Rethinking carrots and sticks

In the 1950s, B. F. Skinner developed an approach to understanding behaviour that became known as ‘behaviourism’. Skinner theorised that human behaviour is the result of the consequence of previous behaviour. If a behaviour leads to punishment or a negative outcome, we are unlikely to repeat it. If a behaviour is rewarded, we are likely to repeat it. Thus, human and animal behaviour, can be controlled and shaped via reward and punishment.

60 years later, some schools are continuing to adopt behaviourist approaches to managing student behaviour. Programs such as PBIS attempt to selectively reward ‘positive’ actions in an attempt to extrinsically reinforce certain behaviours. And, not surprisingly, research shows that they work…if your goal is to coerce certain observable behaviours. Feeding a dog a bone when it fetches a ball will cause a dog to fetch another ball.

The main problem with approaches that focus on observable behaviour is that they force people to focus overly on observable behaviour! Behaviourism is all about what can be seen and measured and it disregards underlying motives, values and character. Unfortunately, countless studies have shown that wellbeing, happiness, community cohesion and long-term prosocial behaviour are directly linked to motives, values and character.

And to make matters worse, dozens of studies have found that intrinsic motivation is undermined and eroded by extrinsic reward. When we ‘pay’ students to be kind or forgiving or courageous, they are actually less likely to be so in the future – especially if the payment is no longer offered.

This is why Positive Education takes a different route. It’s a harder, longer route that focusses on nurturing character, engagement, relationships, meaning, and caring – not because there is some extrinsic reward waiting, but for their own sake. When these virtues become embedded in the hearts and minds of our students, you don’t need carrots and sticks so much anymore.