At one point, cobblestones paved Princeton, New Jersey’s Nassau Street, the main drag through the small town. Even as a primary grade student entering the town for the first time, I remember my father’s Buick rattling along a road made for horses not cars. The Princeton of that era had dark streets sparsely lined with street lights but fully lined with moms-and-pops, like Country Mouse and Julia’s Jewelry. Walking around the quiet little town, I would always pass by Hulit’s, a shoe store. Today, Hulit’s is still there, but the town is brightly lit at night, and it’s rather noisy. The store has not changed much, not the family who owns it, or even the shop itself.
One of the salesman chatted with me about the store and the industry. While I risk sounding like a financial advisor who looks at hemlines to predict the year’s stock market, I think reviewing the innovations and development of children’s shoes yields a high level understanding of how the U.S. concept of child development evolved. Until the middle of the 1800s, all shoes, grownup and children’s footwear, did not distinguish left and right. Most toddlers did not wear shoes, because shoes were expensive and the time consuming manual craft of shoemaking yielded very few pairs. Interestingly, there is speculation that the shoemakers who painstakingly made shoes for the affluent knew their products were not good for children, so they purposefully had their own children go barefoot for as long as possible or sew inexpensive cloth versions for their little ones.
In the 1980s, Hulit’s carried a brand called Markell, which was a complete departure from Hulit’s traditional inventory. Children showed up with prescriptions for orthopedic shoes that would actually shape young feet with structures inside the shoe. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hulit’s would process the orders as prescriptions partially paid for by insurance companies, and the manufacturer, Markell, would make shoes according to doctors’ scripts.
Previous to Markell, Hulits carried brands like the well marketed Stride Rite, Mrs. Day’s Baby Shoes, a soft and supple shoe with the motto “The shoe of the baby determines the foot of the adult,” and Elefanten. Elefanten’s moto was “Protecting without propping”. Now they carry brands like Umi, that are also flexible.
What happened in the 1980’s? There is no way to understand what was happening in the greater social context that could have contributed to Markell’s market success. However, there was a book that was written in the 1970s that could have contributed to how U.S. citizens in the 1980s viewed children overall. A book that had such impact, its content wound up in the country’s cultural ethos. A Harvard University psychologist named B.F. Skinner, who studied conditioning, published writings that supported designing children.
… over a century ago some social scientists began to favor the prospect of designing children (Pavlov 1927; Skinner 1938). As the metaphor implies, the internal dynamics and growth processes themselves are taken as an object of manipulation. This is working on the life being shaped, as opposed to working with it. The life is made to fit ends specified by the designer, as opposed to being shaped toward ends that fit it.
In 1971, Skinner published a book entitled Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Skinner believed in creating a happier and more organized society by engineering human behavior. The book refutes the ideas of free will and individual moral autonomy, because he believed those ideas prevent the scientific process of changing behavior. He supported engineering society and culture, and he justified social Darwinism. He supported a superior culture dominating a lesser one.
Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist and advocate for humanity, refuted Skinner. Chomsky wrote this about Skinner’s book.
Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words “freedom” and “dignity” in several odd and idiosyncratic senses. His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure. As to its social implications, Skinner’s science of human behavior, being quite vacuous, is as congenial to the libertarian as to the fascist.
Skinner’s experiments on conditioning integrate into education. His work showed that children would continue to do things if they were given positive feedback, like getting an A or praise. If a child were given negative feedback, like getting a D or reprimand, the child would stop doing the task. Memorization, formally called Rote Learning, is another form of conditioning, like memorizing multiplication tables.
The idea of positive feedback, or what Skinner called “positive reinforcement”, sounds like a pretty nice thing to do, doesn’t it? Studies show that praise can backfire. There is evidence that employees who are given extrinsic motivation were more likely to be late for work. Recently, researchers have found positive reinforncement, also called extrinsic motivators, actually suppresses creativity.
Teresa Amabile, a Director of Research at Harvard Business School, asked people to write two poems. For one poem, some people were given a questionnaire in which they were asked to rank the importance of some reasons for writing. This group was considered to be the intrinsic motivation group (another way to say self-motivated). For the other poem, people did not get a questionnaire with reasons for writing, and they were considered extrinsic motivation group. The researchers judged the creativity of poems, and they found the extrinsic motivation poems to be less creative than the poems with intrinsic motivation.
What are educators suppose to do? Some educators step outside the role of teacher, and allow the students to figure out for themselves what they did right or wrong. Let’s illustrate with 2 stories about Bette and Ethan, both 8 year olds, who completed a word problem correctly in math class.
The question was “There are 13 red bears. There are 3 more red bears than blue bears. How many blue bears are there?”
Ethan solved this problem as a comparison model, a new concept introduced in the Common Core.
He took out 13 red bears and put them in as a column. Then he took out 13 blue bears and put them in a column next to the red bears. Then he took away 3 blue bears.
The teacher sees Ethan is finished. She goes up to him and asks, “What is your answer?”
“10,” Ethan replies.
“How did you get that answer?”
“The question says there are 13 red bears. So I put down 13 red bears.” Ethan points to the column of red bears. “This is a comparison question, so I then put down blue bears. I don’t know how many there are, but I know there are MORE red than blue.”
“So what did you do then?” the teacher asked.
“I put down 13 blue bears,” Ethan said.
“Why did you do that?” the teacher prompted for more information.
“Well…the question says that there are 13 red bears, so I used 13 to start with.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Then I took away 3 blue bears,” Ethan replied
Ethan answered, “The problem says that there are 3 more red bears than blue bears, so that’s just another way of saying there are 3 less blue bears than red bears.”
The teacher said to the student, “Ethan, you explained every step and proved that you have the right answer. You showed that you understand the math.”
The teacher told Bette, “Can you please figure out this problem.”
Bette was not taught the comparison method in the Common Core. She said, “That’s easy, it’s 10.”
“How did you figure out that problem so quickly?”
Bette took out a pencil and wrote on her paper, 13-3 = 10.
“How did you know that the problem is 13 minus 3?”
“Three more red bears is just another way of saying 3 less blue bears.” Betty shrugged.
The teacher said, “You explained your answer very well.”
I have met many teachers who empower students to explore and self-critique. They remove their own authority and give it to the child. They wait for the child to develop and guide them through the process of learning. This dialogue is a fictional conversation based upon actual dialogues I had heard between different teachers and students that caused mixed feelings. While I respect how the teacher give children the ability to explore their own answers, I wished there were more emotional feedback for the child. I wished the teacher could have given the child a more emotional response. Perhaps, it is the behaviorist in me who wanted to give Bette and Ethan a high five.