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"Designed specifically for busy instructional leaders, our Plug and Plays provide all needed materials...", reads the introductory line for Teach Like a Champion's "Plug and Play" professional development series. For less than $500, one can obtain a PowerPoint, video, and activity providing step-by-step instructions to incorporate a specific teaching technique. From "Private Individual Correction" to "Close Reading Bursts", a teacher can master a specific practice.
Plug and Plays are distributed by Uncommon Schools, the charter school network directed by Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion (TLAC). The network prides itself on data-driven instruction and effectiveness. Videos from the network highlight their techniques, from "Technique 13 - Name the Steps" to "Technique 46: The J-Factor."
Initially, this seems like a novel concept. If we train educators through explicit techniques, we'll create an equitable system where all students receive the same success. After all, everyone will be on the same page of the most effective tools for learning. But on close examination something appears off. If teachers are only trained with techniques...what happens when students don't follow the techniques properly? What happens if they don't desire to do the techniques? What does a classroom look and feel like when it's technique-driven? Well, we can see what happens by viewing training videos from Uncommon Schools.
To prevent deviation from techniques, educators must enforce control. A lot of control.
In many ways, these techniques mirror military boot camps. There's an extreme focus on respect, unquestioning authority, and controlling movement.
All of this could make one believe that these classrooms do a feel a little demeaning, but if this is what it takes to prepare a young person for the future...so be it. The "no excuses" charter network Uncommon Schools focuses on under-served communities, demonstrating an impressive 99% college acceptance record - with other networks boasting high numbers as well. Further, data indicates that these students are graduating college at higher rates than the national average. (Albeit with a very limited data set.)
Except, there's much more going on here.
The entire time I watched the Uncommon Schools videos, I couldn't help but wonder - how can any of these students stand this? It is simply not natural to have every single moment controlled and regulated for 7+ hours a day. And of course, it turns out this experience is traumatizing. A variety of stories (the following from blackatuncommon and _theuncommontruth on Instagram) highlight how these charter schools harm students, especially students of color.
Hundreds of these stories exist. Teachers recall treating children with a broken windows policy, over-enforcing and dehumanizing them. Students have organized walk outs. All of this to "prepare students for college" (which as an alumni has stated, colleges don't even function like this).
For many families, enrollment at these schools is a means to an end. In a series of interviews with Black and Latinx parents, Golann et. al. found that "no excuses" charter schools were praised for their practices as many working class jobs mirrored similar expectations upon their employees. As one parent stated,
'I mean, like if they don’t bring their homework in, they get detention. You have to do your homework,...You have to show up to work when you get older. You have to clock in at a certain time or whatever.’
Yet, in the same study 75% of parents were uncomfortable with the disciplinary techniques used by these charter networks. While all parents cared about having structure, they complained that these schools were too regimented. This was especially the case in these charters, which have mostly white teachers educating students of color. A parent explained after a principal made a disciplinary call about her son,
'My child is not your slave. [The principal] just thinks—I always say he think he’s the ‘‘great White hope’’ to come save the Black folks, that’s what I think he thinks about himself. It’s just his arrogance that I don’t like... Don’t feel like you doing me a favor, ‘cause I appreciate what the school is doing, but it’s not just you.'
Ultimately, the families wanted safety and a promise of a better future for their children. With the college acceptance rates these schools offered, the cost was worth the price. But all of this hardship is built upon an oppressive society. There would not be nearly this pressure to attend college if working-class jobs paid a living wage and allowed one to raise a family (as it did in the 1960s). This pressure wouldn't exist if working-class jobs had proper organization to demand better treatment.
As author Joanne Golann explains in Scripting the Moves: Culture and Control in a No-Excuses Charter School,
Detailed and standardized procedures for behavior—what I refer to as scripts—achieved short-term goals of order, but failed to prepare students with the tools critical to long-term success. The relentless mechanisms of control used by the school to socialize students into middle-class norms, I argue, paradoxically constrained students from developing middle-class attitudes, skills, and behaviors like entitlement, initiative, and ease. What college students, and middle-class professionals, use to get ahead are tools, not scripts. Middle-class students know when to follow rules but also when and how to deviate. They know when to defer to authority and when to negotiate advantages for themselves. They know how to interpret situations and choose among alternative actions—skills that are important for acquiring and maintaining a higher position in the social hierarchy.
