Operant Conditioning (Previously The Problem With the Education/Industrial Complex)

Well, “a” problem, but I think a lot of the various problems stem from this one.

skinner box

Consider operant conditioning.  As a quick summary, it’s how organisms behavior is modified in response to stimulus.  Behaviors that are associated with a “good” stimulus become more common and behaviors that are associated with a “bad” stimulus become less common.

It worked on rats in B. F, Skinner’s experiments.  It works on people in general (although there are always a few stubborn cusses that will push hard against such conditioning, at least when it’s blatant).  And I submit that it works on institutions.

Now consider that in the context of an educational bureaucracy.  The stimulus is money.  For a long time most of the time the folk who find reasons (however sincerely believed) why they “need” more money were rewarded with more money.  Need computers?  more money.  Need more teachers so we can have smaller classes?  More money. “Need” sports facilities and a coach so we can have a winning football team?  More money.  New textbooks for the latest educational theory to come down the pike?  More money.

And what happens to someone who is frugal and comes in under budget?  There’s a saying about budgets in bureaucracies:  use it or lose it.  Reward is based on coming up with reasons why the kids aren’t learning what they ought (or why the schools should be “teaching” even more things even though they aren’t teaching the basic skills the schools were created for in the first place).  It is not based on how well the kids are actually learning.

For a long time we, as a society, have been rewarding the educational industrial complex for excuses for failure rather than for success.  It doesn’t even require any dishonesty.  People who honestly believe that this is the reason why the kids aren’t learning or that is important enough to take time away from “three ‘r’” work are rewarded.  Folk who say “we need to go back to what works” or “we’re trying to do too much, we need to cut back to basics, get that right, and then think about what’s most important to add without losing those basics”…aren’t.

And the ones who are rewarded end up in positions of power and influence within the education-industrial complex.  It’s the Iron Law of Bureaucracy at a nutshell.

We’ve been rewarding excuses for failure and penalizing success.  As a result we get more excuses for failure and less success.  Exactly the opposite of what we should be doing:  rewarding success and penalizing failure, regardless of what excuses are presented for that failure.

Operant conditioning at work.

One thought on “Operant Conditioning (Previously The Problem With the Education/Industrial Complex)”

  1. And when cuts are made, the bureaucrats are smart enough to make sure that it the core people that get hit, not the useless myrmidons of the apparatchiks. It’s always essentials that get the axe, because they want to spitefully hurt the taxpayers.


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