Positive Reinforcement Doesn’t Exist in the Real World… Does It?

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By Jennifer Cleary, co-author of Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction

I recently read an article titled Teacher to Parent – Positive reinforcement doesn’t work in the long run. It was written by award-winning teacher Jody Stallings in response to a parent who had expressed frustration because her child was kept in from recess as a punishment for talking during silent reading. The parent questioned why the teacher couldn’t focus more on positive reinforcement to cultivate her son’s love of school, rather than negative consequences that caused him to not want to return.

“Schools shouldn’t prepare kids for a world that doesn’t exist,” Stallings responds, arguing that positive reinforcement doesn’t work because it just doesn’t exist outside of the classroom. He goes on to reference several paradoxical “real world” examples of positive reinforcement contrived from traditional classroom rewards. For example:

  • “You don’t get a bonus check for paying your taxes on time.”
  • “Cops don’t pull you over and hand you a $50 gift certificate for going the speed limit.”
  • “No one throws you a pizza party for not firebombing your neighbors.”

Differing Views of “The Real World”

Over the years, my peers have proudly shared the same sentiment as Stallings. They boast about their favorite and most effective consequences for minor student infractions. I have no doubt that each of these consequences was imparted with the intention of preparing students for “the real world.”

Since our intention in K-12 education is to prepare kids for college and career, I suspect that in most instances the references to “real world” are synonymous with “career.” If this is an accurate assumption, let’s apply that logic to some common consequences:

  • I’ve been in meetings when I have forgotten a writing utensil. I’ve not been asked to leave the meeting or to not participate. I’ve not been forced to use a pen with an embarrassingly identifiable pom-pom to show everyone I forgot mine and had to borrow one. I was simply provided with a pen and the meeting continued.
  • I’ve talked out of turn in a meeting or in a quiet workspace. I’ve never lost my lunch break or been told I can’t go to the gym (my recess); although there are nights I’d gladly welcome that punishment.

This doesn’t mean that in the “real world” we don’t face consequences for infractions such as excessive tardiness, repeatedly low performance, or fighting at work. Consequences are necessary for many of the actions referenced in Stallings’ article, such as robbing a bank, exceeding the speed limit, or firebombing your neighbor. The equivalent K-12 actions would also necessitate negative consequences in the classroom.

Of course our actions as educators in the classroom should prepare our students for the real world. That doesn’t mean we completely do away with positive reinforcements.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but…

In my real world, I encounter negative consequences for the aforementioned actions, but I also benefit positively from my efforts. I don’t imagine I’m the only one.

  • In many companies, when employees work hard and prove their ability to be productive, they are given the opportunity to work remotely when necessary, and when the circumstances allow.
  • Bonuses, raises, and promotions are earned for consistent high-quality work.
  • Awards like Employee of the Month or Top Producer are common.
  • Insurance companies offer rewards and discounts for safe driving.

The list could go on for pages, the debate for ages. The magic word is balance. In the real world, we have a balance of positive and negative reinforcements.

Our mission as teachers is to prepare students for the real world, so our classrooms should be reflections of the real world. Balancing positive and negative reinforcement must be a deliberate practice in the classroom because our students are still learning how to be productive members of the community, both in and out of the classroom.

“Recognition of adherence and lack of adherence to rules and procedures” (consequences) is just one strategy that supports a productive classroom environment and helps to develop successful learners. Check out Jennifer’s book “Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction.”