Further, the promise to achieve success is muddled at best. Only 6% of the lowest earners in society make it to the top 20% of earners. Only 11% make it to the top 40%. The increased income due to one's education is highly proportionate to where one started. Not to mention that the economy is already failing many college graduates, with college debt and tuition, as well as inequity, at an all time high. As Nick Hanauer and David M. Rolf write,
...are you a typical Black man earning $35,000 a year? You are being paid at least $26,000 a year less than you would have had income distributions held constant. Are you a college-educated, prime-aged, full-time worker earning $72,000? Depending on the inflation index used (PCE or CPI, respectively), rising inequality is costing you between $48,000 and $63,000 a year. But whatever your race, gender, educational attainment, urbanicity, or income, the data show, if you earn below the 90th percentile, the relentlessly upward redistribution of income since 1975 is coming out of your pocket.
It's not that college is useless - but the belief of "college at any cost" to escape poverty and thus accept inhumane treatment is oppressive. It centers the idea that business leaders (who invest and promote these networks) are the savior to the economic system they've profited from, rather than the idea that the system needs changed.
These techniques are nothing new. Practically every teacher learned about Think-Pair-Share or Gallery Walks. Yet coupled with these techniques was pedagogy, or "the study of teaching methods, including the aims of education and the ways in which such goals may be achieved." Education isn't only the how of teaching but the why.
When teachers learn only the techniques, they never question their "why" of teaching. What is the end goal? What do we hope for our learners once they graduate? What kind of people do we want them to be? How will they change society and build a better world? Instead, our focus shifts to rote memorization. Did they complete the check-list? Did we leave enough time for cold calling? Will they do well on the test? The democratic, world-changing ideals of school don't pair nicely with technique-driven classrooms as there isn't a simple answer for students to find.
This empty pedagogy*, which has risen in popularity especially in "no excuses" charter schools and districts deemed "failing" by state authorities removes any promise of a better world, instead shifting to "back to basics" rote learning. These schools can employ underqualified and untrained teachers at low rates, navigating them through an Uncommon Schools-esque program. These teachers, hopeful of promised future success for students, believe in the programs. After all, the college acceptance data is there. (It's worth stating that much of this data is amplified by anti-public school and anti-union entrepreneurs.)
This focus on techniques over pedagogy is commonplace. Practically every teacher I know has had PD like this. (And many teacher training courses, especially quick certificate programs rely only on them.) Teach Like a Champion is a bestseller, with many professional development companies such as WalkThrus utilizing these techniques for teacher training. These step-by-step playbooks offer a vision of education that is completely "objective." After all, if everyone is just doing what they're told to do, everyone receives equitable outcomes!
An empty pedagogy instills three beliefs:
This attitude permeates corporate culture, toxic positivity, and other exploitative techniques used by employers.
The techniques of Uncommon Schools and Teach Like a Champion are heavily based off the work of radical behaviorism founder, B.F. Skinner. Most well known for the "Skinner Box", a lever that animals would pull to be positively rewarded for simple tasks, Skinner spent much of his life devoted to creating a school system which was entirely rote. Vocal TLAC advocates connect his philosophy to much of what they do, and some followers even make more, bluntly dehumanizing, connections:
In the same way that the rats pushed a lever to get food, students can answer well thought-out questions for a quick praise from their classmates. This positive reinforcement will boost morale, self-efficacy, and self-esteem in the classroom, which can be very beneficial to nearly every student.
Skinner firmly believed that a society entirely based on positive reinforcement and rote tasks would lead to a utopian life, free of politics. He literally wrote a utopian sci-fi book on it, Walden Two. As Audrey Watters expertly chronicles in Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning, Skinner is a fan favorite of ed-tech companies and school reformers working to make school more "productive."
