Lets Talk Sociology
Discussion #4: The Sanctions Used by Teachers
Social control is not simply exercised by law enforcement, the courts, or corrections. It permeates all aspects of society. Sanctions (rewards for conformity, punishments for non-conformity) are used by groups and authority figures in several institutional settings. Some are imposed formally by officials in the pursuit of their occupations. Others, by family or peers at a more informal level. Societies do not leave the problem of social order to the individual alone. Any array of institutional actors, groups, and organizations external to the individual are relied upon to ensure conformity to society’s wider dictates.
Portions of the following are excerpted from Nick Rose, a British educator’s article, entitled “Why Punishments and Rewards Don’t Work”, Tes Institute Magazine, Sept. 8, 2020. Many of his country’s pedagogical approaches rely on behaviorist methods of reinforcement and punishment to maintain classroom discipline. Psychologists such as Edward Thorndike and BF Skinner observed when an animal receives reinforcement after performing a behavior, they are more likely in the future to repeat that same behavior. Conversely, receiving a punishment after performing a behavior leads the animal to be less likely to repeat that same behavior. Rose observes that most teachers, whether they recognize it or not, routinely use reinforcement and punishment in their classroom practice to tackle classroom disruption. This philosophy prevails in his native Britain, as well as among many educators in the United States.
Evidence suggests that our attitudes towards sanctions are dependent on the extent to which individuals trust those around them. Meta-analyses consistently show that where societies are high-trust (i.e. people generally hold the view that the motives of those around them are benevolent), the prevailing norms encourage cooperation and the punishment of those who defy those cooperative social norms. On the other hand, where societies are low-trust, there is a lack of trust and shared social norms. Punishment generally appears less effective.
Skinner was generally opposed to the widespread use of negative sanctions. Another reason for their ineffectiveness is a phenomenon called loss aversion. The work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman is insightful in this regard. There appears to be a reliable asymmetry in our response to positive reinforcement and negative punishment. In other words, when people weigh up similar gains and losses, they tend to prefer avoiding losses as opposed to making gains. For example, a teacher’s imposition of a sanction such as the confiscation of a mobile phone may, in certain instances, be more effective than giving merits or rewards for good behavior. In other words, a desire to avoid punishment is oftentimes a stronger motivator in terms of classroom behavior.
Psychologists often refer to two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic is driven by an internal sense of reward (i.e. doing something for the sheer pleasure of it). Extrinsic, on the other hand, is driven by some sort of externally originating reward (i.e. earning merit points for good classroom behavior). One concern shared by many educators and researchers is that the use of extrinsic motivators such as praise or merits may dampen intrinsic motivation.
Rewards and sanctions are complicated. “To sanction or not to sanction—that is the question”. Educators on both sides of the pond would love their students to always find work done in the classroom to be intrinsically motivating. At the same time, many of the more complex and abstract ideas underpinning the cultural advances of the past few centuries are challenging and not always intrinsically motivating to struggle with. At least not initially. All of this is to say that the motivation to chat with friends in class will probably always be stronger than the desire to do classwork!
Page 166 of Chapter Six, as well as pages 51-52 of Chapter Two (13th edition) should prove helpful. Consult these pages before participating in this discussion.
Go back to your pre-COVID 19 days when class sessions were largely being held in the high school or college classroom.
Discuss the rewards and sanctions, both positive and negative, that teachers and professor use to maintain social control of their classrooms. Of the various methods identified, discuss the specific purpose behind the sanction and its effectiveness. What is the best method of social control a professor can use to ensure students arrive to class on time? What is the most appropriate sanction a professor can use to encourage students who are not doing well in a course to improve? What is the best sanction a professor can use to see that his or her class remains orderly?
What do you think of Rose’s contention that a society’s attitudes towards sanctions are dependent on the extent to which individuals trust those around them? Is the U.S. a high-trust or low-trust society? What implications might this have in our society’s approach to social control in general? As a result of cultural practices, do you think Americans conform largely to avoid punishment?
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