matter what his skill level or desire but in replacement of other more desired activities. This occurs as a form of seemingly benign and productive discipline. The child however may then associate practicing the instrument with punishment and thus learn to hate and avoid practicing the instrument. Skinner did not mention reading and math, that I am aware of, but I have to wonder if this would apply to our current practice of requiring poor readers to do more reading and poor math students to increase time spent in math. In both cases replacing , what for them, might be time desired for different activities. Is it possible that increasing the blocked time a student must spend, in what for them, is a painful and difficult exercise, might actually make them feel punished, lead to avoidance behaviors and hence be totally counter-productive.
Skinner believed that large problems should be attacked in small steps and that even the smallest of steps should be reinforced to reach the eventual larger goal. Should our reading instruction then be less intense and in smaller, easier to reward tid- bits, rather than presented in a heavy and long block of intense reading instruction? If you are willing to believe in conditioned reflex I believe that this may be a better way.
Skinner also stops short of suggesting that all small steps forward are worthy of praise or reinforcement. He notes that when rewards are always forthcoming the behavior is indeed temporarily established but that when the continuous reward stops the behavior being rewarded disappears very quickly. In contrast to continuous rewards when rewards are intermittent, and I would add deserved, the rewarded behavior will become more persistent. Or in other words may persist well into the future with less frequent rewards and in some cases with no further rewards needed. The goal must be to associate reading with success not failure, like Skinner’s pigeons who didn’t really understand why they did what they did but associated it with reward, students may by taking smaller steps and de-emphasizing that it is “reading instruction”, may learn to associate reading behaviors with reward instead of punishment. If the rewards are proffered in a thought out series of small intermittent steps rather than a 90 minute or 120 minute block of intense instruction previously unattainable goals may be reached.
In thinking about Skinner I wonder is it possible that students need to fail at some tasks in every area in order to be more successful in the future. Our current modality in education often features nearly empty and constant praise as a positive force towards creating student success. Is this good for our children?
I believe that all students must be challenged enough to fail at times and taught how to accept failure as a step towards success. (Note- failure in terms of success not grades). Loss or failure should hurt, it should not be painless. Controlled failure allows us and our students to form a contrast between good and bad. If there is never a failure for the student, contrast disappears as a meaningful factor and success can become meaningless and empty.
Benjamin Franklin said that, “Success has ruined many a man.” And TH Huxley notes that, “There is the greatest practical benefit in making a few failures early in life.” I have seen illustrated the value of these statements in numerous students over the years often when they took or in some cases were taken by algebra. When for the first time in their lives they had to actively learn something to succeed. Lack of student failure experience in its most virulent form hits some students after they get all the way through high school with straight A’s never doing poorly at anything and in some cases never actually working either. At the end of high school under those circumstances they have been continually conditioned to a state of success. Then, because of those good grades, they attend a competitive college where they are now simply average because everybody else had straight A’s as well. Because their, “I’m the best,” conditioning has been continuous for over 12 years, the mantra of success may dissolve very quickly and when they fail to have the continued easy success they have been conditioned to expect many will have absolutely no idea of how to handle it or work through it and crash and burn as college freshmen.
I guess that it all boils down to the phrase, “You only truly fail, when you fail to try.” If we teach our children avoidance of failure or avoidance of instruction we have failed as parents and teachers. We instead must teach our students that failure is simply step on the road to success. Edison is supposed to have said after numerous non-working attempts to make a light bulb that, “at least now we know several hundred ways not to make light bulbs.” The burden of failure should be properly placed on the backs of the students, not the teachers. But the even heavier weight of structuring for future success should be firmly placed on the back of the teacher. Every teacher must, to paraphrase Sun Tzu, build a golden bridge of retreat for your students from failure and towards success.
When a wise man runs into a block wall, experience with past failures may turn it into a pathway paved with the building blocks of success.