Modern day advocates of B.F. Skinner and behaviorism include the researchED movement. TLAC is largely connected to the organization, being featured in numerous publications. Lemov wrote about the founder, Tom Bennett:
He writes brilliant stuff like this recent piece on group work, which examines the research that (spoiler: allegedly) supports the practice and then examines it’s strengths and limitations. He notes that he uses group work himself and then gets down to brass tacks like someone who works everyday in the classroom- when and why would you use it? with what cautions and how can you address them? You know: just another balanced, pragmatic, sensible, informative instantly useful piece for teachers, the kind you see every day. With useful pieces like that popping up from him regularly, really the only reason not to like him is that he’s both trenchant and funny at the same time.
Anyway if you’ve read Tom’s stuff and thought, like me, “More like that for teachers, please!” you’re in luck. He’s coming to America. As founder of researchED, an organization that’s about bringing research to teachers in useful ways, he’s gone global and is running a conference that I highly recommend.
researchEd is an organization that focuses almost entirely on behaviorism. They have come under scrutiny for what critic Benjamin Doxtdator references as “equity backlash.” Most publicly, in 2019 the researchEd community engaged with the "Tom Rogers infographic controversy", where Rogers made a large infographic asking people to follow experts on Twitter - of whom all were white. In response, the researchEd leaders (and many of their followers) made flippant comments about how this didn’t matter, on how representation wasn’t important, and the like. Their leaders have been on numerous accounts been aggressive toward identity - such as transphobic remarks - and diversity initiatives in general.
Time and time again, we see remarks that embrace technique-driven education without pedagogy. Don't question anything about the system, choices, or inherent problems with the work. Instead, just accept it for what it is and #bekind!
Of course, this is the obvious truth that underlies the whole movement toward behaviorism: it is political. In a masquerade to create a pedagogy that is entirely objective, the "objectiveness" of it is entirely inequitable. In the same way that remaining neutral is a political act, remaining neutral and objective toward rote teaching materials is a political act.
A quick glance at researchED's founder Tom Bennett's Twitter feed demonstrates the right-wing leanings of the movement, from retweeting Jon Porter on how schools shouldn’t teach multicultural religious ideas because we need depth over breadth, to frequent mentions of Robert Pondisco and linkages to the right-wing, anti-CRT blog The Chalkboard Review. More on this later.
There is a notable overlap of teachers who believe that remaining politically objective in the classroom (not "showing a political identity") prevents "brainwashing" students, while simultaneously upholding oppressive systems that are inherently political.
This "science-driven" mantra has been seen before through eugenics. In 1904, Sir Francis Galton defined eugenics as “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.” Within ten years, the study was mainstream - with world leaders attending the first "Congress of Eugenics" in London. This spanned into similar beliefs all connected to the "science": social Darwinism, "race suicide", the "talented tenth"; plus many adopters including Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, Helen Keller, John Kellogg, and W.E.B. DuBois.
Notable among the philosophers taking hold of the theory was Carl Brigham, who in 1923 published A Study of American Intelligence, which highlighted the superiority of the "Nordic race group" and warned against immigrants changing the gene pool. Soon after, the College Board hired Brigham to develop the SAT.
Eugenics was a major field of science. It had international conferences, appeared in mainstream journals such as Science, and was acted upon in poor, African American communities in the United States. In fact, Nazi Germany based its early eugenics policies on what was going on in California. As Dr. Jonathan Marks writes in Racism, Eugenics, and the Burdens of History,
Genetics was corrupted in the 1920s by the confusion of folk knowledge with scientific inference. For whatever reasons, outsiders who recognized it were shunned, and insiders were, as they say, a day late and a dollar short. The fairly obvious lesson to be learned is that where science appears to validate folk beliefs, it needs to be subjected to considerably higher standards of scrutiny than ordinary science.
That said, this is the issue of doubling down on "research" without accepting criticism, analyzing systemic issues, or any claims outside of STEM. By hiding behind "neutral, objective" claims, these ideas have merit. We can't solely claim "it's just science!"
Behaviorism was the complete rejection of eugenics: eugenics focused on nature; behaviorism focused on nurture. B.F. Skinner believed that the way societies conditioned its citizens led them to behave in certain ways. However, in the same way that eugenics was carried out through authoritarian, inhumane political programs, behaviorism had the exact same end result.
