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by Bob Sullo
Table of Contents
Most schools and classrooms operate on the reward or punishment model, and use stimulus-response, behavior modification, or assertive discipline techniques. Rooted in 19th-century wisdom, this model is based on the belief that human behavior is the result of environmental factors. Explaining the impetus for great works of art and other spontaneous human behaviors requires us to identify the shortcomings of the reward or punishment model and to reject it as incomplete.
Given that we've spent a century or so believing that external stimuli explain human behavior, teacher training programs typically require educators to learn how to systematically reward and punish students. Many educators thus see themselves as responsible for shaping the behavior of students by extrinsically rewarding them for compliance. Yet ironically, our system of rewarding students for academic achievement devalues the very thing we say we want: learning. We send an alarmingly clear message, even if it is unintended: “If it weren't for the reward we are offering, what we are teaching you would not be worth learning.” In short, a system of education based on rewards and punishment is fundamentally anti-educational.
According to William Powers (1998), developer of perceptual control theory, one of the first articulated theories of internal control,
People control their own experiences. The only way you can truly force them to behave as you wish is through the threat or actuality of overwhelmingly superior physical force—and even that is only a temporary solution. (p. 122)
Fact 1: Young children don't need to be rewarded to learn. . . . Fact 2: At any age rewards are less effective than intrinsic motivation for promoting effective learning. . . . Fact 3: Rewards for learning undermine intrinsic motivation. (pp. 144, 148)
If the learner is doing the task to get the reward, it will be understood, on some level, that the task is inherently undesirable. Forget the use of rewards. . . . Make school meaningful, relevant, and fun. Then you won't have to bribe students. (p. 242)
What happens outside of us has a lot to do with what we choose to do, but the outside event does not cause our behavior. What we get, and all we ever get, from the outside is information; how we choose to act on that information is up to us. (p. 41)
If you believe that human behavior is the result of rewards and punishments, that outside events “make” us do what we do, then you are undoubtedly satisfied with our current educational model. On the other hand, if you believe in free will and personal responsibility, then you must be troubled by the prevailing fascination with rewards, punishment, and the desire to externally control others. If you believe that our accomplishments cannot be explained by enticements laced with the fear of being punished, then internal control psychology will make sense to you. You already sense that we are motivated from the inside out.
As someone who believes in personal responsibility, I reject the notion that I have been shaped by rewards and punishment. External forces have an impact on me, but they don't “shape” me. I accept responsibility for my success and my failure. Freedom, choice, and responsibility are the essence of humanity, and I embrace them fully. I share that with the students, teachers, and parents I work with every day. It is why I have written this book. It is what I believe.
Internal control psychology is based upon the belief that people are internally, not externally, motivated. Powerful instructions that are built into our genetic structure drive our behavior. The outside world, including all rewards and punishment, only provides us with information. It does not make us do anything.
Not surprisingly, students who are subjected to rewards and punishment over an extended period see themselves as “out of control”—people whose success or failure is attributable to forces outside of themselves. They become irresponsible. That children develop a mind-set of irresponsibility should not surprise us when they have repeatedly been told that we will “make” them behave, do their homework, learn the assigned material, and so on. Our reliance on the principles of external control psychology has unwittingly spawned a population alarmingly unwilling to accept personal responsibility and to recognize that our lives are largely a product of the choices we make.
The most comprehensive, fully developed psychology of internal control is William Glasser's (1998) choice theory, a
biological theory that suggests we are born with specific needs that we are genetically instructed to satisfy. All of our behavior represents our best attempt at any moment to satisfy our basic needs or genetic instructions. In addition to the physical need for survival, we have four basic psychological needs that must be satisfied to be emotionally healthy:
The need for belonging or connecting motivates us to develop relationships and cooperate with others. Without the need for belonging and cooperating, we would only strive to be independent. The social, cooperative instruction propels us beyond independence toward interdependence and community. Schools can be environments where students (and staff) satisfy this drive to connect and feel a sense of belonging. Building a spirit of connection and community is essential to creating a need-satisfying school characterized by high achievement.
The need for power is more than just a drive to dominate. Power is gained through competence, achievement, and mastery. Our genetic instruction is to achieve, to master new skills, and to be recognized for our accomplishments. The genetic instruction to be competent and to accomplish is especially important for educators. Knowing we are internally driven to achieve, we can create schools where students and staff gain power and competence in ways that support the educational mission. Even though students are internally motivated to be powerful, they may not know how to achieve power responsibly. One of our jobs as educators is to teach kids how to be powerful in a responsible way. It is particularly important to remain vigilant about bullying and other “power over” behaviors that can destroy a school. When we help students develop responsible ways to increase their personal power by gaining academic competence, they are less likely to seek power in destructive ways.
