Yesterday I read the story of a child who against the odds worked his way through the school system from a lad in primary school that misbehaved and was always in trouble in the bottom sets, failing academically, struggling to fit in and always in trouble at home to a young man who in his GCSE years has turned his life around, found a focus, motivation and determination, worked hard, has achieved a place in a grammar school, and is set to achieve a credible set of grades by year 11 finding a love for languages, photography whilst being an affable, sociable and contributing member of society. His story is inspirational in its simplicity. There are no firework scenarios just a dedication to self-awareness and self-improvement and a “plodding on down” “one-day at a time” attitude by the young man in question.
And yet this quiet yet tremendous success goes unrecognized by the system and in particular the school system. At a recent parents evening he was told by his Russian teacher that he was her number 1 student yet at the school prize giving at the end of the school year he was bypassed. When he asked why, he was told she wasn’t in the habit of explaining to every student why they did not receive an attainment award although would on this occasion make an exception but that she felt aggrieved that her professionalism was being questioned by him. She failed to realize that telling him he was her metaphorical number 1, personally encouraging him and facilitating extra tuition as well as earlier stating he would definitely be in the running for such a prize dangled the carrot a little too closely! As a result the carrot became a stick and the Skinnerian principles used by this establishment broke down and failed as their capacity to motivate potentially disabled with one strike!
The Victorian carrot and stick that society still binds itself to as a control mechanism is shown once again as potentially a flawed tool in encouraging worthy behaviour. All too often parents as well as schools fall back on it hoping to instil discipline in an attempt to make children more self-disciplined but ultimately where the carrot and stick prevail so does ‘conditional’ love and control and neither of these will ever lead to nurturing autonomous love, respect and responsibility in children. So why then do we still use it?
The carrot and stick or reward and reinforcement principals were based on the research studies of B F Skinner who was a psychologist back in the 1950’s. Skinner’s studies researched behaviour in animals and extrapolated the findings to humans which as we are now aware are not always viable and yet we continue to apply his work on reward and punishment in terms of carrot and stick to our children every day! An additional problem is what happens when you withdraw the carrot or the stick! As with Pavlov’s dogs from an earlier study extinction will eventually apply and the behaviour that you seek will be disappear unless intrinsically nurtured using other means as well. As such then the carrot and stick discipline has no longevity and other ‘unconditional’ methods based on love and reason hold more water in the longer term.
As for the lad I mentioned earlier, he was not thankfully deterred by the teacher’s comments acting out of different centre entirely but another student might have been. At the end of the day it didn’t matter to him whether his was first, second, third or fourth because he knew that the coveted position was always the one that he achieved because it would always be his personal best and he wasn’t in competition with anyone else! He thankfully hadn’t been bought up to act on conditional external stimuli but many children are. They do as their parents and school teachers want; they wear what they are told to wear, they think what they are told to think and they say what they are told to say because they are rewarded and reinforced for doing so without question. And that could be said to be fine until they get older and then when the doing as someone else does, and the saying and the thinking becomes so engrained, they don’t change but the parents become replaced with their peer group which might not be quite so helpful! The child may not be able then to think for themselves, they may not be able to challenge themselves and may well fall prey to others ideas and the reward and reinforcement will simply be in the control of another – whether it is suitable is open to suggestion.
Parenting (and I would suggest education) then needs an update – we all like to think we parent ‘unconditionally’ but maybe the challenge needs to be to examine exactly what ‘unconditionally’ actually means so that our children too grow up to have a little of the focus, motivation, dedication, determination that the lad in this story had.