I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea that we, as educators, are in the business of behaviour modification.  I remember discussion of Skinner and others in my Ed Psych classes, back in the day, and cringing.  The idea that our job as educators is to change the behaviour of our students brings up images of many of the dystopian novels I’ve read of late.  I think of the Borg, the humans in Wall-e, and the citizens in the capital of the Divergent novels as more popular references.  I think that it was this idea that made me hate Ed Psych more than anything.

Flash forward almost 30 years…  I’ve had a career as a music educator, I’m now a Teacher Librarian and I’m in a school where there is a lot of discussion about such things as Ritchhart’s Cultures of Thinking and the National School Reform Faculty’s teaching protocols.  In fact, we had Ron Ritchhart working with us over a couple of days last week.  It was one word in Ritchhart’s work with us that triggered a strong reaction that I really don’t know what to do with.  He spoke of enculturation.

Enculturation, in his discussion, was all about creating a culture of thinking as opposed to a culture of rote memorization of content and regurgitation for standardized testing.  The reasons behind the enculturation are reasons that I’m completely behind.  But the idea that we are modifying behaviour of students to conform to what we feel are the attributes of some idealized community is uncomfortable.

I find myself in this awkward position, knowing that I’ve been involved in enculturating students for years, but because the ideals of the community that I’m trying to create are closely aligned with what I value, I haven’t seen it as this.  I get irritated when students are disrespectful of one another.  As a band director, I would encourage the students to work as a team and aspire to the standards that I tried to set for them.  We are a private school with uniforms and I remind students to tuck in shirts and wear the designated shoes.

I also recognize that what I value in my current role as a Teacher Librarian include individual inquiry, personal ownership of learning, curiosity, innovation, and imagination.  These values can (but don’t necessarily) fly in the face of the idea of conforming to the ideals of a culture that exists outside of one’s self.  They speak to challenging the ideals of a community and building personal understanding and values.

We are constantly reminded of differences between cultures that can cause great conflict in that what is valued by one is offensive to another.  Who is to say that my cultural values are “right?”  Who am I to decide for another what behaviours they should perform to conform to my, perhaps misdirected, ideas of what they should value.

The routines and protocols that Ritchhart and the National School Reform folks speak of are all about creating routines of behaviour and structuring conversations and thinking in particular ways.  While I find some of these routines and protocols to be liberating in much the same way that I, as a jazz musician, find a song’s form and chord structure liberating, because they set up a framework to work within.  While predetermining certain aspects of my thinking, I am free to focus and be creative with other aspects of my thinking.  But I still find some of the standardization of behaviour in a learning community a little creepy and off-putting.  I’m not sure where this leaves me, but it helps to get it out on “paper.”

I’d love to hear others’ ideas on this.  I think that it’s a fine line that we walk as teachers and one that we need to be at least aware of.  It’s taken me almost 30 years to develop my awareness in this area!

2 thoughts on “Education as Behaviour Modification

  1. Great topic. Its so complex. I mean structures that are routine in schools help us to lift the cognitive loads and place more of a load on creative thinking within those structures. So structures, protocols and routines help us as teachers get more from our kids. I think it’s about intentional use of these to help us accomplish higher goals such as deeper learning through inquiry, for example. 😉

    Balance is critical. Having everything routinized can get so automatic we don’t think. That’s not what we want so we have to mix it up sometimes too. Balancing routine structures and change and excitement is best case. That’s what I try to describe with Guided Inquiry and the tools and process but there are no easy or right answers.

    Thanks for your always thought provoking post.

  2. Thanks for reading and replying, Leslie. I agree that balance is critical. We need to relinquish ownership of the learning while still providing enough scaffolding that the students aren’t left directionless, confused, and overwhelmed. I guess that it is terminology that sets me off. The word “enculturation” to me feels like it speaks of absorbing folks into a way of thinking, acting, and being that is “right” because it is the collective culture of a majority or the will of those few in power. It is probably somewhat fitting that I’m thinking this through now when we, in Canada, have elected as our new Prime Minister the son of a Prime Minister who spoke of our country as a cultural mosaic in contrast to the concept of a melting pot. He valued a Canada that was made up of a multitude of beliefs and traditions that all respected and celebrated each other. We have just voted out a Prime Minister who was all about closed doors, security and control.

    You hit the nail on the head when you said that it is the intention of our actions that is key. I like the intent of showing different ways of thinking and different ways of thinking through a single problem. The balance also needs to be between giving enough repetition of a routine or protocol that students can use a way of thinking authentically, but not so much, as you say, that thinking stops or that students come to believe that there is only one way of thinking about something.

    As always, thank you for pushing my thinking on this, Leslie!

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