kitchen table math, the sequel: Enhancing Academic Motivation

Monday, December 17, 2007

Enhancing Academic Motivation

I've just ordered Enhancing Academic Motivation from Research Press thanks to a friend of mine whose child is seeing Dr. Brier. Every word out of Dr. Brier's mouth so far has rung true.

When I discovered that Dr. Brier had published with Research Press, I was sold. Research Press published the two books that shepherded Ed and me through our first years with Jimmy: Gerald Patterson's Living with Children and Wesley Becker's Parents Are Teachers. Both are classics.

Wes Becker worked with Engelmann on Project Follow-Through:

During the Project’s third year, we found out that Carl was leaving to go to Canada and become an investigator for the Ontario Institute for Studies and Education and a professor at the University of Toronto. He invited Valerie and me to join him. Valerie accepted; I tentatively declined.

Carl’s impending departure presented serious problems to the preschool project. The reason was that I was not qualified to head the project. The only degree I had was a BA in philosophy, and the position I held then was Senior Educational Specialist, which did not allow me to administer projects. Neither Jean nor Cookie could assume directorship of the project because they also lacked formal credentials.

The rumors were that the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children would take over the project and change it as soon as Carl left. I later found out that Jean and Carl met with Wesley Becker, a gifted professor in the Department of Psychology. Their goal was to seek his help in preserving the project. I had heard a lot about Wes Becker from my sister-in-law, Geraldine Piorkowski, who earned her PhD at the University of Illinois. Wes was her advisor; from her descriptions of him I assumed he could even run on water. Among other achievements, he had set the all-time track record at Stanford for attaining a PhD, entering as a freshman and taking only six years to earn a PhD in clinical psychology and statistics.

At the time he advised Geraldine, Wes was a cognitivist, but shortly after she received her PhD, he became an energetic exponent of Skinner’s behaviorism, which is based on evidence that behavior may be changed by manipulating positive or negative consequences that follow responses. Wes abandoned his earlier orientation because it lacked data of effectiveness, a signature characteristic of Wes. The professional articles that Wes wrote in the '60s show his change in orientation from 1961 to '67: “Measurement of Severity of Disorder in Schizophrenia by Means of the Holtzman Inkblot Test” (1961); “A Circumflex Model for Social Behavior in Children” (1964); “The Parent Attitude Research Instrument” (1965); “How We Encourage Cheating” (1966); and “The Contingent Use of Teacher Attention and Praise in Reducing Classroom Behavior Problems” (1967).

I had met Becker only once. He had presented to our project staff and graduate students. He summarized his current research, which involved working with teachers in failed classrooms and teaching them techniques for using positive reinforcement with their students. His data showed that even though most teachers had to be instructed in how to give praise, and even though the praise some of them issued sounded contrived and unnatural, it changed students’ behavior. The basic thrust of Wes’s training was, “Catch kids in the act of being good.” His studies were among the first applications of Skinner’s version of behaviorism to humans and school settings.

After the meeting I told him about some of the observations we had made in the preschools. He listened, then asked, “Where’s the data?”

I told him I didn’t have any formal data related to the observations. He smiled and shrugged. The message this gesture conveyed was that if I wanted to demonstrate the validity of my assertions, I needed data.

Jean and Carl had set up their meeting to ask Wes if he would assume the role of director of our project. They didn’t have a chance to ask him, however. As they entered his office, he greeted them, and said, “I know why you’re here, and the answer is yes.”

I count this as one of the more amazing commitments a person could make. The project was embroiled in controversy. The work was demanding. By saying “yes,” Wes made an official break with the fortress of higher learning and moved to the trenches, the gritty realities of working with teachers and kids.

Wes brought some of his graduate and undergraduate students with him. Thirty years later, I still work with three of them: Doug Carnine, a shy undergraduate who had already authored articles that appeared in professional journals; Linda McRoberts, an adventurous and outspoken graduate student who later would become Linda Carnine; and Susan Stearns (now Susan Hanner), only nineteen years old but very smart and industrious.


Wes devoted some of his “free time” to writing the book, Applied Psychology for Teachers, a very ambitious work that covered everything related to effective practices and background information—from behavioral principles to the theoretical underpinnings of effective instruction and how to interpret data on student performance. I believe that Wes considered this book his ultimate achievement, an opus that positioned effective teaching and the analysis of learning in a framework that could be comprehended by undergraduates and that would establish DI as at least a contender in the field of education. The work, positioned as a textbook for undergraduates, was published by SRA in 1986. It was a colossal work—472 pages, in 8 1/2” x 11” format, with 275 references (over 11 pages).

It was another false hope. The book did not sell, was not adopted by more
than a handful of the faithful, and after only a few years, was discontinued by SRA. No other publisher was interested in it. I recently bought a copy of it online. It was in very good condition and cost $4.50.


