When embarking on this science of education module, I immediately knew that my first blog would have to be a topic that I am passionate about. Often issues that are of significant interest to people are ones that they have first hand experience of. Therefore, this blog will focus on my own experience of the education system in the UK and why the methods in which educators reinforce and punish behaviour need to be adapted to avoid punishing good behaviour and rewarding bad behaviour.
Before starting secondary school, I was a well behaved and hardworking student. However, in the classroom the teacher’s attention was focused solely on trying to punish bad behaviour, whilst well-behaved students would sit bored at the table; not being given the chance to be taught. Eventually, I became so fed up of the situation that I started to misbehave. For the first time in secondary school I was happy. No longer was I bullied by my fellow students and I was being lavished with attention from teachers instead of being ignored – and all I had to do was misbehave! Luckily I was able to move to a school where good behaviour was reinforced, but there will be many students out there experiencing the same situation who may not be so lucky.
So why did I write this story?
I am not one to rake over past experiences and refrain from bringing in any personal anecdotes in my university work. However, it is this experience that has shaped my view on the problems that students currently face in the education system in the UK. Ultimately, it was my own confidence and need for friends and attention that was the direct cause of my behaviour change. However, there were other fundamental flaws in the education system that arguably had a significant contribution towards this change in behaviour, one being the poor use of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.
Positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment (Skinner, 1953):
Often it happens in schools that in trying to punish bad behaviour, teachers are actually reinforcing it. This is due to the fact that, in shouting at students, they are providing the student with positive reinforcement in the form of attention, so the behaviour is more likely to continue. Secondly, good students are being provided with negative punishment in the form of no attention, so this good behaviour is less likely to occur (Maag, 2001).
This is no criticism on the teachers themselves, who even admit that behaviour management is the main area of teaching in which they would like more training (Maag, 1999). Clearly new ways of using reinforcement in the classroom need to be implemented to reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour, as opposed to the current system whereby good behaviour is punished and bad behaviour is rewarded (Charlton & David, 1993).
Various methods have been researched investigating ways in which positive reinforcement can be used effectively to promote good behaviour. However, there are educators who are against using reinforcement due to the assumption that it is a form of bribery (Kohn, 1993). This is one of the reasons why the education system is failing today: misunderstandings of important techniques with supporting empirical evidence are resulting in the techniques being ignored (Lagermann, 2002).
I will focus on one particularly effective method of using positive reinforcement in education: token economy. O’Leary and Drabman (1971) state that token economy involves informing students of the desired behaviour and giving some form of a token when this behaviour is demonstrated. This token can be exchanged for something of value, for example a prize. This has been shown to be extremely effective in classroom settings, however, it has been noted that teachers need to be trained in the process in order to maintain the reinforcement of the desired behaviour (Kazdin, 1982).
There has been an extensive amount of research supporting token economy, with researchers finding that when the system was implemented, unacceptable behaviour decreased (Filcheck, McNeil, Greco, & Bernard, 2004). Additionally, student participation also increased when tokens were offered that could be exchanged for extra credits (Boniecki & Moore, 2003).
This previous research demonstrates that the use of positive reinforcement is vital in classroom settings, but should be applied with consistency. For example, if one student is awarded a token for helping a teacher set up a classroom, the other student doing the same should also be awarded a token. Indeed, it is important to note that the current education system does use token economy to some degree. However, its use is often inconsistent and can sometimes neglect the positive behaviour demonstrated by students who behave well regardless of behaviour management
It is my hope that methods such as this will be implemented more effectively in the future, thus helping both students who display challenging behaviour and students whose good behaviour is often ignored. Ultimately, this should increase student participation, learning, and, more importantly, their future behaviour in the wider community and overall wellbeing.
Boniecki, K. A., & Moore, S. (2003). Breaking the silence: Using a token economy to reinforce classroom participation. Teaching of Psychology, 30(3), 224-227.
Charlton, T., & David, K. (1993). Managing misbehaviour in schools. London: Routledge.
Kazdin, A. E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 15(3), 431-445. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1982.15-431
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.
Filcheck, H. A., McNeil, C. B., Greco, L. A., & Bernard, R. S. (2004). Using a whole-class token economy and coaching of teacher skills in a preschool classroom to manage disruptive behaviour. Psychology in the Schools, 41(3), 351-361. doi: 10.1002/pits.10168
Lagermann, E. C. (2002). An elusive science: The troubling history of education research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Maag, J. W. (1999). Behaviour management: From theoretical implications to practical applications. San Diego, CA: Singular.
Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 173-186.
O’Leary, D. K., & Drabman, R. (1971). Token reinforcement programs in the classroom: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 75(6), 379-398. doi: 10.1037/h0031311
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behaviour. New York: Macmillan.