As humans, we are also motivated to be free, to choose. Having choices is part of what it means to be human and is one reason our species has been able to evolve, adapt, and thrive. Effective teachers help students follow the drive to be free in a way that is respectful of others. Students who perceive themselves as having ample freedom are not constantly driven to satisfy this need. Conversely, students who perceive themselves as having no choices will behave in ways they think will get them the freedom they believe they need. Too often, their behaviors disrupt classrooms, interfere with learning, and are physically harmful. Educators who understand internal control psychology foster environments that provide adequate freedom for students within parameters that are safe, developmentally appropriate, and supportive of learning.
Each time we learn something new we are having fun, another universal human motivator. It is our playfulness and our sense of discovery that allows us to learn as much as we do. Glasser (1990) has stated that fun is the genetic payoff for learning. The intimate connection between fun and learning is particularly important in schools. A joyless classroom never inspires students to do high-quality academic work on a regular basis. Skilled teachers create joyful classrooms that support the highest-quality academic achievement. When teachers and kids are having fun, learning is deeper and stronger, and students maintain the keen desire to learn that characterizes early childhood learning centers.
Our basic needs lead us to create a unique, idealized world that motivates us. While there is a universal need that motivates me to connect and belong, my individuality drives me to connect with this person and to feel a sense of belonging when doing
this activity. As we live our lives, we create an idealized world comprising the people, behaviors, values, and beliefs that are most important to us. In choice theory, this idealized world is called the “quality world,” but regardless of what you call it, it is the source of our motivation. Since the focus of this book is on internal motivation, I will refer to this concept as the internal world. Once students put working hard and learning as much as possible into this world, they will flourish academically.
Everything we place in our internal world relates to one or more of the basic needs: belonging, power, freedom, fun, and survival. It is precisely because this person, activity, belief, or value is need-satisfying that it becomes part of our internal world. Each of us constructs our internal world, and no two individuals, even identical twins, share all of the pictures in their internal world. What we put in our internal world is what we are willing to work for. If we hope to inspire more students to do high-quality work, we need to create learning environments that result in more students putting school, learning, and working hard into their internal world. This occurs when students discover that learning helps them connect, be competent, have choices, and be free, all in an environment that promotes safety and survival.
What we call “reality” is the world we experience, our perceived world. For all intents and purposes, perception is reality. Theoretically, the perceived world can match the real world. However, it usually differs somewhat because information is altered as it journeys from the real world (outside of ourselves) to the world we create in our head, the perceived world.
First, our senses impact information coming from the outside, at least to some degree. Incoming information is altered because of the limitations of our sensory system. We make decisions based upon what we see and hear. If we don't receive the information on a sensory level, it's as though it doesn't exist, at least as far as we're concerned.
Information then passes through what choice theory identifies as our knowledge filter. A natural human function is to make sense of the world. We are meaning-makers, and one way this tendency manifests itself is to understand the world based upon our current knowledge. Nonconsciously, we process incoming information to conform to our pre-existing model of “reality.” Just as early psychologists understood human behavior based on the cause-and-effect reasoning of the Newtonian physics that ruled the day, each of us constructs meaning based on our current knowledge. Sometimes we have accurate pre-existing knowledge and the incoming information is not distorted. Sometimes, however, our “knowledge” is flawed. Skilled teachers assess this routinely by questioning for prior knowledge before introducing new concepts. They know that the learning of their students will be affected by the knowledge they bring to the lesson. We can influence perceptions by adding new information to the knowledge filter. With new, accurate information, our perceptions more closely approximate the “real world.” Effective teachers ensure that their students are equipped with the most accurate knowledge possible so that their perceptions match external reality.
Finally, information passes through what choice theory refers to as our valuing filter. We assign—often nonconsciously—a positive, negative, or neutral value to all incoming information, depending on whether it is need-satisfying to us at that moment. The more strongly we positively or negatively value something, the more likely we are to perceive it differently from how others perceive it. This helps explain a common occurrence: two students (or staff members) can observe something in the “real world” and come away with very different explanations about what they have witnessed, because values impact what they “saw.” Often we assume our own perception is accurate and claim the other person “just doesn't get it.” As one wise person commented to me, however, “I get it all right; I just get it differently
from you.” When a teacher tells the class they are about to transition to a new activity, students create a perception of the upcoming activity based on their existing knowledge and their current values. The single, objective “reality” of that activity becomes multiple “realities” once it is announced to a classroom full of students. Educators who understand internal control psychology understand that “reality” is more complicated than it first appears.
