Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…

The Barking Seal Effect

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For a recent university assignment we were asked to reflect upon our professional experience. We were asked to approach the task by formulating a critical incident (Tripp, 1993). A critical incident need not be a traumatic or dramatic event, in fact, critical incidents might initially be quite trivial, seemingly benign events. What makes such events critical is the teacher or practitioner’s critique of the event and how this critique informs and directs their approach to their practice in future.

What follows is my (currently developing) response to the task, and it’s quite long so I’ll shut up and post it.

If you conduct a simple Google search for ‘The Barking Seal Effect’, you won’t find any peer reviewed scholarly articles from reputable academic journals with high impact factors. You won’t find any studies on how seals in amusement parks the world over have ‘learned helplessness’ and depression from being kept in captivity, or chronic fatigue syndrome and hoarseness of the throat from being over-worked, barking at tourists all day. You will however find links to where you can download sound bites of barking seals and sea lions to include in your mixes, health articles on ‘Barking Cough’ in adults, a massively boring blog called ‘The Barking Seal’, and quite probably some funny YouTube clips.

That’s not particularly surprising, because as far as I am aware and to the extent that my motivation allows, I haven’t learned whether ‘The Barking Seal Effect’ exists as either an academic or colloquial term. But it’s a term that I’d like to introduce and discuss in relation to my first placement as a pre-service primary school teacher.

Before I begin my blathering (which I hope to keep minimal) about behavioural management and school-wide/classroom routines and environments, it’s probably prudent to explain what I’m going on about in relation to seals. That shouldn’t be too complicated; I’ll begin with a scenario.

It was coming to the end of the 3rd week of my placement. I was in front of class with a bunch of fake Australian currency in hand. I explained that we were about to (hopefully) learn about decimals and fractions, and that I would be awarding the aforementioned fake Australian currency to those who most visibly displayed evidence of attentiveness and willingness to engage and contribute throughout the lesson. As I moved from one side of the room to the other, I noticed that one of the students sat up, cross-legged, back rigidly in place, hands on knees, anticipating reward – like a seal waiting to bark for a fish. That’s ‘The Barking Seal Effect’.

Some might consider this kind of behaviour exemplary. Complete attentiveness. However I reacted differently. I reacted by deciding never to use a fake money operant conditioning type behavioural reward system in my classroom … ever. What framed my decision was not the student’s behaviour, but the kind of reasoning and intent that I believe to have motivated the behaviour. Strictly reward based. Before continuing I feel that I should describe the environment in which I had been placed in greater detail, and some of my emotions and thoughts (particularly concerning behaviour management) as I made my foray into teaching.

I had been placed at a school in a suburb of southwestern Sydney, a massive commute from home, geographically, culturally and demographically. Each morning was like a journey through a wormhole into a community that was quite different, separate, and ultimately interesting in comparison to mine.

I live in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon area of Sydney, where a walk down the street generally involves exposure to somewhat relaxed individuals displaying evidence of varying degrees of free time and narcissism, juxtaposed against overworked Mercedes driving yuppies of significant affluence. I’d leave every morning, travel for two hours, and arrive at a community in which 90+ % of students didn’t speak English as a first language, and seeing a yuppie driving a Mercedes was rare and like, “WTF”?

Behaviour management is a necessary aspect of every school or classroom, and something that we had discussed at university prior to heading out on our placements. It’s not an area in which I envisaged having too much trouble; I’d visited the school for an observation day, observed the class in the lead up to my placement and, after all, I was heading into a 3rd grade classroom full of 8-9 year olds. How scary could that possibly be?

Thankfully my presumptions were confirmed and I had little difficulty with managing student behaviour during my placement. My supervising teacher had set in place a range of strategies and had established a wonderful and respectful, albeit routinised learning environment in her classroom. Win.

There was a jar at the front of the room called the ‘Class Star Jar’ and when the whole class ‘worked’ together well with minimal noise and ‘fussing’, they were rewarded by being able to place a gold star in the jar. The kids responded well to this and delighted in being the one to place the star in the jar. Mentioning the potential of a star being awarded for ‘on task behaviour’ immediately reduced any noise during lessons. The system had tangible outcomes too; students voted at the beginning of each jar as to how they would be rewarded when the jar was full. This typically involved being taken outside of the classroom to play a game of some description. I found it difficult to knock this system; in fact, I liked it – democratically elected rewards encouraging group commitment toward, at the very least, behaving in a sensible fashion for the sake of chaos prevention.

