Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Museums and Educational Style

So, last week my family and I took a day trip to Washington DC to visit monuments and museums. The weather was beautiful, and we visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, and stopped briefly at the Washington Monument and the White House.

Superboy's always liked museums, particularly ones that show how things work. He tends to charm museum guides by walking up to an exhibit and asking them about a dozen questions in a row, varying from the general to the specific, from the concrete to the propositional. His ability to remember and draw on these details later, and to make connections to other systems, is quite remarkable.

These qualities, unfortunately, have led to only mediocre success in his first-grade classroom. His teacher, who describes herself as "strict", has noted to me on several occasions his "behavioral problems" of not immediately following along with the group, or taking too long on tasks. In the first two weeks of school, she told my wife (with my son present) that he may have to be held back or transferred to a learning-disabled class. She's also mentioned that he's talked out of turn sometimes, and that he sometimes gets upset about inconsequential things.

We understand her struggles all too well. Superboy does tend to go from topic to topic as it interests him, and if he's interested in something other than whatever an adult is saying he may not listen. He will sometimes spend a long time doing something silly -- for example, being given a task to color in a row of boxes (a fairly typical first-grade task, apparently) he may choose to use a different color for each, and to carefully color the entire box. This sort of creativity will spill over into all sorts of activities (I've been told he's been scolded for not walking correctly). He also tends to get upset if something isn't exactly perfect -- he'll crumple papers if he gets a single question wrong.

Unfortunately, understanding her struggles and doing something about them are two different things. During the time Superboy's in school, we as parents have no power -- I cannot reinforce behavior that occurs in school directly, just as teachers cannot directly reinforce homework. I cannot punish his silly behaviors in school either. We could make obedience a more generally stressed value in our home, which might help, but to be honest I'm not sure I want to raise a child who's generally obedient. If I want a child to be obedient only in particular situations, such as school, he needs to be reinforced for obedience in those situations. Otherwise, he becomes discomfitingly well-suited to the US Army. So, she complains to me, and I listen somewhat sympathetically, but I figure she wouldn't be receptive to "change your entire approach to teaching and disciplining."

And, she is making mistakes. Some of her punishments involve aspects of humiliation (probably the aspect that's most bothered me, I'd rather she hit him), and she's probably fighting the wrong battles. Her marks of his behavior have gotten steadily worse over the course of the year; I'm not sure if these represent actual worsening behavior or her increasing frustration, but it could be both. Humiliation has never been a good tactic with Superboy, as he'll tend to resent it.

So, my son's practically a poster-child for the sort of loose education that most "fluff" (i.e., constructivist math/whole language) teachers advocate. I know he'd do fine in such a classroom, if run by the right teacher. In spite of this, I don't think that's the right way for most students, I don't think much of the actual curriculum of those philosophies, and I don't think it's structure in general which is the problem, but rather the specific structure of the standard classroom.



Anonymous redkudu said...

I'm not a parent, I'm a high school teacher. I'm very interested in this situation because I have students like Superboy, but I also know a lot of techniques which keep me from getting as frustrated with them and help channel their personalities in other ways. Granted, the redirection techniques that work on high schoolers might not work as well at Superboy's age (I wouldn't know, never taught that age), but as a teacher the idea of humiliation as a curbing tool at this age is very disturbing to me, as are the increasingly bad marks.

Are you concerned that he may be "labeled" because of this teacher's frustrations? Have you considered what you will do in regards to his placement for next year? Has there been any discussion with admin present, or a school counselor? I'm curious because I do intend to be a parent. As a teacher, I know what I would do, but that's because I know the ins and outs of the school.

As a parent, do you feel as though you have any options for next year? Do you feel as though you have any supportive member of the school who can help? Do you have the option to change his class, or to choose his teacher for next year?

6:45 AM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

I strongly encourage you to start looking at 2nd grade teachers for your son. I agree with what Redkudu said about the whole humiliation aspect. It's never right. I don't know if you read my recent post about my youngest, but it took actually pulling him out of his old school, interviewing principals and teachers before we found a good fit for him. The last thing I would want for your child would be to start hating school based on the perceptions of one teacher.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Liz said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams

1. Humiliation has never been a good tactic with Superboy, as he'll tend to resent it. I can't think of any situation in which humiliation is motivational. Humiliation never, ever works. It is always about the humiliator's fear of loss of control, not about the humiliatee. BTW, SuperBoy may be too young to understand this...but Jumper Girl caught the drift in 3rd grade. She learned to chant, "It's not about me, it's about you" under her breath when she was subjected to a "control by humilation" educator...happily not her primary classroom teacher.

