In an old behavioral psychology study that remains relevant today, scientists placed a canine in a 30′ X 30′ foot room. The floor was covered by 3’ square electrified panels. The scientists delivered small electrical charges at random intervals to each of the thirty panels, and for six hours Man’s Best Friend dutifully rose and moved to another panel after each shock.
Merely six hours later, the “subject” recognized the inevitability of the punishment and realized the futility of moving to avoid the discomfort. The old dog had learned a new trick: lay still, and passively accept the random charges whenever the shock occurred.
In 1986, a professor of Cognitive Psychology asked a room full of soon-to-be-teachers what this behavioral study meant to us. The consensus in the room was that the dog represented children in the classroom, and that teachers need to avoid the “pain” of negative feedback as a behavior modifier or children would eventually just shut down and accept the shocks. Most of us resolved to work on providing positive and dignifying feedback for children during instruction as frequently as possible.
Teachers need children to be willing to “move” with them toward cognition. The emotional pressure cooker that exists in the modern classroom would sometimes offer challenges to the resolution to be “kind” for those of us with a tendency toward “tough love”.
Now, the end of my teaching career is approaching at blinding speed. Perspectives do change with time. Today, for me, professional educators have become the test subjects, and “burnout“, although still surprisingly infrequent, is the logical extension of a prolonged negative feedback loop.
Simply to survive in the modern classroom entails some coping mechanism for all the thousand different shocks to which teachers are heir.
Teachers are subjected to unforgivably long hours, marginal compensation and lack of professional respect, lack of autonomy, inadequate facilities, scarce material resources. Parental support, recently listed as the single most important driver for academic achievement, is too frequently in short supply. All of these conditions, together, can eventually drive a classroom teacher to adopt an attitude of complacency.
However, throw in business-model accountability standards, top-down policy-making, negative portrayal in the media, attacks on collective-bargaining from the far right, the occasional bullying supervisor in the workplace, too many students held to too few behavioral standards, and yes, that new passing fancy of an exciting instructional model barely arouses a yawn at the bi-weekly faculty meeting.
Are there any hopeful signs on the horizon? It appears that many of the twenty-something Teach for America candidates are starting to grouse in the union hall about their exploitation as a labor force after just a few years in the classroom. One such young man called to ask a question a while back, “Can they really expect me to do this much work?” Much to the chagrin of the “No Excuses” sect, we can be sure.
[The original version of this Commentary first appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on November 07, 2013. It has been slightly edited. ]