Day 25 of Homeschooling in the Middle East – Operant Conditioning and Conformity. Yuck!

Edward’s old school posts a weekly e-newsletter on the school’s website for each grade. They show which children have won prizes e.g. Getting their name into the ‘Book of Stars’ for various things including good behavior and academic achievement. Yuck! From Mary Griffith’s ‘The Unschooling Handbook’ (, “Conventional schools have traditionally been hotbeds of ‘operant conditioning’ – the idea that students will perform better if they have some sort of reward to look forward to. To those who exhibit the proper behavior, schools are great distributors of goodies: gold stars and stickers, grades, certificates…”

“Doesn’t that seem just a bit removed from the actual learning that’s supposed to take place? Isn’t there just a hint there of a belief that learning is not something that any normal individuals would choose to do on their own, for its inherent interest and value?” I AGREE – wholeheartedly!

Griffith discusses one of Alfie Kohn’s theories, “…reward systems focus attention on the awards instead of the original task. The student begins to focus on preserving her grade-point average, concentrating on writing the papers and exams that will give her the highest grades instead of on the content of what she studies. Once she receives the desired grade, what she learned is quickly forgotten in the pursuit of the next test…” When my husband and I were debating homeschooling Edward, one of the main reasons was because we’d forgotten so much of what we’d learned at school, despite doing very well in exams. We felt that our education was largely a waste of time if we couldn’t remember most of what we’d spent hours in the classroom learning! What kind of an education is that?! We hope that by learning at home, in a very different way, the kids will remember most of what they’ve learned for the rest of their life and hopefully recall learning it with pleasure and interest.

Griffiths says that in his book ‘Punished by Rewards…’, Kohn cites research by a man called Edward Desi (with a name like ‘Edward’ I like him already ;)) who wrote a book called ‘Why We  Do What We Do’ and she discusses an experiment where two groups of students are asked to read something. One group was told they would be tested on it, the other group wasn’t told anything. When all the students were tested, the former group scored better on rote memorization, the other had a better understanding of the concepts contained in the material they’d read.  A week later, the researchers came back to them and discovered that the group that had originally expected to be tested had forgotten far more about what they had read than the group who’d just read because they’d been asked to. Can you imagine how much more they’d remember if they’d also been in the mood to read and really enjoyed it?

Kohn’s solution is something called ‘intrinsic motivation’. The problem with this is that it takes time and effort on a teacher’s behalf to find each student’s ‘intrinsic motivation’, although he gives good ideas about what you need to do. I think that most of the time teachers don’t have the time or else, sadly, even the interest to do this. One of Edward’s KG teachers, Kerri, did try to do this with him and it made an enormous difference to his interest in completing a requested task and doing it very well. That absolutely made up my mind that she was a very caring and skilled teacher. But it never happened again!

Looking at this week’s newsletter also reminded me how they regularly write things like, “We are busy rehearsing for the upcoming Year X production! All the classes have had a lot of fun practicing their dances!” This is absolutely typical. We are told everyone had fun when in fact many children may not have, but the way they feel is not just ignored, it’s lied about! Individuals are completely ignored. How the majority feels is how everyone must feel. My son used to HATE doing school productions. These productions epitomize schools’ conformity. Each child is told to wear a very specific costume that must look exactly the same as the rest of the kids in their class and everyone must do exactly what they are told. If you don’t want to do any of this, too bad. You are told that if you are a member of this school you have to be part of the school production and do as you’re told. You don’t even have the possibility of opting out!

I think this is just awful coercion. And teacher who manages these productions can be the biggest bullies in the faculty. Their task is to have 150 or so kids perfectly in step, well, that’s not easy without a bit of bullying. But that’s why it shouldn’t be done at all! What on earth are parents doing letting their children be a part of school systems like this?  When parents watch these productions, why on earth are they looking on with delight, rather than horror, as their children melt into a background of identical penguins, seahorses or whatever it is. You can hardly pick out which child is yours! If you can’t let children be individuals in a school play, don’t do it. Thank goodness, Edward was ill and missed last year’s (I think he made himself ill he was so desperate to avoid it and knew that was the only way to) and we pulled him out of school just before this one and I can’t tell you how delighted he is. All credit to him for not wanting to just be a tiny cog in a ruthless machine.

