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Becker’s Theory of Schooling and Parenting

Once upon a time, when I was a graduate student at Boston College, I studied under a professor named Dr. Michael Schiro.  He had published a book called Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns.  In that book, he spells out four “conflicting” theories of curriculum. I won’t detail them here other than to say that each of the theories (or ideologies) is backed by psychological theories/principles.  For my final paper for his class (this was over a decade ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday), I challenged his whole premise and asserted that there were essentially only two schools of thought with respect to curriculum: one school based on principles of developmental psychology and the other based on behavioral psychology.

This wasn’t completely novel thinking, but for a masters level student, it was pretty heady stuff.  Years later, I read Kieran Egan’s article, “Why education is so difficult and contentious” wherein Egan asserts that “thinking about education during this century has almost entirely involved just three ideas -socialization, Plato’s academic idea, and Rousseau’s developmental idea.” Egan goes on to argue that “[a]ll educational positions are made up of various mixes of these ideas. The problems we face in education are due to the fact that each of these ideas is significantly flawed and also that each is incompatible in basic ways with the other two. Until we recognize these basic incompatibilities we will be unable adequately to respond to the problems we face.”  In other words, attending to academics, socialization and child development were each flawed goals for schooling and when pursued simultaneously, they conflict.

Leaving out the socialization piece, Egan’s thesis further strengthened my belief in the ultimate pitting of principles of development psychology and behavioral psychology in the enactment of schooling. Lately, I’ve been imagining this as more of a continuum than a dichotomy.  Interestingly, this new(er) thinking has been influenced by my observations around parenting as much as schooling.  I’m a father of two kids under 5 years old, and we interact with lots of parents of young kids.  What I have noticed is adults who tend to parent in ways that are heavily developmentally-focused, heavily behaviorally-focused, or some mix of the two.

These observations and ideas are not entirely original, but there’s another dimension to add that I think is equally important to my own (maybe original) developing theory of schooling and parenting.  This second dimension (or continuum) has to do with intentionality.  That is, adults interact with kids in ways that are more or less intentional.  Some things we do with kids are done with great intention, while other things are done without much thought at all (sometimes even by accident).

If we cross these two dimensions, we end up with something like this:

[how’s that for advanced use of my tablet PC?]

So, the more deliberate/intentional/purposeful adults are in their interactions with children (as educators and/or parents), the further to the right of the graph they are.  The more developmentally-focused one’s actions are, the higher on the y-axis they fall (and the more behaviorally-focused one is, the lower on the y-axis they fall).  For instance, consider rewards systems for kids (e.g. “read 25 pages per night and earn 5 gold stars on the reading chart!” or “poop on the potty and earn 5 M&Ms!”). Those are interventions based on principles of behavioral psychology.  Thus, they’d be pretty far down on the y-axis.  Where that interaction would be plotted with respect to the x-axis depends on how purposeful the adult(s) was(were) in choosing that strategy. I submit that many educators and parents engage in such activities without much thought as to why they are doing it.

I try not to be judgmental about how people parent their kids. We all have unique needs and circumstances and have to make very personal parenting decisions.   My wife and I are very, very deliberate about our parenting. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone has read more books and thought more about parenting than my wife.  As a result, just about everything we do as parents would be plotted far to the right on the graph above.  We’re also very committed to a developmentally-focused orientation towards parenting called Attachment Parenting. So, we try to be as high and far as possible into the upper-right quadrant of the graph above.  That works for us.  It doesn’t work for most; I fully recognize that.  All I’ll say beyond that about parenting is that I am concerned that too many parents are not intentional enough about what they do.

In fact, I feel pretty strongly that all of our interactions with children should be as intentional as possible.  With respect to schooling, I strongly favor developmental approaches; I’m not shy about that bias.  However, if educators use behavior-based approaches, I can be more supportive if it is done so with great purpose/deliberation (e.g. “I know there are consequences, particularly with respect to motivation, to implementing a rewards program, but I believe the benefits outweigh the disadvantages…”). In most cases, though, behavioral approaches to teaching/learning are undertaken without much deliberation.  This default, behavior-based orientation to schooling troubles me immensely.  I have great fears about exposing my children to that form of schooling.

Some other thoughts about the graph:

  • I believe that the majority of educators and parents engage kids in ways that would be plotted in the bottom half of the graph.
  • In the world of schooling, I believe the majority of interactions between adults and children would be plotted in the lower-right quadrant.
  • I believe very few interactions between adults and kids would be plotted in the upper-left quadrant.  Especially in the Western Hemisphere, the default parenting orientation tends toward behaviorism.

That’s all I’ll say for now. I hope to revisit these ideas on occasion.  I also hope you’ll help me think through them.

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