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We open this blog by asserting that the greatest challenge facing schools is the inequities of achievement among ethnic, socio-economic, and linguistic subgroups. In other words, we’re humiliated by the fact that the achievement of subgroups of students at the beginning of school years can be predicted with unfortunate certainty based on the subgroup of the student. This is not the fault of teachers or administrators.

Likewise, the most critical goal – the only goal – for schools is ensuring the equities of achievement among ethnic, socio-economic, and linguistic subgroups. In other words, we.must.disrupt.inequities. This is the primary responsibility of teachers and administrators today.

Increasingly, we have evidence – evidence that we will describe in future blogs – that a primary cause of, or contributor to, inequities is negative mindsets, or self-efficacies, or the absence of non-cognitive skills, among students who are not yet experiencing success. And, like it or not, although certainly not an intentional outcome, our practices, policies, actions, and words contribute to a student’s mindsets, self-efficacies, and the possession or absence of non-cognitive skills among students who are not yet experiencing success.

We suggest that one of the – but certainly not the only – contributors to this phenomenon is the ways in which educators are prepared for the profession. We propose that the philosophy of learning that governs and guides our work should represent a better balance of Behaviorism and Humanism. First, let’s review the transformational work of B. F. Skinner: Behaviorism.

  1. F. Skinner and Behaviorism

The theoretical and practical foundations that most educators received within teacher education programs were grounded in Behaviorism and the work of B.F. Skinner. The work of Skinner was transformatively important and, perhaps, a bit misunderstood and misapplied as it relates to managing student behavior within K-12.

Skinner considered that free will is an illusion and that human action is dependent on consequences, or reinforcements, of previous actions. If the consequences are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences, or reinforcements, are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger.

According to Behaviorism, positive reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by the occurrence of some event, whereas negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by the removal or avoidance of some aversive event.

Skinner believed that effective teaching must be based on positive reinforcement, which he believed to be more effective at changing and establishing behavior than punishments. He suggested that the main thing people learn from being punished is how to avoid punishment. 

Without knowing the science underlying the teaching and learning of behavioral (and academic) skills, teachers often rely on practices for which there is little (or no) evidence of success:

  • Using aversive techniques 
  • Relying on telling and explaining 
  • Neglecting to adapt learning tasks to the student’s current readiness levels
  • Forgetting to provide positive reinforcement frequently enough

In other words, there is a lack of effective differentiation practices, a reliance on lecturing as a content-delivery system, a focus on control and negative reinforcers, and even in the best of situations, a teacher-centered learning environment.

Skinner offered steps for the teaching of academic and behavioral skills:

  • Clearly specify the action or performance the student is to learn
  • Break down the task into small achievable steps, going from simple to complex
  • Let the student perform each step, reinforcing correct actions
  • Adjust so that the student is always successful until finally the goal is reached
  • Shift to intermittent reinforcement to maintain the student’s performance

The steps are, not coincidentally, very similar to the lesson designs of Hunter (1982), Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun (2008), Fisher and Frey (2008), and Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2009). While teacher-centered (and in the worst situations, didactic), these pedagogical approaches (termed direct instruction by Hattie) have been shown to be effective (Hattie, 2009).

And yet, in light of inequities that most certainly exist and the proven potential impact of mindsets on disrupting inequities, we recommend that educators consider another philosophy of learning and teaching.

We recognize that the teaching and learning of academic skills, and the management and correcting of student behaviors, that is often attributed to Skinner and Behaviorism may very well be a bastardization of this -ism and of this individual’s work. And yet, even when viewed in its best light, Behaviorism tends to work on students and not with students. There is another school of thought that may serve as a complement to the principles of Behaviorism.

Carl Rogers and Humanism

Carl Rogers, like B. F. Skinner, was an incredibly significant psychologist, both within and outside the United States. We have found, however, that Rogers’ influence within schools has not been nearly as impactful. Make no mistake, though; what Skinner is to the important field of Behaviorism, Rogers is to Humanism. And, as we note in the beginning of this blog, we strongly recommended a better balance between Behaviorism and Humanism. We’ve reminded ourselves of Behaviorism; let’s introduce Humanism.

