Behaviorism (or not): Theories on Thursday

Ready to shake up the theory of Behaviorism?  There are many people who are associated with behaviorism including Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson, the infamous Skinner and most public school teachers & parents.  The list of behaviorists could go on to another post (but, I have some mommy-esque things to do shortly).  Behaviorism at its core is all about consequences - which includes punishment and reinforcers.  The basic idea is if we (educators, parents, leaders, etc), control those consequences, we can affect behaviors.  Thus, if I tell a student they can use the beloved Internet when they have completed their writing assignment, I am, in most cases, rewarded a job completed - finishing their writing- and most likely extrinsically encouraging a student to complete their writing as soon as possible.

The challenge with behaviorism, most times, is it is over-used.  Instead of a student relishing in the art of writing, the student may rush through the process to get to the beloved Internet  - the carrot waved in front of them.  Alfie Kohn, another favorite writer of mine, calls these "carrots and sticks."  Click here for a good interview with Kohn.  Carrots are the rewards placed in front of you.  Sticks the punishments.  In education (and life) we do this to humans all the time - wave things in front of them.  "Do this and you'll get this."  Or, "Do this or this will happen to you."  For many humans, it's no longer the journey, but the destination and the rewards (or avoidance of punishment) that is driving behaviors.

I liken this faux journey to being on a road-trip across Europe and only caring about where you will land that evening.  What about the gorgeous landscapes you drove by that day?  The kind people you met at the cafe along the way?  What about the seaside walk you took mid-day?  How about the wines you sampled from a local vineyard?  Isn't that as meaningful as the destination that evening?

Of course it is.   The journey is often times more richer than the destination. 

So, what to do then?  How do you not wave carrots, sticks, stickers, points, grades and "good jobs" in front of students?  How do you give students feedback minus the carrots and sticks?  Parents, your ears should perk up, too.

Today's ideas are part of a two part series.  Part I today; Part II next Wednesday, February 23rd.  Giving feedback sans reward or punishment.  Thankfully, it is relatively simple to do - it just takes some getting used to.....Here are three responses to try when students (or children) are along the journey or have arrived at the destination AND you want to offer feedback to them.  These are borrowed from the amazing Alfie Kohn.

Response 1:
Say nothing.  I know this one may sound foreign to you.  Believe me, I have to literally bite my tongue all the time.  When little O landed a jump this last ski trip, instead of showering her with "good jobs," I just bite my tongue.  The humongous smile on her fast said it all; she knew she was on "ski" fire that day.   A "good job" would have belittled her personal accomplishment. Could you try saying nothing to students?

Response 2:
Be descriptive, but not judgemental.  In the story above, I could have said something descriptive to little O, "I saw you land that jump."  OR "You seemed to float in the air."  No judgement, no "good jobs."  Just describe what you saw, read or heard.

Response 3: - my favorite & best response
Ask reflective questions.  For example, I could have asked little O, "What was your secret in landing that jump?"  OR "How do you feel about landing your jump?" OR "What will you do next time to improve your jump?"  Response #3 comes easy to educators, I believe.  We are used to encouraging reflection in our classrooms. 

For the next week, try embracing the three responses above (or one or two of them). On February 23rd, check back for other (favorite) feedback ideas for you - more tools for your toolbox, yes?

Bye, bye carrots and sticks,


  1. This is my favorite topic so far! I can completely relate to dangling the carrot many times as both a teacher and a parent. Most recently as a parent I've been consciously choosing to restate successes- "You just finished putting all of the puzzle pieces together!" It is really hard for me to not add on, "Nice job!" I definitely will try to add on, "How did completing that puzzle make you fee?" Great topic, Jen!

  2. Bree - I think your wording is perfect, "Restate successes." That's a lovely way to think about offering feedback vs. judgement.


  3. Jen, I love this post! It has been sometime since my human growth and development class back in college, but it's awesome to read of a method to encourage young people through restated successes. I was a volunteer teacher and work with teens so this would be a great way for them to evaluate their own accomplishments and another way for them to develop a healthy self esteem. Thanks for giving me some food for thought and sharing. Can't wait to read next week's post on the 23rd!

  4. K - Thank you for your comment. I agree, the three responses would be helpful to use with teens and yes, building self-esteem?! I'm all about it.

    See you virtually on Feb. 23rd, if not before.


  5. Jen--

    Thanks for this post! in my educational training they have tried to steer us away from praise--Deja didn't do a great job on her essay, she was "creative"...i think so often i am busy trying to find engaging things that I know my kids want to do in order to motivate them to finish up their classwork, but i think that intrinsic motivation is something i really want to foster in my students, and these ideas are a great start! thanks for the ideas--im excited to start using them on tuesday

  6. Keenan - Thank you for your comment. Intrinsic motivation and behaviorism usually do not play well together which is why I like the three responses above, plus some other ideas coming next week. You might also read Daniel Pink's book, Drive. It is filled with help on fostering intrinsic motivation.


  7. Jen,
    Kristen sent me here and I'm glad she did. Great post - I've been thinking about this so much after talking with Ashley Merryman who says never to reward with anything but praise - when praise is limited. I'm totally sucking at this but trying to be way more intentional with my praise. Eventually, I will get there I hope. I'm still not convinced I can motivate without rewards. But, I'm going to give it a go.

    Happy to meet you! I'm at where I wrote about Kristen and her classroom. (Me, bowing before the master teacher.) Love her for many reasons, but worship her skills teaching.

    Take care,


  8. Melissa - I just visited Imagination Soup. What a fantastic name and you offer so much on your website and in person, it seems. I am not shocked you are based in Colorado....home of beautiful mountains and innovative people AND awesome educators, like Kristen.

    Come visit again! I will do the same.


