Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Making Black Sheep: The Group Consequence Fallacy

One evening Cliff delivered popcorn to Maggie, who had stayed home from school with a cold that day. Her first grade teacher had sent the treat. She cried.

It took a while to understand her distress, but the popcorn signified a special reward party that she'd missed.

The teacher kept a set of tally marks on the board to measure good and bad student actions in the class. Good things received checkmarks. Bad things meant checkmarks were erased. When the class achieved the designated number of plusses, they got a popcorn party. On the day of Maggie's absence, the long-awaited event was held.

She missed the reward. Receiving stale popcorn in isolation was hardly the same experience.

Cliff was dismayed by such a public checks and balances system because he knew the hazards. Misbehavior was called out, embarrassing the guilty child. Well-behaved classmates were "punished" for the infractions of others because the checkmarks they had worked to earn were erased. Over time, it's typically repeat offenders who are continually guilty of lost points. Consequently, they are resented by the other children. They become the black sheep.

This kind of group consequencing makes the other children responsible for monitoring and mentoring their impulsive classmates, never an effective idea. How often in life does the disorganized child turn in his homework on time because he wants the others to be rewarded? When does a mean child hold back a cruel comment, knowing a handful of popcorn hangs in the balance?

In group consequencing, the teacher's hands are clean because children are expected to do the controlling and reforming. The misbehaved are supposed to be magically transformed or humiliated into modeling the better choices of others.

Who is the paid professional in the classroom anyway?

Because Cliff was the middle school principal, he spoke with the lower school principal about the matter. She admitted she was aware of the situation and had mentioned it, but he continued his program. She urged Cliff to see if he could make any progress since his own daughter had been punished by the reward system.

In his most thoughtful manner, Cliff, who knows every last thing about developmental behavior and how to build a cohesive classroom community, explained the dark side of blackboard tally marks. He  discussed the negative self-images that develop from public shaming. He illustrated the benefits of working one-on-one with problematic children to turn their attitudes around privately. He detailed ways to help children contribute positively to a group. He talked about the power of getting the parents onboard to change inappropriate steps they might be taking at home.

Change doesn't happen overnight, but it takes the burden off classmates who are truly helpless. Left to their own devices, Cliff explained how damaging underground student retaliation could become--with no one winning and someone getting hurt.

Maggie's first grade teacher didn't argue or ask questions. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said, "The system works for me."

When Cliff reported his results, the lower school principal shrugged her shoulders, too.

People discuss education constantly--academic excellence, teacher unions, standardized tests. It's a lengthy list.

But none of that matters if schools aren't willing to roll up their sleeves and develop children who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing.

And you can't get there with a popcorn party.

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