In respect for the reader’s sanity I won’t explain the remaining arrangements in great detail. Suffice it to say that there was a punishment-based system involving progressively worse consequences, which started by moving one’s name from where it was posted adjacent a smiley face☺and posting it next to a ☹, to an eventual lunchtime detention. In my opinion the detention consequence should have been visually represented by a ☠ symbol, but that’s a digression. There was also a table points system whereby the quietly and productively working tables were awarded points.

Each of these systems worked relatively well and were effective in their own characteristic situations, for instance, the name-moving poster system was mainly implemented in response to disruptive or disrespectful behaviour whilst the table points system was brought into play when the worksheets were brought out. However it was the Barking Seal Effect producing fake money system that I decided to never use in my own classroom, for the reasons outlined below.

The aforementioned incident occurred during math groups, which were streamed according to ability and therefore involved students from each year group moving between classes for their math lessons. The student referred to was visiting from another class in year 3, joining the class for math. He’d routinely come to class, sit at the same desk, next to two of his peers with whom he would become increasingly disruptive if given the chance, unless of course I wielded the magical money. If obedience was the primary outcome then the money was highly effective, however I found it disturbing.

It disturbed me because I’m not so sure that this particular student was behaving out of respect for his fellow students or myself. I’m not very confident that his ‘obedience’ would continue if it were isolated from any contingent reward. I’m not comfortable at all speaking about the behaviour of students in terms of obedience, much like I would my dog. I’d be frustrated if one of my children came home and told me about similar conditioning. It is for these reasons that I couldn’t use that system in any of my future classes.

For me it reduced what should have been thoughtful, considerate, respectful behaviour to something akin to a transaction whereby a performance was carried out in anticipation of reward. In my opinion this type of system does little, if anything, to foster a culture of mutual respect between student and teacher or student and student. Instead I believe it has the potential to promote a dubious value system in which people decide to listen to one another only insomuch as there is ‘something in it for them’.

I don’t know whether or not my supervising teacher noticed the barking seal incident, and I’m unsure of how she would have reacted had I raised my concerns in relation to it. It’s likely that she would have viewed it as evidence of the effectiveness of the monetary reward system. When I arrived in her classroom, prior to teaching any of my lessons, my supervising teacher had encouraged me to ‘lay down the law’ from the outset – to make it clear to the students from the very beginning what was expected from them in terms of behaviour.

She told me of her experiences teaching kindergarten over two years, that she had struggled with behaviour management significantly and that she had developed her classroom management systems in response to those struggles. She considered behaviour management highly important and stressed that being firm and assertive was critical. To a certain extent I agree and I have no doubt that all of the management systems that she had established greatly assisted my transition into the classroom. It meant that we could get on with each lesson with minimal disruption; over the entire course of my placement I had no need to use my ‘angry teacher voice’.

That’s great, however whilst appropriate classroom behaviour is imperative, I consider the underlying moral code to such behaviour more important. Student-teacher interactions should not be considered transactions; the classroom should not resemble an obedience factory, or become a behavioural microcosm in which false attentiveness forms the basis of some sadistic economy. The student-teacher relationship is human and is therefore accompanied by values and attitudes, emotional consequences.

When I look at my future students I don’t want to see wide-eyed, straight-backed, cross-legged robots waiting for dole. I’d like to see acknowledgement of shared existence and purpose, respect and support. I’d like to see a confidence in them that they could share their thoughts and concerns with their peers, myself included. I’d like to see humans, not seals.

I’m not suggesting that my placement class encouraged anything other than what I just mentioned, I’m merely suggesting that operant conditioning type fake money behavioural reward systems may undermine such development, and in doing so, affirming my decision not to use them.

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One thought on “The Barking Seal Effect

  1. Pingback: Lessons from the bowl: bringing skate culture to the classroom. | Lee Hewes

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