  9. I have had a REALLY hard time with this one, not only have I been throwing "Good Jobs" out there like there is no tomorrow, but I am a sticker maniac. I tried using all three but number one was not working for me. You have heard me in class, it's hard for me to bite my tongue, I'm a captain. I do love the idea of asking what they did differently, as you did in the third one. I have trying different extrinsic motivation, such as writing a free paper after instead of the one with a rubric, and also autonomous time. Still playing around with it thought.
    Stuck on "Good Jobs"- Lucy A. :)

  10. It's crazy how conditioned we are to the carrots and sticks. I'm really working on implementing the "I noticed" in the classroom but I totally struggle with it at home. As the parent of a guy with some attention and processing issues, who is not at all internally motivated to do anything other than play with toys, I find all I can resort to is carrots and sticks. If for nothing other than peace in my home.

    Meredith L.

  11. I will stop myself from saying "Good Job on this post, Jen!" and instead I will say "This post makes so much sense, How does it feel to be such a great model teacher?" :)

    I love this idea and can't wait to dive into more Alfie Kohn. I have found that I have "good jobbed" my daughter to the extreme and now that im trying to stop - she is the one 'Good Jobbing' me! I love how these reflection questions and observations bring a fuller conversation than just the typical 'good job' and move along.
    I found that in my fieldwork the students were good jobbed, stickered, stamped, and even given marbles for good behavior. Seems like they could use more Alfie!

    Emillee C.

  12. I used these ideas with a student while I was doing my fieldwork in a special education classroom. I was modelling how to add fractions; he had a little bit of trouble at first (he kept flipping the numerator and denominator). I offered him a bit more explanation and then he got it! I told him, "You did it. I knew you could do it!" He gave me a high-five and a giant smile, and exclaimed "I did it!" No 'great job' from me could have possibly matched how great this student felt about himself at that moment! I am now trying very hard to use this type of feedback with my own kids!

    Kim Edillon

  13. I think that Alfie Kohn’s responses are great. As a new teacher, I hope to incorporate his responses into my classroom on day one. However, I do believe it will be difficult to not shoot-out a “Good Job.” I wonder how the students will view me as a teacher when I use this approach, especially if they are used to other teachers using carrots and sticks.

    Patricia L.

  14. I'm so used to praise and doing things the old way. Trying this approach was really hard for me. I must say however, it does work. I'm noticing the children at workstudy are happier and no longer have to run to me to make sure they're doing a good job. They take responsibility for what they do and are so proud when they show me their creations. Now if only I can get used to saying "good job". People often say my facial expressions tell it all. At least now I don't have to give that crazy smile when the job is not so good.

  15. This is hard!!! I have a "good job" schema!! Breaking your schemata is very difficult. But, I am slowly changing. My most recent one was "Oh yeaaaaah!" with a high five, to which my 12 year old laughed at me and said "mom, you are crazy" But thats ok!! I could see her quiet pride in her work but I still think there are times where good job may be ok-there just needs to be more added into the statement. "you did great focusing on this, now tell me about why you chose..." Whenever I use "tell me why" or "its interesting how.." both my fieldwork students and my own daughter felt like I was judging and that I didn't like it, but prefaced with "this is great" or "good job", they were very quick to discuss their work.

  16. Hurrah for Jen!

    I totally agree with you as per the holding back on the behavioristics responses to the Mighty O.

    Here's why:

    Linguistic thematization of a child's performance is often ITSELF a performative act on behalf of the teacher/parent. Sometimes the wee person just needs enough "room" and/or freedom from the sometimes embarrassing onus of the "GOOD GIRL!!"--which draws undue (sometimes) attention to the child's acts.

    Psychologically, the more introverted (Jung) of us tend to cringe when attention is brought to even positive accomplishments. Sometimes we just have to gauge and wait...

    John H

  17. Hurrah for Jen (part 2)


    Consider if the continental philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer was correct: as far as communication goes, we must consider "The conversation that we ARE."


    This means that communication is an ONTOLOGICAL commitment. Words carry power, and so we as educators must watch what we say. When we speak, we ACT.

    John H

  18. Intrinsic motivation a la Pink

    If Pink is right, then everything we learn must inevitably arise from a self-regulated impetus that is wholly internalized.

    The learner is ultimately the sole arbiter and owner of every act of learning.

    Learning is self-proprietary on behalf of the learner; every bit of knowledge a portion of owenership.

    John H

  19. Chomsky on the March

    BTW, Ladies (and 2 gents)

    Chomsky blasted behaviorism in terms of linguistics and psychology in the early 1950s. He did a scathing review of Skinner's "Verbal Behavior" by defeating the S-> R model in lieu of the then-nascent theory of generative grammar.

    Basically, Skinner held that linguistic behavior was due to repetition as opposed to computation. If, as Skinner held, the human mind merely repeated phrases that others said, then no new utterances could ever take place. We would literally have to wait for another person to talk before any novel utterances would occur.

    We would all be waiting zombie-like before we could say anything.

    Generative grammar is based loosely on the "infinite creativity from finite means." principle. We make endless combinations of finite utterances based on the formulation of phrase structure OF the lexicon, which formally maps into larger 'chunks' of grammatical data.

    We talk by rearranging.

    Ask Jen about Olive.


    John H (linguist and philosopher for the masses)

  20. I think positive reinforcement is a good thing but if you do not over due it. I think that if you give a student too much positive feedback then it can make the student become too confident or think too highly of themselves or in other words, conceded. However, I do think that students deserve encouraging words because it will help them strive more. Hard work is earned. This does not mean you cannot recognize someone in other ways but it can't be handed to you on a silver platter otherwise expectations are all over the charts. I think that students with disabilities always need reinforcement because they need to feel as though they are doing good and accomplishing high goals.

    Joy W.