Unintended consquences

“But heaven hath pleased it so, to punish me with this and this with me . . .” – Hamlet

We are often loathe to admit that we employ rewards and punishments; perhaps because to do so might suggest that we are calculating and manipulative. However, by not facing up to this reality, we also lose the opportunity to consciously manage – and improve – our effective use of this process. Instead, the careless use of rewards and punishments in schools has given behaviour analysis, rather than the sloppy practitioners, a bad name.

There is good reason to be careful. Both rewards and punishments can have unintended consequences, which can defeat the very goals we are trying to achieve. Rewards, technically known as reinforcers, are consequences which are likely to increase the probability of a behaviour in the future. Conversely, punishers are consequences which reduce the probability of a behaviour.

If a reward is too powerful, it will distract students from the very goal that we want them to achieve. In real life, it looks like this: it’s Friday afternoon, it’s cold and wet outside. I have a classroom of restless teenagers and I just want to get to the end of the week. I have a great idea at lunchtime: if they are focussed for the first half of the lesson, I’ll let them watch a DVD in the second half! Educational, of course, related to the curriculum – but I am banking on the hypnotic effect of the moving images to keep them quiet for half an hour. Buoyed by the prospect, I present the offer to the class. At first they seem enthusiastic, but within a few moments the whole plan is unravelling.

“Sir, what’s the DVD? What, that one? No, I’ve seen that! No, sir, can we watch Night of the Alien Zombie Vampires?” The other participants begin to fire at will.

“That’s dumb! What about Squelch? Have you got that sir?”

“No, I’ve seen that – it sucks!”

“What would you know? You’re too scared to watch Sesame Street!”

By now no one is remotely interested in the lesson. They have been distracted because the reward, or reinforcer, was too powerful for the purpose I needed. I made a hasty decision for the wrong reasons and it backfired. Now, to get the lesson back on track, I have to withdraw the promised reward.

“I’m afraid that this is going on far too long. If you don’t settle to work in 30 seconds we won’t have a film.” We both know they won’t. I am left to get through the whole lesson with a group of sulking teenagers who think I went back on my word  – and that I have really bad taste in movies.

Punishments are even more problematic. Punishments are useful for deterring people from doing things that are harmful to them or to others. But the desire to avoid a punishment can distract us from the things we are supposed to be doing: think of the child who is constantly distracted by the teacher pacing up and down the silent classroom. She is not learning; she is too uncomfortable, even anxious. Punishments can also create resentment and a negative atmosphere. In the example above, the class was punished by withdrawing the offer of the video (which I should never have offered) and as a result the mood descended into a dark and sullen one – exactly the opposite of what I had originally intended. And punishments can have both of these effects while having no effect on the target behaviour at all, if delivered too slowly or inconsistently, or if they are not aversive enough in the first place.

This is why detentions, for example, have so little effect on some students. They are delivered long after the original problem behaviour occurred; they allow a student to sit and brood for some time, intensifying the negative emotional effects; and for students with a difficult background, a half hour or an hour sitting in a room is not very aversive anyway – compared to being hit, screamed at, or thrown out of the house. (In fact, for some students, sitting in the same room as a safe, predictable adult is a comparatively pleasant experience and could even be rewarding. Why do your work with everyone else when you can sit with Miss or Sir for an hour after school?)

This is not to say that rewards and punishments are unnecessary – simply that there is much more to be learned about them than the usual teacher training mantra: “behaviourism is cold, unethical and doesn’t explain anything”. So much for the classroom. What about the wider world?

All these problems unfolded on a much wider scale this week with Mr Gove’s announcement regarding multiple entries at GCSE. The obvious issues of unethical behaviour in making the announcement through the press, a month into the academic year, with immediate effect, have been covered at length elsewhere. The impossible situation for school heads has been eloquently articulated by John Thomsett, who understands ethics that it seems Mr Gove may never have heard of. I am not concerned here with the rights and wrongs of multiple entries which were, until 24 September, entirely within the rules.  What I want to suggest is that Mr Gove’s action is like that of the inexperienced teacher who was trying to use a video to manage the class. Things haven’t gone the way he expected, and he has abruptly changed the rules of the game. The result has been a steep decline in mood and a breakdown of trust.

To elaborate: performance league tables act as both punishers and rewards. If a school’s results look good on the league tables, there are both local and systemic rewards. Improving relatively to local schools is likely to make a school more desirable for parents. This will lead to roll expansion or maintenance. It may allow the school more choice over which students it selects. Growth and success enhance school leaders’ prestige, strengthen their negotiating positions over pay, and improve career prospects. These rewards are not inconsiderable – perhaps so potent that they may actually distract school leaders from other educational priorities in order to focus on meeting the league table targets.

Depending on a school’s exam results, the same league tables may act as very powerful punishers. Schools become less desirable. Rolls – and therefore funding – fall. School boards, the DfE, and Ofsted all begin to take a dim view and look more closely. Once they start looking, they are bound to find things to criticise: the complexity of schools makes this inevitable. And once this process begins, pay prospects decline, prestige drops and career prospects dim. Academy takeovers lurk in the wings. In this context, no one should be surprised at the drivenness of some school managers to meet performance targets. Life, at least as they know it, depends on meeting them.

In the midst of all this, the great majority of school leaders continue to feel the genuine concern for their students’ long-term welfare that drove them to become teachers in the first place. Their skill and dexterity in negotiating the increasingly rapid changes in the regulatory environment should therefore be seen in this light; they are trying to balance a very unpleasant set of competing priorities. Failure to meet targets for this year’s cohort will have consequences, not just for the school leaders, but the school itself, including its resources, staffing and the opportunities that it can offer to future cohorts.

Last year saw the “class” of head teachers of 2013 do exactly what they needed to do to meet performance targets. They did this despite lurches in grade boundaries and changes in rules. One of their key strategies was multiple entries, and clearly the success of this strategy rattled Mr Gove – when in fact the incentives that he and his predecessors had put in place had helped to motivate this formerly acceptable behaviour. His response? Apparently, this was not the result he wanted, for, like the teacher with the video, he abruptly changed the rules, even characterising schools’ behaviour as “cheating”. And like the inexperienced teacher, he now has to get through the rest of his term knowing that he has lost the trust and respect of those whom he claims to lead.

Much has been written, or insinuated, about schools “gaming the system”. The truth is that when politicians and public servants set out to determine schools’ behaviour through a complex (and increasingly unpredictable) system of rewards and punishments, it is they who created the “game”. Schools have simply been better at playing that game than its careless designers expected. Mr Gove’s abrupt change to the rules may have unintended consequences.

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3 Responses to Unintended consquences

  1. suecowley says:

    Exactly, when the stakes are so high, and compliance is forced on people through fear of severe sanctions, their values start to slip around. I tried to say the same thing (although I didn’t manage it in such a focused way) here: http://suecowley.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/values/

    The classroom is very useful as a metaphor. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Sue. I agree – compliance through fear is usually destructive – especially when the people concerned are highly motivated already. I hope that perhaps schools can use their collective intelligence, which must be considerable, to create a better, more parent-useful, set of league tables that make the government’s tinkering redundant. Unfortunately the profession is, by and large, so conditioned to be being under the thumb of “accountability measures” that this task may be beyond us.

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