Famed linguist Noam Chomsky criticized Skinner for this, showcasing a connection between behaviorism and fascism. where Skinner directly responded:
Skinner argued that behaviorism cannot be like eugenics because the "final solution" of eugenics is to murder populations, whereas behaviorists would try to educate and rehabilitate people. This is what he called "behavior modification." Later, Chomsky wrote,
The question of the scientific status of nineteenth-century racist anthropology is no longer seriously at issue, and its social function is not difficult to perceive. If the "Chinaman" is malleable by nature, then what objection can there be to controls exercised by a superior race?...
There is little doubt that a theory of human malleability might be put to the service of totalitarian doctrine. If, indeed, freedom and dignity are merely the relics of outdated mystical beliefs, then what objection can there be to narrow and effective controls instituted to ensure "the survival of a culture"?
He went on to claim that none of Skinner's work is backed by a meaningful amount of data, pointing out a series of issues with how the researcher conducted his experiments and came to his claims. Watters in Teaching Machines highlights this when Chomsky wrote:
...there is nothing in Skinner's approach that is incompatible with a police state in which rigid laws are enforced by people who are themselves subject to them and the threat of dire punishment hangs over all. Skinner argues that the goal of a behavioral technology is to "design a world in which behavior likely to be punished seldom or never occurs" -- a world of "automatic goodness".
This is further showcased in Skinner's utopian book Walden Two, where the ruler of the "free society" makes all the decisions. Everyone is content because they are behaviorally trained from birth. (And this is seen as a positive, not something to be questioned.)
Therefore, eugenics is an erasure of identity through force, whereas radical behaviorism is an erasure of identity through "correction." This all assumes a dominant culture that one strives to unquestionably maintain.
That said, it's no surprise that linkages exist between those who adamantly promote behaviorism online with those who...
One example would be The Chalkboard Review, a site hosting the "CRT Toolkit" for parents to fight back against the theory. Sandwiched between "Woke Culture Infiltrates Edmonds School District" and "Lobbying for Deception: The Hidden Collaboration between the AFT & CDC", Doug Lemov appeared on the website to talk about Teach Like a Champion.
(Editor's note: This video has interestingly been removed as of 2022.)
Lemov talks about many surface-level, rational ideas: teachers need practical tools for the classroom, reading is valuable, and relationships are important. Then, Lemov states that teacher training is too theoretical and that great teachers don't need philosophical knowledge. This rejection of pedagogy is mirrored in Teach Like a Champion, where he writes,
Ideology-driven guidance represents the most common form of advice teachers receive…but such a classroom is not assessed for whether student achievement rose but whether the teacher did what the democratizing guidance described. Assessment of the effectiveness of an ideology is usually self-reinforcing.
Emblematic of how Lemov describes any form of pedagogy, Layla Treuhaftali writes,
...the hyperbolic language Lemov uses to describe skeptics’ concerns – words like “brainwash” and “treat students like robots” – portrays critics as irrational and idealistic compared to the “objective” calculation Lemov uses to refute them.
Lemov moves into undertones of the conservative cultural zeitgeist. He talks about social engineering of the new generation (who just won't get off their phones!), how upper middle class children (and their lawyer parents) are entitled and refuse to cooperate, how children refuse to sacrifice for the collective, and how no one reads anymore. Meanwhile, the host Tony Kinnett talks about the "fragility" of today's generation. Kinnett made recent fame by "leaking" a Google Drive folder from his employer, Indianapolis public schools. According to FOX News and Kinnett, these files contained a "racial equity priority." (The horror!) He was locked out of his accounts and placed on leave soon after. As is commonplace now, CRT was attacked by the right-wing activist as some form of discrimination toward white people. (Of course, Kinnett is the first of many at The Chalkboard Review making waves at FOX News.)