Goodbye to a Good Guy

Wes and Julie were divorced in1980. Wes continued in his role as associate
dean until 1992, when he became involved in political wars with the College of Education and quit the University. After retiring, he refused to talk about education. On three or four occasions, I tried to discuss the book we had started. I got the same response each time. He said that he would talk about golf or other sports and the stock market, but that was all. He declined to talk about the Association for Direct Instruction, or about anything else related to education. He told me, “That is something from a past life. It’s dead and I have no interest in it.”

In 1993, Wes sold his shares in Engelmann-Becker Corp. and moved from
Eugene to Sedona, Arizona. There was no going-away party or celebration
because he didn’t want one. Just before he left, I asked if there was anything I could do for him. He asked if I would give him a painting I had done of a lion. Yes.

I called him several times in Arizona to see how things were going. Not well. I called him once around noon and he sounded as if he’d been drinking. His leg had gone bad so he couldn’t play golf, and the stock market had not been kind to him. His son David lived with him for a while but left. Wes never remarried and lived alone. A couple of times I asked him when he was coming back to visit us in Eugene. He seemed to entertain the idea but it apparently didn’t make the seriousplanning list. I never saw Wes again after he moved to Arizona.


Wes’ death came as a great shock. I hadn’t been in touch with him for months.
I knew he was getting frequent tests, but I had no idea that he would die at 73. We felt we should do something to honor him and decided to hold a memorial service for him in Eugene. We put a notice in the paper, made many calls, and arranged to hold the service in the church that Wes had attended (the Unitarian Church). A lot of people showed up for the service, including Don Bushell, Wes’ daughter Jill (who is a professor of biopsychology at the University of Michigan), his son David, and his ex wife, Julie (who lived in Florida). We took turns telling Wes stories and feeling sad.

I said, “Those who worked with him were routinely amazed, not only by his
skill, but the speed with which he could do things. Perhaps his most impressive quality, however, was the strength of his will. In the face of terrible setbacks and impossible deadlines, Wes prevailed. If he promised to get something done by a particular time, it was not only done on schedule, but done very well.”

Several others echoed this observation. One researcher who studied under
Wes said something that I had observed many times, the amazing speed at which Wes could identify glitches in raw data or elaborate calculations. About the time I was looking at the first few numbers on a spreadsheet of data, Wes would point to a set of scores in the middle of the display and say something like, “It’s impossible for them to have a correlation of point 9 with these data. These scores account for no more than 5 percent of the variance.” Possibly a minute later, I would see what he meant, but if I’d figured it out on my own, it would probably have taken closer to an hour.

I pointed out that even with the incredible number of things he had to do,
Wes was a good dad (a lot better than I was during the Follow Through years). Wes’ daughter Jill expanded on this theme. She told about some of the nice things he had done and indicated that the only time he lied to her was a couple of months before he died. She had visited him in a hospital in California. The last thing she said before leaving was, “Now, you take care of yourself. I’ll be back in three months.”

He said, “I’ll be fine.”

The clinical causes of Wes’ death had to do with his liver, kidneys and blood
pressure. One of the contributing causes was that he probably drank too much. These may have been the measurable causes, but the psychological cause was that he killed himself. When the establishment rejected Wes and his beliefs in data, he rejected education. To do that, he had to reject a huge part of himself. The image of himself that he had to maintain afterwards was one with many amputated parts, the hollow core that could survive on what had been peripheral interests. When his physical health failed, he had nothing.

The sad part of this equation was that Wes had to reject himself not because
he did anything reprehensible but because the establishment made a mockery of his beliefs and accomplishments. Jill believes that someday he will be recognized for his singular contribution to Follow Through. I hope she’s right, but I can sympathize with Wes. It is not very comforting to know that you can help thousands of kids and teachers, but you lack credibility and have no access to these victims. It hurts to see your professional beliefs trampled by educators who cling desperately to myth and folklore.

A colleague recently showed me a picture from the ‘70s, taken at a “Zignic” (a
picnic at the Veneta property for all our trainers and friends). Six people, including Wes, Bob, and I, were wearing t-shirts with the motto, “Show me the data.” For Wes, it was a way of life.

How is Wes remembered? In 2003, the College of Education at the University of Oregon launched a fund-raising campaign to support construction of a mega-building to house the College. Part of what the planners did was to make up a price list for “dedications.” If you want an office named after somebody, donate $25,000, and the plaque goes up. For a decent-sized classroom, the ticket is about $100,000.

