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  • Written by Andrew Elliott McBurney
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I wrote this post in one of my graduate courses on curriculum in March 2012, in response to a couple of questions that asked what learning theorists influenced me, and what impact my prefered learning theory would have on my teaching:
Educational psychology is a tumultuous convergence of science and our democratic principles. It is an area I have wrestled with as an educator. I believe the issue at the root of all of it is the idea of motivation. Unlike the first sentence of the chapter* which says “[p]sychology is concerned with the question of how people learn,” for me, it is more than that – it is really a question of why people learn.

1. I have probably been most influenced by Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner – not because I believe in applying theories of classical or operant conditioning into my teaching and classroom management, but because I am so strongly opposed to it at the high school level. Motivating students at the elementary level through conditioning, such as the use of extrinsic rewards and punishments, may be appropriate (I have no practical experience at that level); but at some time, students should be motivated by the intrinsic worth of what is being learned (and, if no intrinsic worth can be identified, perhaps it’s not something that should be taught).

I don’t believe that manipulating behavior through conditioning instills a proper sense of responsibility to others, which is the basis of appropriate behavior, i.e. – why do we not commit crimes? Because of the threat of punishment? Or because it is inherently wrong?

I realize we must maintained a safe, disciplined learning environment, but continuing rewards for appropriate behavior and punishments for misbehavior at some point becomes counterproductive to the effort of fostering a strong sense of ethics in students. For example, when I issue progress reports to students, invariably, many will ask if they will get a “free 100” for returning it signed. I know many teachers do this, but I refuse. Students should take their progress reports home to their parents because their parents are entitled to know how their kids are doing. If a student doesn’t bring it back signed, I call or e-mail the parents to discuss their student’s work.

I know this raises the question, what about recognizing students for their achievements? Although such recognition has an extrinsic element (receiving an award, for instance), I feel that there is something fundamentally intrinsic about it, too. We are social creatures, and have a natural need to be affirmed for our efforts. Somewhere, there is a line between doing (something you ought to do) and achieving (something unique in some way).

As young students grow, their early “achievings” necessarily become simple “doings”. Once an “achieving” becomes a “doing”, the time for a reward is past.

2. I am more positively influenced by Maslow. For me, his theories provide an answer to the question, if I shouldn’t use extrinsic rewards to motivate students, what should I do?

The most valid question a student can ask, even though it is often asked with a tone of annoyance that sets teachers’ teeth on edge, is “Why do we have to learn this?” We may not like this question, but we had better be able to answer it. Again, if no intrinsic worth can be identified, perhaps it’s not something that should be taught.

True motivation for learning something comes from a sense of worth about what one is learning – and it is worth something because we perceive a need to learn it.

When I plan now, I always try to have the “need” be part of the lesson from the outset, so that a student wouldn’t have to ask “why do we have to learn this?” because they would know why, and it would matter to them. (That’s the ideal, of course. Just as with anything else, it takes learning on my part to get better at it.)
*The textbook used was Curriculum: Foundations, Principles, and Issues, 5th ed., by Allan C. Ornstein and Francis P. Hunkins, Allyn & Bacon, 2008.

Postscript: I'm sure anyone reading this who has a degree in psychology will be immediately aware that my degree is not in psychology.  I have only ever had one proper educational psychology class, and that was in the fall of 1994. My opinions are based mostly on my own experience as a teacher.