It does seem fairly suspect that the folks associated with behaviorism are all two degrees from extremist, right-wing connections. For example, James Lindsay, author of the (anti-)CRT playbook mentioned above and Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, consistently engages in transphobic, racist, and violent rhetoric toward marginalized groups. Or Charles Pincourt (a.k.a. "@wokedissident") who wrote Counter Wokecraft: A Field Manual for Combatting the Woke in the University and Beyond, a field guide for identifying "wokeness" - such as those who use the words "systemic racism" or "diversity."
These connections are real and noticeable on Twitter where many educators connect for advice and networking. For example, Tom Bennett, founder of researchEd, engaging with Daniel Buck, founder of The Chalkboard Review. Or James Lindsay, engaging with the military-clad Frank McCormick, contributor to The Chalkboard Review and founder of Chalkboard Heresy.
Reading the comments, it's clear that these communities are filled with toxic actors who also subscribe to the principles of empty pedagogy: follow the rules, don't question systems, and remain "neutral." To do anything non-prescriptive is seen as a radical agenda. For example, a queer teacher commented on not using pronouns in their classroom brought about these responses...
Or these comments on James Lindsay's tweet of a teacher training slide talking about degrees of white supremacy...
Or Greg Ashman, behaviorist author of The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction and head of researchEd Australia, commenting on the previously mentioned Tom Rogers all-white "who to follow" tweet... (See Benjamin Doxtator's piece for more detail.)
And the fact that Doug Lemov's limited following list includes Helen Pluckrose, co-author of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody and Abigail Shrier, author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. There is nothing inherently wrong with holding conservative beliefs as an educator, but it is problematic to readily accept far-right theories in a country whose "moderate" Republican party is already extremely far right.
Now, one could say that this is not a fair depiction of behaviorists. After all, many of the absurdist claims are not made directly by them - it's happening within their network and circles. But it is the responsibility of leaders in these movements to use their platforms for correcting narratives and setting the record straight. For example, when presidential candidate John McCain received a live question from a supporter claiming that his opponent, Barrack Obama, was an "Arab." McCain quickly grabbed back the microphone and stated that in fact, Obama was a "decent, family man." (Of course, acknowledging the Islamophobia of these two ideas being juxtaposed.)
Further, when behaviorists attract so many from the alt-right, authoritarian, anti-LGTBQIA+ crowd, it begs the question: why? Why would behaviorism be so popular amongst this group of people? Perhaps it's because 1) behaviorism is often empty pedagogy - teachers just "teach", they don't question anything including systems or the status quo, and 2) it aligns with a world-view centered on controlling others. What is the "collective" that behaviorists, such as Doug Lemov, want everyone to sacrifice for? Who exactly is being targeted when we enact Skinner's "behavior modifications"? Why is it that we accept the way things are, inventing a series of techniques to reinforce "working class" "no nonsense" beliefs, rather than changing those societal norms?
While behaviorism has explicit ties to "no excuses" charter schools and historically low test score districts, its use is commonplace in many programs across the United States. The greatest tie is to career technical education, where a focus on control has resonated with workforce preparation. As Tara Singh and Vijay Anant Athavale write in The Journal of Educational Research,
Behavioural science provided the mechanism and pedagogical science provided the processes by which the schools would teach students the right work and moral habits. Those habits would lead to a voluntary compliance with social norms in compliance with social control theory. That compliance, in turn, meant that members of all social classes would benefit from a healthier society and economy and, eventually, a more humane workplace. By providing a scientifically based mechanism for teaching and learning, the science of behaviourism is, thus, seen as a lynchpin of the educational system’s contribution to social efficiency.
Just as Skinner envisioned, the behaviorist mindset of these programs would lead to self-sufficient workers (who in-turn, did not need to engage with politics and therefore, would never need to enact systemic change). The check-list nature of behaviorist fact-based learning is commonly used in career technical education (CTE) programs, as the standards are seen as more "real world" than traditional academic classrooms. Quite like charter networks, CTE programs boast high career and college attendance rates and amass high amounts of funding. A critical lens has rarely been applied. However, that is starting to change.