Rogers’ philosophy of student behavior and motivation rested on his belief that all students naturally strive to actualize, maintain, and enhance their learning experiences. Therefore, the most productive perspective for understanding the behavior of students is from the internal frame of reference of the student. Behavior is basically the goal-directed attempt of students to satisfy their needs as they experience them in any given situation. 

For Rogers, a student’s emotions accompany, and facilitate, all behaviors. Behavior is communication. As a student experiences life, the student either, a) organizes the experience into some relation to self, b) ignores the experience because there is no perceived relationship to self, or c) rejects the experience because it is inconsistent with the self. Most of the ways that a student behaves are directly connected to a student’s concept of self.

Humanism, according to Rogers, rests on presuming the positive in students – having an unconditional positive regard – and accepting students without negative judgment about their life conditions and background.

According to Rogers, and significant to the topics of mindsets and non-cognitive skills, self-concept is the perception of the characteristics of ‘I’ or ‘me’ and the perceptions of the relationships of the ‘I’ or ‘me’ to others and to various aspects of life. The development of the self-concept depends on conditional and unconditional positive regard. Students who experience – in and out of school – an environment of unconditional positive regard have the opportunity to fully actualize themselves. Those raised in an environment of conditional positive regard feel worthy only if they match conditions that have been laid down for them by others. Students who believe they can learn at high levels, and behave in positive ways, are much, much more likely to do so.

Educators who put Humanism into practice:

  • Inspire students to adopt an openness to experience. 
  • Encourage an increasingly existential lifestyle – living each moment fully.
  • Do not force experiences to fit a specific personality type of or rigid concept of self, but allow personality and self-concept to be shaped by the experience, resulting in excitement, daring, adaptability, tolerance, spontaneity, and a lack of rigidity.
  • Practice trust – educators trust students and students trust their own judgment and their ability to choose behaviors that are appropriate for each moment – they do not rely on existing codes and social norms but trust that as they are open to experiences they will learn and grow.

Choice is a fundamental concept in Humanism. Students believe that they play a role in determining their own behavior and so feel responsible for their own behavior. Choice and freedom promote creativity. They feel trusted to act constructively. Within Humanistic environments , students live a rich, full, exciting, and more intense life.

To achieve optimally Humanistic environments, Rogers proposed five hypotheses:

  1. “A person cannot teach another person directly; a person can only facilitate another’s learning” (Rogers, 1951). What the student does is more important than what the teacher does. 
  2. “A person learns significantly only those things that are perceived as being involved in the maintenance of or enhancement of the structure of self” (Rogers, 1951). Relevance, and a student’s experiences, are essential.
  3. “Experience which, if assimilated, would involve a change in the organization of self, tends to be resisted through denial or distortion of symbolism” (Rogers, 1951). Being open – feeling safe and possessing a positive mindset – to consider concepts that vary from one’s own is vital to learning. 
  4. “The structure and organization of self appears to become more rigid under threats and to relax its boundaries when completely free from threat” (Rogers, 1951). Intellectually, emotionally, and physically safe learning environments are foundationally fundamental, and must be actively designed and maintained, for affective filters to be low.
  5. “The educational situation which most effectively promotes significant learning is one in which (a) threat to the self of the learner is reduced to a minimum and (b) differentiated perception of the field is facilitated” (Rogers, 1951). The teacher is always learning from the student as the student learns from the teacher; feedback is a two-way street.

To close, we have based our traditional school practices on a heavy dose of Behaviorism, and it has served us pretty well. To achieve total equity, however, a balance is needed, with a deliberate infusion of Humanistic beliefs and practices. 

We submit that a primary cause of inequities is negative mindsets within students who are not yet learning at high levels or experiencing success and we accept that we – educators – are contributing to these negative mindsets, albeit unintentionally. We are the answer we’ve been waiting for. To disrupt and eliminate inequities, we must actively practice, promote, and teach positive mindsets.

 

Explainer

 

Carl Rogers and Humanism

Carl Rogers, like B. F. Skinner, was an incredibly significant psychologist, both within and outside the United States. We have found, however, that Rogers’ influence within schools has not been nearly as impactful. Make no mistake, though; what Skinner is to the important field of Behaviorism, Rogers is to Humanism. And, as we note in the beginning of this blog, we strongly recommended a better balance between Behaviorism and Humanism. We’ve reminded ourselves of Behaviorism; let’s introduce Humanism.