In summation, we take information in through our senses, understand it based on our knowledge, and evaluate it against our personal values. We actively construct perceptions that we believe are congruent with what exists in the “real world.” Whether they accurately reflect reality or not is essentially irrelevant. We live our lives based upon the perceptions we develop.
At every moment our brains are comparing two perceptions: the internal picture of how we would like the world to be at that moment, and our perception of what is real at that moment. As we compare, we automatically evaluate how closely the two perceptions match. If the two are reasonably similar, our internal scales are balanced and our life is need-satisfying, at least for the moment. On the other hand, if the two perceptions are sufficiently different from one another, our internal scales are tipped and we get a signal telling us something is wrong.
Imagine you are a math teacher introducing a new concept to your students. You are at the front of the room, illustrating an important point. All teachers have a picture of what a class
should look like at times like this. Typically, you would want your students to be attentive, to be engaged by the lesson, and to demonstrate that they are beginning to understand the concept you are presenting. As you observe the class, your perception of what is going on closely matches your internal picture. Your scales are balanced. You get a positive signal and you continue to present the material in much the same way. If, however, your perception of the class is substantially different from the internal picture you have, your scales will be tipped. You will get a negative signal, and you will change your approach.
This “comparing place” is where self-evaluation takes place as we determine if what we are doing is working well enough for us to be satisfied. I change my behavior only when I come to the conclusion that the world I perceive is substantially different from the world I want. The internal signal we get indicating that our scales are in balance or out of balance drives our behavior. In classrooms that use the concepts of internal control psychology, students are taught to consciously and regularly self- evaluate. When things are going well, it's important for students to become consciously aware of what they are doing so they can maintain their success. When things are going poorly, it's advantageous to take corrective action before the internal scales are terribly out of balance. It is always easier to make change when the scales are only slightly tipped and we feel resourceful. If we wait until there is a major discrepancy between what we want and what we perceive, we are more desperate and risk engaging in counterproductive behavior “just to do something different.” Having students consciously and regularly self-evaluate is one characteristic of a classroom utilizing internal control psychology.
The subject of behavior has been studied in great detail by Glasser (1998). One of his major contributions to psychology relates to the understanding of what he calls “total behavior.” Behavior is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling, and physiology. Change any component of total behavior, and the other components change as well.
All behavior, even behavior we don't understand, is purposeful. That doesn't mean it is responsible or effective. It simply means that behavior serves a function. The purpose of behavior is to feel better by keeping our internal scales in balance. We have little direct control of our feelings. It's hard to feel better just because we want to. However, we almost always have some control over our acting and thinking, two other components of total behavior. When we change our acting or thinking, we are changing our total behavior, and our feelings and physiology change as well. Practitioners of choice theory generally focus on acting and thinking because those are the components of total behavior that we can consciously change with the greatest ease. It is not always easy to change our acting and thinking, but it is almost always easier than trying to change our feelings and physiology directly. Knowing about total behavior gives educators a way to help students change their behavior more easily, abandon unhealthy emotional states more quickly, and experience greater academic success.
The concept of total behavior is important and powerful. It invites us to take full responsibility for our lives. Once students discover that their behaviors represent a choice they are making, they are free to make more effective, responsible choices. And once they discover that they will feel better when they act differently, they have a process that facilitates change. The concept of total behavior does not apply exclusively to our students—it's about us, too. The next time you experience emotional or physiological discomfort, consider the concept of total behavior and engage in actions and thoughts that will provide some relief. It is not enough to talk about responsibility; take responsibility.
Behavior is always purposeful. It is designed to maintain or restore balance so that what I perceive closely approximates what I want. This process of wanting, perceiving, comparing, and acting is never-ending, as we continually strive to satisfy the needs that motivate us: to connect, to be powerful, to be free, to be playful, and to survive.
Internal control psychology in general, and choice theory in particular, provide an accurate model for understanding human behavior. They help us appreciate that human beings are active, not reactive. They teach us that we are internally motivated, not controlled by outside events or stimuli. Internal control psychology refutes external control theory, inaccurately regarded as the “common sense” model of understanding human behavior.
When you apply the ideas of internal control psychology, you create classrooms and schools that are compatible with the fact that humans are motivated from the inside out. You believe “the struggle is not in how to motivate students to learn. The struggle is in creating lessons and classroom environments that focus and attract students' intrinsic motivation; thus, increasing the likelihood students will actively engage in the learning” (Rogers, Ludington, & Graham, 1997, p. 2).
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