The greater professional development shift from behaviorism toward constructivism and critical theory has been occurring for decades. (Because experts, researchers, and educators have realized the impact behaviorist techniques have on students.) And as a result, the backlash toward critical race theory has included a call for returning to behaviorist principles. In Pincourt and Lindsay's Counter Wokecraft: A Field Manual for Combatting the Woke in the University and Beyond, they lay out exactly what they're targeting:
Here is a list of the most common Woke crossover words: • critical • decolonization • discourse • diversity • embed • empowerment • equity • inclusion • intersection • justice • liberation • knowledge(s) • narrative • perspective(s) • privilege • race/racism • resistance
If you see or hear any of these words, especially if someone tries to insist on them (e.g. add them to a document, course description, website, etc.), recognize that this is likely a Woke advance.
To subscribe to the intentionally disinformative anti-CRT culture war legitimizes the point and hurts students from marginalized communities.
This isn't to say that all teachers who plan a Turn and Talk or utilize Teach Like a Champion are racist, but that the absence of pedagogy and blind adherence to these techniques will result in systemic outcomes that are racist. If we ignore equity and just "teach" (which in this case is scripted instruction from leaders who are connected to far-right ideologies), we are ostensibly accepting that ideology. To accept any scientific claim as "just science!" to prove its use without a critical lens is no different than readily accepting eugenics as standard practice. To remain neutral is to buy into the beliefs of radical behaviorism, willingly or not. There is extreme value in understanding theory and pedagogy.
Rather than creating a space that mirrors the inhumane workplace practices of the working class, the classroom exists to serve the social good. It is a space for learners to understand their rights, learn to care for one another, recognize problems in society, and act on them. Social justice isn't a radical action, it's a chance for the younger generation to simply learn and advocate on factual data. Fundamentally, public education is founded on the idea of a theoretically better future. It requires us translating that theory into practice (and therefore, having to understand what those theories even are!)
In our mission to be the best possible educators for young people, it is imperative that we understand the art and science of teaching beyond simple prescriptive ideas. And likewise, we must identify those who are seeking to create a destructive narrative that harms marginalized youth. We can create a better world by understanding underlying systems, pushing back against the carceral practices of schools, and creating democratic spaces.
There's a place for us to push back against inhumane behaviorist techniques. Educators who care about the students in their classroom should not accept one that feels like Uncommon Schools. It innately feels wrong because it is not human. Hell, even dog trainers have begun to reject behaviorist practices:
Present practices generally rely upon either the pack-and-dominance concept—leading to top-down, discipline-heavy treatment—or behaviorism and operant conditioning, where great emphasis is placed on positive reinforcement. The “positive” approach underlies state-of-the-art training programs of the second decade of the 21st century. Authors of such programs go beyond the limitations of behaviorism, embracing up-to-date information about the emotional and cognitive abilities of dogs—something that trainers strongly attached to behaviorism are prone to overlook. Such a new approach to dog training does not oppose critical anthropomorphism, and it challenges prior understanding of the dog-human relationship. The relationship in question ceases to be unilateral and becomes a bond of mutual benefit, where a forcefree, reward-based method of training is in unison with advertising the self-development potential for humans.
Trainers are rejecting behaviorism because it harms animals emotionally and psychologically. What does that say about classrooms that embrace it?
That said, the aim of education is to ensure young people are not only informed, but understand social justice. As holocaust survivor Dr. Haim Ginott wrote,
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by learned engineers,
Children poisoned by educated physicians,
Infants killed by trained nurses,
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates,
So, I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.
We must be deeply suspicious of professional development, "experts", and district initiatives which discredit theory and critical lenses. Each shift toward behaviorism and scripted learning discredits educators and weakens our ability to create a better world. We must seek out and better understand different pedagogies (and critiques of pedagogies) to form a philosophy of education that is ever-changing and reflective, centering the needs of our most vulnerable youth. And we must recognize that what's presented as "fact" isn't always as cut-and-dry as it may appear. In doing so, we'll create classrooms that value humanity and dignity, which are much more important than a standardized test ever will be.
*Sometimes an absence of pedagogy is referred to as anti-pedagogy. However, the term anti-pedagogy can also mean one of liberation from preconceived notions of schooling. Therefore, I prefer this term to clearly state that there is an intentional lack of pedagogy.