2. I've been thinking a lot about "constructivist" vs. ... whatever else. I think it is a delusional model.

An alternative model: think of a serious musician or dancer. The professional pianist and/or the dancer does "drill and kill" every day: scales and finger exercises, ot barre and floor exercises, so that her body is so responsive to her imagination that she has the freedom to improvise.

My stepsons are now 29 and 27. It seems to me that normative behavioral standards expected in 3rd or 4th grade are now being pushed on children in kindergarten or 1st grade.

The "strict" vs. "permissive" idea--another false dichotomy. Teachers who think of themselves as "strict" tend to obsess about control, and lose track of the idea that you gain control by giving it away in small measures.

More later (I hope) -- I have to go exert control over dinner.

8:40 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...


Yes, I'm somewhat worried about him being labeled, though I feel that most people will probably take labels with a bit of a grain of salt, particularly when they come from someone who's prone to making a particular label. She mentioned to me that she has five other boys this year with similar issues (and there are about 20 kids in the class).

I'm having him finish out this school year with her, but will be very careful about next year. I'm planning to approach the administration about his next year teacher, though I'm not entirely sure the best time or method to do this.

Fortunately, his academic progress is fine. His ease of picking up language has kept him at the top in reading and spelling even though English isn't his first language, and his math was at an end-of-third grade level the day he walked into first grade (multiplication/division with negative numbers, multi-digit addition/subtraction, and just starting to touch on real fractions).

4:00 AM  
Blogger Dickey45 said...

Hi Criptic. Have you observed the classroom? I am curious as to whether your son gets any positive reinforcement. Also, what is the ration of negative reinforcement to positive? I count positive as (nice job doing, I like the way you are sitting, good job working on your homework quickly) - specific.

Negative would be "sit down, Johnny" or anything that singles him out and tries to get rid of a behavior.

The ratio should be about 1 negative to 9 positive. If not, the teacher is becoming an punishing reinforcer and this could escalate behaviors. I know I would if I were in his position and I was the quiet mouse.

I had an issue where my son was acting up. I went and observed in 1/2 hour segments for 3 days. I found that he was NEVER given any positive reinforcement and constantly punished, even kept in class during recess - while I was there! Uh, the solution was easy. After adding in some positive reinforcement, his behaviors literally changed over night. We no longer forced him on the bus, he walked into the class every morning without sculking in the hall, he behaviors went WAAAY down.

Just saying...

7:56 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I haven't observed the classroom, due to work constraints. I've been tempted to have my wife go.

However, meeting the teacher leads me to believe the ratio isn't anywhere near 9 to 1. At least, not in favor of reinforcement ;). I disagree with you somewhat on any correction being a punisher -- it probably depends a lot on delivery.

Though, half the time teachers don't know what a punisher is anyway. One of my son's punishments for something (I think for something that makes no sense to punish, like not getting all his books out of his bag quickly enough), was to sit in the school's office for lunch and recess (and to do his schoolwork when finished with lunch). He came home and we asked him how he felt, and he smiled brightly and said, "I had a lot more time to eat lunch today!"

Incidentally, I did do some research on the uses of humiliation in behavior modification (due diligence and all, for being able to argue it's not appropriate). Specifically I was thinking of some of the WWII videos of workers who, if they came in late, would be announced by their colleagues clapping or some such embarrassing event. Most of the research I found, however, involved brainwashing, where one needs to break down the sense of self before rebuilding it with a dependency on the brainwasher. I suspect that's part of why Jumper Girl's strategy was a good one.

And Liz, I've been thinking on the constructivist model too. I might do a post on it, and use it as an excuse to introduce my second son (lying down in the picture).

4:18 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I hope you understand if I refrain from piling on your son's teacher. You strike me as honest, but we are only getting your side of the story. It is certainly possible that your son got a lousy teacher, and THAT is the problem. But she is not participating in this conversation (just like the parents and students that I talk about don't get to participate in my posts) and I want to be as fair to her as I can. That being the case, I'm just going to throw out the idea that it's also possible you could be doing more to encourage your son to do what his teacher wants. But whatever the problem is, I think it would have been good to bring a third party into this--like the principal, a counselor or someone. I do understand that we're late enough in the year where you probably just want to let it go, and I'm glad to hear that your son still seems to be doing well academically despite the problem. I must say I'm not surprised. By the way, do we call him Crypticson?

