Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Teaching Teachers

Henry D. Schlinger Jr., Director of the Graduate Applied Behavior Analysis Program at Cal State Los Angeles, published a very interesting letter in the June 22, 2013 edition of the Los Angeles Times. His position is that “the main thrust of teacher training programs should be how to teach.” To do so, he proposes that schools of education need to “stop relying on trendy but unscientific “theories” of learning and instead focus on those based on good science, such as behavior analysis.” I can not agree more.

He adds that “when teachers actually teach, behavior problems in the classroom decline.” This is because students need to be active and interactive learners.

So now the question becomes how can behavior analysis accomplish that?

One of the core principles of Applied Behavior Analysis is that behaviors are related to the environment in which they occur. B. F. Skinner, the father of Behavior Analysis, sheds some light:

“The subject is always right” (Skinner, 1948, p 240).

“Control the environment and you will see order in behavior’’ (Skinner, 1967, p. 399)
“The task of a behavior analyst is to discover all the variables of which probability of response is a function.”

Applying this to our subject matter, we can conclude that instead of forcing the kids to fit teachers’ way of teaching, teachers need to be able to change their way of teaching to fit their students’ needs. This couldn’t be more relevant than when talking about special education. Children with special needs do not learn the way we teach, so we need to teach the way they learn. Applied Behavior Analysis is a single-subject design. Each student needs an individualized program. That is the idea of IEP’s (Individual Education Plan).   

As a first step, teachers can have more of an impact by learning the art of motivation and the power of stimulating instructional routines and structure.

The art of motivation: Simply put, this means motivating students to perform non-preferred activities. Good teachers motivate their students when they tell them they can have 10 extra minutes of recess if they finish their work on time, or give them points towards a pizza party or a preferred activity. It is important to note that motivation does not always mean a treat, or a prize. Motivating materials (i.e. arts & crafts, music, computers and tablets loaded with educational software, etc.), topics relevant to kids, and a loving, warm, and passionate approach to teaching are excellent tools. Education does not have to be synonymous with boredom. It should be an amazing experience.

In my opinion it’s time to mainstream the concept that people engage in behaviors because they work, we get or avoid something through our behaviors. When we ask children to do something they don’t want to do, we need to motivate them, so they want to do it. Plain and simple.

So, three words: Motivation, Motivation, Motivation. Let’s get out there and motivate our kids instead of forcing them, or just hoping they will comply.
Under the title “The Power of Structure and Routines”, we published a blog on April 28th, 2013, where we wrote “Structure and routines mean a stimulating, predictable and consistent daily schedule (time-space-people in charge). Lack of predictability and down time increase anxiety, which leads to problematic behaviors.” Predictability is what children need, and it should be implemented in the classroom setting. Keeping them busy is part of all this.

Skinner also pointed out that his main contribution was the measurement of behaviors. Behavior Analysis is a data-based decision making process. We need to be certain, through constant measurement and experimentation, that the program is working and it will continue to work. Data should be the indicator to make decisions to continue an educational program or change it. Sustaining an ineffective instructional program is like knowingly keeping a patient on medication that is not working. Doctors (scientists in general) analyze data and make changes accordingly. Teachers should do the same.
But more than anything good teachers share a crucial feature: passion. They are passionate about their jobs. They wouldn’t change it for anything else. Thus, the system should reward them. Parents should acknowledge and thank them.

As Henry D. Schlinger Jr. put it at the end of his letter, “It’s not rocket science, but judged on the basis of how rarely it occurs, one would think it is.”

I could not agree more.

Daniel Adatto, BCBA

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