What do you think?

Don’t feel shy! Please always feel free to post comments on any of the days you read, however old they are. Your views are valuable and it’s always good to have debate. If you’re too busy to comment that day, but enjoyed what you read, please do press the ‘Like’ button at the end of the post. If you would like to make life easier (who doesn’t?!) scroll down the right hand side of the page and click the ‘Follow’ button. Posts will be delivered to your email inbox until such time you may not want them anymore. Commenting, ‘Liking’, Following is much appreciated as it helps encourage more people to read homeschoolinginthemiddleeast! And commenting helps others who may well like to have more ideas or suggestions about the topic concerned. Any comments about Maths teaching is especially appreciated and suggestions about resources warmly welcome, as per the plea in my post Take care. Have a great day and thank you for visiting


About homeschoolingpenny

Hi and welcome! My name is Penny and I used to live in Bahrain but In November 2012 moved to Dubai and now we live in Granada, Spain! If you want to contact me my email is I recommend you start my blog on 'Day 1' but please enjoy whatever you dip into. 23 February 2012 marked the first day of no more school FOREVER for my two kids. Edward, who is nearly 10 had attended a variety of schools since he was very little. Petra, who is now 6, has never gone to school. On this date we decided Edward was never going back to school and Petra never would go to school. We hope to successfully homeschool from this day forward, although we would consider an alternative school as an option- if there was some amazing Sudbury or other really alternative school. Actually, I prefer the term 'home learning' than 'homeschool' because I don't like to think of school coming into our home. In fact, I hope to go further and guide/learn alongside, rather than teach, my kids using the 'unschooling' philosophy to instill a lifelong love of learning in them. We lived in the Middle East and now Spain all of which are very challenging places to home educate. This is an exciting journey that I used to blog about regularly, at first it was on an almost daily basis. Please join me on our travels and I hope we might be able to help each other out along the way. I certainly hope I can be a source of support and comfort and, in time, knowledge to all potential/presently participating homeschoolers/home educators/unschoolers. Good luck to us all! If you want to read about why I started home educating, why I pulled my son out of a 'very good' private school mid-term, how I felt at the very start and how my philosophy has evolved, please start from 'Day 1' of the blog. Please do post comments at the end of any days that you read. Your opinion is valuable and it's great to start up debate amongst other people commenting too, however old the post. Thank you for visiting homeschoolingmiddleeast.
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2 Responses to Day 25 of Homeschooling in the Middle East – Operant Conditioning and Conformity. Yuck!

  1. Michael says:

    I call this phenomena “academic bulimia,” the binge-on-knowledge and purge-on-exam mentality, where no real knowledge is ingested other than some trace amount.

    Assessment is needed in order to ensure concepts are understood and can be properly applied. I might argue objective assessments do a poor job of measuring anything but a persons ability to fill in a small circle with graphite. They are very easy to score and have the added benefit of being able to quickly generate a bunch of statistics. These statistics are then widely used to substantiate or refute educational policy. Yay.

    Subjective assessments would perhaps be far more valid in establishing what, if anything, a person has learned. Who has the time to sit down with 109 students and interview them?

    Thus, knowledge “binge and purge” is the rule of academia – at least at the bachelors level.

  2. shaema imam says:

    At DUNEHA, Dubai and Northern Emirates homeschooling association, they have a yearly show where children can choose to perform, play an intrument, or present a written display. I am looking forward to it! perhaps your kids and a bunch of friends can do that one afternoon? Maybe a play with one of his dress ups?

What do you think? Please do let me know. I would love to hear your opinion!

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