I really do have a great deal of empathy for you in this situation. Our middle son hit a point when he was in kindergarten where he refused to go to school. My wife had to take him there and sit in class with him, and we ended up taking him to a child psyschologist. So I can understand how you must feel about your son's situation. I remember the extreme concern and worry that we felt. If anyone thinks that our middle son must have been a little wimp, he ended up having a five year professional hockey career, and he is now a third grade teacher who seems to be loved by his students and their parents. Nothin' like a happy ending!

3:37 PM  
Blogger Dickey45 said...

The definition of a "punisher" according to the testing done to become a certified behavior analyst is that it is something applied or taken away in order to DECREASE a behavior. Also see Cooper, Heron, et all book on Behavior Analysis.

Research is pretty solid that punishers, while immediately effective, are not a good long term solution. Plus they often don't teach a replacement behavior. For instance, a kid is constantly calling out answers. Probably wants attention. Only reinforce the child when his/her hand is up. Simplified scenario but there you have it.

I, too, had to take time off of work. My workplace was hostile but I did it anyways. I had my ex do it first but he didn't take data. When I went I took data and was able to pin-point the problem (maybe because of my training but he had the same amount of training in ABA).

6:45 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Exactly my point, Dickey -- it can't be a punisher if 1) you're trying to use it to increase a behavior, or 2) it's non-aversive (2 being a bit circular, since the typical way you know whether it's aversive is in the effect it has on behavior). "Sit down, Johnny" might not be a punisher -- after all, you're trying to increase sitting down, and the words may not be aversive. Being singled out can be aversive, but certainly isn't necessarily so. Some children enjoy being singled out, for any reason (note that this also goes the other way -- for some kids, being singled out is always aversive, even if it's for a "good" reason -- so teachers may be punishing behaviors they want to reinforce when they call on good students). It also cannot be a punisher if it's not given contingent on a behavior. If you apply a "punisher" without a behavior you want to decrease, it's not punishment (of course, that doesn't mean it doesn't have negative effects).

Which means my son being sent to the office for lunch/recess on not doing what the teacher wanted was not punishment. The office was not aversive, and the "punishment" was applied for a failure to respond (so, the idea would have been to increase a behavior, rather than decrease one).

Not reinforcing the calling out behavior in your example would be extinction. It would work, unless he was being reinforced by some source other than the teacher. This is pretty common in classrooms. Teachers can ignore silly antics all they want and kids will still engage in them because of the reinforcement they receive from other kids. I know, your example was extremely simplified -- you just seemed a bit unsure of the state of my academic knowledge on behaviorism, and I just want to assure you that you can generally write without going into basic definitions.

Dennis, it's not my intent to demonize the teacher. I think she's making some mistakes, but I think she generally cares about her students. I don't think she's a lousy teacher overall.

Of course, the problems that affect you with your students' behaviors also affect me with my son. The behavior you generally want is for students to do their work at home. The problem is, you can't reinforce that directly very well, because of the time lag between when they would be performing and when you could reinforce the behavior (which would be next day, earliest). I can't reinforce my son's behavior while he's at school, because I'm not there. Waiting until he's back home means the reinforcement is generalized and not close in time to the behavior.

Perhaps I could toy with the idea of self-reinforcement, though. I'll try that. I haven't seen a lot of research on it, but it might work.

Incidentally, I looked up your son after your post -- looks like a great kid. He's also a trivia answer for one of the best categories of defensemen (plus/minus, whatever that means), so congratulations for that.

I call my first son Superboy for reasons that would convince everyone I was just boasting if I wrote them. I'll think about using "Crypticson" for my second son (it kind of fits, though I would like to find something more perfect).

3:26 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I think you took my comment in the spirit in which it was given, but I still feel compelled to explain myself further. Anyone who has been a teacher for awhile, and especially anyone who has coached, knows what it's like to have stories told about them. I know how I've felt when stories have been told about me, so I try to be very careful whenever I hear stories about other teachers, even if I think the source is pretty reliable. And you are right--you don't get to hear my students' side of the story, so when I tell stories about them, everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt.

And thank you very much for the compliment on my son!

5:33 PM  

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