Friday, October 21, 2011

What is PBIS teaching our kids about moral reasoning? (continued)

Under our district’s behavioral rewards program, PBIS, teachers give out token rewards to kids who they “catch” complying with the school’s “expectations” (that is, obeying school rules). Each time a student gets a reward, he or she is entered into a lottery at the end of the week to win a special prize. At our elementary school, for example, the prize might be toy sunglasses, lip gloss, a notebook, some special pencils, candy, or the like. I have many objections to the program; one is that it teaches that the reason to “be good” is to get a material reward -- the most primitive form of moral reasoning, if you’d call it moral reasoning at all.

Recently, at another elementary school in our district, the weekly prize was a pair of tickets to a University of Iowa football game, a prize that might easily have been worth hundreds of dollars. (The tickets had been donated to the school.) Football is big in Iowa City, to put it mildly -- especially among boys. Some of the kids started competing to get behavior rewards like never before. Then, at the end of the week, one student, a kindergartner, won the football tickets. At least one boy was in tears after learning that his week of good behavior didn’t pay off as he had hoped.

If you see a child as nothing but a collection of behaviors, that story might not bother you at all. The prize had exactly its desired effect, after all, in getting kids to comply with school rules. This is precisely how PBIS is supposed to work. Good behavior is up! Office referrals are down! How could anyone complain?

But if you see kids as having minds, and if you care not only about what they do but about why they do it, and if you think that how they understand their world matters, then you might find that story pretty disturbing. On the one hand, I suppose the kids might have learned a valuable lesson about gambling. What they learned about good behavior and moral reasoning, one can only imagine.


Doris said...

Hi, Chris,

There was a story on gambling (addiction) in Iowa in the Gazette a couple of weeks ago.

Here's the link:

The story said that "Iowa currently ranks high among states with gaming opportunities with three state-licensed race-track casinos, 18 state-licensed riverboat casinos, three Native American casinos and the Iowa Lottery."

Maybe you should write in and encourage them to add Iowa public schools to the list . . . .

FedUpMom said...

People who take a strictly behaviorist view of children (that would not include me) usually stress that it's important to be totally consistent. That is, good behavior should always be rewarded and bad behavior should always be punished.

Using a lottery chance as a reward seems to violate their own system. Most kids won't actually get the reward, so all their efforts were in vain. Why would they keep trying? They must be pretty disillusioned.

It's a good argument in favor of teaching kids to do the right thing because it's the right thing, not because it'll be rewarded. We can't be there handing out rewards all the time. Isn't it better to help kids to develop an internal sense of right and wrong?

And don't get me started on the football/baseball in the schools issue. I'm the mother of two daughters who don't give a hoot about either of them.

Doris said...

Hi, FedUpMom,

That's a good point about how the introduction of a "game of chance" would seem to contradict the behaviorist fixation on creating a seamless, completely predictable world of expectations and rewards. Perhaps no less contradictory is the fact that it's pretty common to see "gambling" on the list of behaviors that schools prohibit.

So, students at many PBIS schools are being encouraged to learn strategies for maximizing the number of "Gotcha" tickets they accumulate so that they can increase their odds of winning a prize in a weekly drawing. And the reason they are being taught these strategies is to reduce the number of office referrals for offenses such as gambling.

Chris said...

There isn't much about PBIS that I like, but that weekly lottery is truly the worst part. How anyone could think of that as a good idea mystifies me. It really does seem like they don't care at all about what messages the kids take away from the experience, as long as they get the behavior they want in the meantime. What an impoverished conception of "teaching."