Shortly after the list came out, Doug called me about raising enough money to have a classroom named after Wes. I told him that we shouldn’t have to pay anything. My feeling was that the College should have dedicated an entire wing to Wes, with no donation required. The College didn’t see it that way. Doug is currently trying to negotiate the price of a plaque for both Wes and Bob at the entrance to the Clinical Services Building, which was one of Bob’s projects.

Siegfried Engelmann 2007

Parents Are Teachers table of contents
Living with Children table of contents


Anonymous said...

Not that KTM will mind, but this comment is about the concept "enhancing academic motivation" rather than Wes.

I'm thrilled to see someone who believes this is even possible. I've recently been around a number of folks who seem to think that motivation is all "self" motivation, whatever that means, as if humans aren't motivated by external rewards and punishments.

I had this frightening experience. My child had I were at a toy store, where he was playing trains with another child (the store has several Thomas playsets.) I joked to the other parent how kids always seem to be attracted to each other, even though there's more than enough playsets to go around. The other child's parent started saying how his 4 yr old son wasn't good at playing by himself, wasn't "self motivated". I laughed, and said "my child isn't self motivated. I provide the motivation." But he wasn't listening--he went on to explain that is child, 4 years old, was having trouble in his Montessori preschool, where the children were expected to be "self motivated" and play at separate stations. The preschool teacher, he said, had told him that his son wasn't self motivated enough, and needed to work on that, because his kid wanted to go play with the other kids at the other tables. his son also wasn't immediately sure which table he wanted to play at in the morning, but often wanted to see what other things the other kids were doing first.

he was actually worried. Worried because his 4 year old liked playing with other kids. He was worried because some preschool teacher had told him to be worried. He was telegraphing to his kid that playing with others wasn't appropriate behavior at 4. He and his wife wanted his child to be self motivated, you see. at 4.

If you've already given up on providing your kid motivation at 4, I don't see how you'll recover for the preteen years. If you think it's all supposed to be something they master without your support, encouragement, planning, and work, how in the world will they ever feel motivated toward anything except immediate gratification?

char said...

great site! i will be directing psych students this way

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm thrilled to see someone who believes this is even possible. I've recently been around a number of folks who seem to think that motivation is all "self" motivation, whatever that means, as if humans aren't motivated by external rewards and punishments.

I'm trying to find time to write quick posts about two books that are going to Change My Life (and everyone else's) in 2008: Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog and Self-Directed Behavior by Watson and Tharp.

I majored in psychology in college, relearned behaviorism when Jimmy was diagnosed (with autism), and have written about psychological issues for most of my career....and yet I really hadn't grasped the core principal of self-in-situation.

I think Watson and Tharp may finally have made it click for me.

I have a personal belief in responsibility, which is good morally (and probably socially) but which isn't so good pragmatically.

I've spent years feeling guilty about missteps and failings, resolving to do better, often doing better --- as I say, IMO a personal philosophy of responsibility and guilt is a fine thing.

But I've consistently failed to focus clearly on the "contingencies" that are producing missed book deadlines.

And of course there is far too much strife over math.

Catherine Johnson said...

the preschool teacher, he said, had told him that his son wasn't self motivated enough, and needed to work on that, because his kid wanted to go play with the other kids at the other tables.

I'm having to abandon our family motto (no common sense-y).

There's so little common sense in the education world that I'm going to have to transfer it to our schools, starting with this pre-school teacher.

How on earth a pre-school teacher could get the idea that children should not want to play with each other is beyond me.

Speaking as the mother of two autistic kids...

SteveH said...

"How on earth a pre-school teacher could get the idea that children should not want to play with each other is beyond me."

That was my first reaction, no common sense. Take a few ed or psych (or Montessori) courses and the common sense flies out the window. Sic John Rosemond after them.

SteveH said...

"I laughed, and said 'my child isn't self motivated. I provide the motivation.'"

Now that my son is eleven, I try to frame the motivation in terms of cause and effect. It's a slow process, but success breeds success, and if I have to push for that success, I will. It's easier to translate success into self-motivation than failure. I remember a parent telling me that he and his wife thought of themselves as a slowly moving (impersonal) wall. They just slowly kept pushing and pushing.

Catherine Johnson said...

wait - what do you mean, exactly?

(I'm not quite following...)

I've begun reading Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog which is brilliant. Amazing.

Her material on negative reinforcement pretty much explains our middle school. (Will get around to posting...)

Catherine Johnson said...

The motivation question is fascinating, I think.

I'm wondering whether negative reinforcement can increase behavior (that's what a reinforcer is - something that increases behavior) and at the same time decrease motivation.

Of course, this is the same thing said about rewards for doing homework - in that case a positive (a reward) lowers motivation.

Willingham has a new article out on this issue that I'm halfway through. It's not his best, though. The behaviorists have spent years studying this question & he doesn't seem to cover their work.