Saturday, February 09, 2013

Positive Behavior Reinforcers

When I sub, I often am encouraged to use each teacher's or school's particular set of positive behavior re-inforcers.  One school will have tickets; another will have marbles; another will use adding letters to words to earn a particular reward.  Some teachers will use all of those things and more.

The other day, I was introduced to yet another variety of re-inforcer:  the ClassDoJo app.  The teacher I was subbing for had this app on her iPad and on her computer (PC-compatible).  I got to the classroom early (the previous day, I had had trouble finding a school that was unfamiliar to me, and I was afraid of it happening again - but, of course, when I leave EXTRA, EXTRA early, I have no trouble finding the school).  So I got to observe her working with her students and using the ClassDoJo app.  She had excellent control of the classroom and the students were working very productively.  They were working on writing and she was teaching a lesson about writing conclusions.  A lot of the classes I have been teaching lately have been working on persuasive writing, as it is part of the testing that is coming up soon in this state.  The lesson was well thought out and she taught it well.  The writing instruction follows the pretty much standard 5 paragraph essay: introduction (topic and opinion), three paragraphs, each supporting one of the major reasons, and conclusion.  Even the conclusion has a standard format: repeat topic and opinion, restate the three major reasons, demand/urge the reader to action.

While the kids were working on their essays, she used the ClassDoJo app on her iPad to add points to children's records for how they were working.  If they were following independent work expectations, she would tell them, "Good following independent work expectations, [Name]" as she awarded the point.  There was also "Good participation", and several other categories.  There were also negative categories, e.g., "Failure to Follow Instructions" and "Disruptive Behavior".  It seemed to work really well for her.

She needed to take her iPad with her for the meeting she was going to, so she showed me how to use the application on the computer.  It is relatively straightforward and easy to use.  But since the computer was set up to use the Smart Board for everything, it was also completely visible to the students, as it was used.  Evidently there is a contest for the students to have the highest points by the end of the day or week and they followed the standings throughout the day.  As a sub, I found this rather distracting, but the students seemed used to it.

The cracks in the system began to appear after she left me alone with the students.  I had little trouble using the system, but, as usual, the kids test the limits of the sub and using the system wasn't as efficient for me as it undoubtedly was for the regular teacher.  I had two different groups of students (she taught writing to two different classes and science to both of them as well) and I didn't know the names of the students.  The software doesn't use their pictures, just a name and an icon.

The students got work done and their behavior was acceptable, if not stellar.  But I left the school at the end of the day feeling uncomfortable.  And, on my long drive home, I was trying to figure out why I felt slightly down and depressed.  And, it occurred to me:  I felt like Pavlov's dogs: manipulated and conditioned, treated as an object, and not as a person.  I don't know if the students felt like that.  There was one student who said that this was the best school he had ever been in.  But there were 3 or 4 students for whom the system seemed to represent a negative.  I was only there a half day, so I don't know any more than that.  But I do know the effect that it had on ME wasn't especially good.  I felt that I hadn't had a chance to talk to kids, to interact with them on a personal level.  The system seemed to be a barrier between us.

When it is used on the iPad and is more hidden, it can give excellent information to the teacher about which kids are exhibiting which behaviors.  I am not sure how customizable it is, but it would be interesting to me to record things like higher level questioning, insightful answers, kindness to others, etc.  But I am not comfortable with putting such a strong emphasis on the number of points each student has and passing out rewards for that.  It feels a bit Big Brotherish to me.

Positive behavior re-inforcers seem to be very popular, but they make me uncomfortable.  And yet, most teachers swear by them.  I feel like we are manipulating students into behaviors that they should exhibit without the reward system.  They should be exhibiting good behavior for its own sake and not for the reward.  But, in some of the schools they seem to work.

I feel out of step.  Once, again.


  1. I think rewarding positive behavior (caught being good) is better than spending all day harping on negative behavior.

    I'm sure some of the most recent emphasis on points comes from the Harry Potter house competitions.

    It does all boil down to Punished by Rewards, though, doesn't it? We incentivize students to do what they should do anyway, which means that they may no longer do (or enjoy doing) it for its own merits; they feel cheated if they don't get the incentive/prize/reward.

  2. The problem with caught being good was pointed out to me by my gifted students around 10 years ago: teachers don't notice the kids who are always good. They seem to notice most the students who are slightly bad. They are trying to shape the behavior of the slightly bad students; they have mostly given up on the really bad students; and, especially the really good, quiet students get largely ignored. My GT students would occasionally be slightly bad, just so they could later get awards for improving.