Friday, December 02, 2011

Freire and Skinner: A Third Time

Both Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and B. F. Skinner, in The Technology of Learning, imbue their texts with the language of particular ideologies, but one can dig through the cant and find real substance.  Again, as I have said, though Freire focuses on the system of education and Skinner on the method, both address the same problems—and motivation is one of them.
Freire, in my view, removes himself from specific classroom motivation to write about a more generalized revolutionary motivation, thereby removing himself from discussion of motivational needs in specifically educational situations.  He couches his discussion in terms of oppressors and oppressed, of power dynamics:
We can legitimately say that in the process of oppression someone oppresses someone else; we cannot say that in the process of revolution someone liberates someone else, nor yet that someone liberates himself, but rather that men in communion liberate each other.  This affirmation is not meant to undervalue the importance of revolutionary leaders but, on the contrary, to emphasize their value.  (Freire 128)
The teacher, in this model, is analogous to the revolutionary leader: the role is important, but it needs to be limited through awareness of the ease of oppression—and of the need for a community of learners as a whole to liberate (or teach) itself.  That community does not lack teachers but uses them—the teacher never acting independently upon the community.
While I tend to agree with Freire, this continues concentration on the leader/teacher and deflects attention from the needs of motivation within the rest of the community (teacher aside).  This is perhaps a more important distinction than it may, at first, seem: There is not always a teacher or leader available, and the community may not be in a position to produce its own.
How, then, does one aid in the motivation of students?  Are there ways of motivation that are not dependent on the leader/teacher?
Perhaps not.  But there are means of creating motivation such that the leader/teacher can drop away—and this is what Skinner attempts to provide.
Freire would likely see Skinner’s method as coercive, but we’ll leave that aside for not—for the Skinner method has certainly been shown to be effective.
At the start of his chapter on motivation, Skinner writes:
There is little point in building more schools, training more teachers, and designing better instructional materials if students will not study.  The truant and dropout are conspicuous problems, but it is the underachiever, the careless and inattentive student, and the student who does just enough to get by who explain why our grade schools, high schools, colleges, and graduate schools are all running far below capacity.  (Skinner 145)
To counteract this, Skinner proposes conscious use of contingencies of reinforcement.  But this is difficult:
Much of what the child is to do in school does not have the form of play, with its naturally reinforcing consequences, nor is there any natural connection with food or a passing grade or a medal.  Such contingencies must be arranged by the teacher, and the arrangement is often defective.  (Skinner 150)
And there is little room, in a classroom situation, for the establishment of personal reinforcers:
The student who knows how to study knows how to amplify immediate consequences so that they prove reinforcing.  He not only knows, he knows that he knows and is reinforced accordingly.  The transition from external reinforcement to the self-generated reinforcement of knowing one knows is often badly handled.  (Skinner 156)
Skinner’s purpose is to show how they can be handled well.
Skinner, in other words, is attempting to use external reinforcement to the point where the reinforcers are internalized, and the student no longer requires the teacher as a motivator.  This is in sharp contrast to Freire, where the very concept of external reinforcers smacks of coercion.  However, the two concepts can work together, for education is a process towards freedom.
More on that next time.

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