I have been conducting a secret experiment in my classroom. My students have been guinea pigs without their knowledge. I’ve had twenty-four 11 year old test subjects, and I didn’t get parental consent. But, today I was called out. One of my students asked a question that cracked my experiment like a small stone smashing into a windshield. And I loved it!
For the past few months, I have been contemplating getting rid of what some would call a “classroom behavior system.” It seems that there is a growing number of educators who consider behavior systems to be detrimental or negative to a classroom culture. Both sides of the argument have merit, and I have been willing to consider all points of view. After much thought, upon returning from winter break, I decided to see what would happen if I ignored my classroom behavior system without telling my students.
Here is how the behavior system works. I have a pocket chart where each student has five colored cards. Each day, students start the day with a blue card. When one of our essential agreements is broken, students flip a card to the back of the pocket, so a green card is showing. When students flip a card, there is a consequence:
GREEN=Warning! Think about your choices.
YELLOW=Use recess time to think about your mistakes.
ORANGE=Student calls parents to report their actions.
RED=Students visits the principal’s office.
When students flip a card, it will stay that color for the remainder of the day.
My rationale for this model was always to hold the students accountable. Not accountable to me, but accountable to our classroom community. In the real-world, if you are not respecting the community’s laws, there is a consequence. There are no sticker charts, no prizes, no pencils for good behavior in the real-world, and there never have been in my classroom. This system doesn’t reward good behavior, and I don’t believe my systems shames those who make bad choices. The color cards are visual reminders for students to make good choices in our classroom community. I always made sure to talk about the situation with each student who had to flip a card.
Daniel Pink’s brilliant book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us completely changed the game with regard to a new working knowledge of how humans are motivated. I have rarely used the “carrot-and-stick method” to motivate the learners in my class. That does not motivate me; therefore I don’t motivate that way. I do agree with Pink that humans have an innate drive for autonomy, mastery and purpose, and I try every day to maintain a classroom culture that centers on these three factors.
I have never viewed my card system as a carrot-and-stick method. It does not say, “Hey kids, be good and I’ll give you a prize.” I don’t consider my card system to be harmful in the classroom. That’s not why I’m abandoning it. That being said, my question is this: Has this behavior system helped cultivate autonomy, mastery and purpose for my students?
“Mr. Jones, do you realized that none of us have had to pull a card since winter break?”
Crack! A stone flies into my windshield. “Yes, I know. Let’s have a chat about that.”
For the next several minutes, I discussed how I had purposely been avoiding the card system. Scanning their wide, confused eyes, I related this to learning how to ride a bicycle. You start out learning with training wheels, which assist you until you’ve reached a strong sense of balance. But, there comes a point when the training wheels must come off, and you have to ride that bicycle without them. You can still balance without them and you’re off on two wheels. By the time I was finished students seemed to understand and agree with me. There wasn’t one verbal protest or disagreeing comment made.
Some students are going to make bad choices. They will make mistakes, and there will surely be consequences. But, I want them to be natural consequences—ones that build autonomy, mastery and purpose. One of my students actually pointed out that the colored cards on the wall are not going to make a difference. “I mean, Mr. Jones, people are not going to stop misbehaving because their card turns into a different color.” Good point! If, and when, there are problems, I will take it up with individual students as issues arise. I’m excited to see how this works. The training wheels are off, and we are gliding down the street looking ahead to what’s next.