Rogers’ philosophy of student behavior and motivation rested on his belief that all students naturally strive to actualize, maintain, and enhance their learning experiences. Therefore, the most productive perspective for understanding the behavior of students is from the internal frame of reference of the student. Behavior is basically the goal-directed attempt of students to satisfy their needs as they experience them in any given situation. 

For Rogers, a student’s emotions accompany, and facilitate, all behaviors. Behavior is communication. As a student experiences life, the student either, a) organizes the experience into some relation to self, b) ignores the experience because there is no perceived relationship to self, or c) rejects the experience because it is inconsistent with the self. Most of the ways that a student behaves are directly connected to a student’s concept of self.

Humanism, according to Rogers, rests on presuming the positive in students – having an unconditional positive regard – and accepting students without negative judgment about their life conditions and background.

According to Rogers, and significant to the topics of mindsets and non-cognitive skills, self-concept is the perception of the characteristics of ‘I’ or ‘me’ and the perceptions of the relationships of the ‘I’ or ‘me’ to others and to various aspects of life. The development of the self-concept depends on conditional and unconditional positive regard. Students who experience – in and out of school – an environment of unconditional positive regard have the opportunity to fully actualize themselves. Those raised in an environment of conditional positive regard feel worthy only if they match conditions that have been laid down for them by others. Students who believe they can learn at high levels, and behave in positive ways, are much, much more likely to do so.

Educators who put Humanism into practice:

  • Inspire students to adopt an openness to experience. 
  • Encourage an increasingly existential lifestyle – living each moment fully.
  • Do not force experiences to fit a specific personality type of or rigid concept of self, but allow personality and self-concept to be shaped by the experience, resulting in excitement, daring, adaptability, tolerance, spontaneity, and a lack of rigidity.
  • Practice trust – educators trust students and students trust their own judgment and their ability to choose behaviors that are appropriate for each moment – they do not rely on existing codes and social norms but trust that as they are open to experiences they will learn and grow.

Choice is a fundamental concept in Humanism. Students believe that they play a role in determining their own behavior and so feel responsible for their own behavior. Choice and freedom promote creativity. They feel trusted to act constructively. Within Humanistic environments , students live a rich, full, exciting, and more intense life.

To achieve optimally Humanistic environments, Rogers proposed five hypotheses:

  1. “A person cannot teach another person directly; a person can only facilitate another’s learning” (Rogers, 1951). What the student does is more important than what the teacher does. 
  2. “A person learns significantly only those things that are perceived as being involved in the maintenance of or enhancement of the structure of self” (Rogers, 1951). Relevance, and a student’s experiences, are essential.
  3. “Experience which, if assimilated, would involve a change in the organization of self, tends to be resisted through denial or distortion of symbolism” (Rogers, 1951). Being open – feeling safe and possessing a positive mindset – to consider concepts that vary from one’s own is vital to learning. 
  4. “The structure and organization of self appears to become more rigid under threats and to relax its boundaries when completely free from threat” (Rogers, 1951). Intellectually, emotionally, and physically safe learning environments are foundationally fundamental, and must be actively designed and maintained, for affective filters to be low.
  5. “The educational situation which most effectively promotes significant learning is one in which (a) threat to the self of the learner is reduced to a minimum and (b) differentiated perception of the field is facilitated” (Rogers, 1951). The teacher is always learning from the student as the student learns from the teacher; feedback is a two-way street.

To close, we have based our traditional school practices on a heavy dose of Behaviorism, and it has served us pretty well. To achieve total equity, however, a balance is needed, with a deliberate infusion of Humanistic beliefs and practices. 

We submit that a primary cause of inequities is negative mindsets within students who are not yet learning at high levels or experiencing success and we accept that we – educators – are contributing to these negative mindsets, albeit unintentionally. We are the answer we’ve been waiting for. To disrupt and eliminate inequities, we must actively practice, promote, and teach positive mindsets.

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