It’s all about the exit strategy…


Three guys decide to play a round of golf: a priest, a psychologist, and an economist.

They get behind a *very* slow two-some, who, despite a caddy, are taking all day to line up their shots and four-putting every green, and so on. By the 8th hole, the three men are complaining loudly about the slow play ahead and swearing a blue streak, and so on. The priest says, “Holy Mary, I pray that they should take some lessons before they play again.” The psychologist says, “I swear there are people that like to play golf slowly.” The economist says, “I really didn’t expect to spend this much time playing a round of golf.”

By the 9th hole, they have had it with slow play, so the psychologist goes to the caddy and demands that they be allowed to play through. The caddy says O.K., but then explains that the two golfers are blind, that both are retired firemen who lost their eyesight saving people in a fire, and that explains their slow play, and would they please not swear and complain so loud.

The priest is mortified; he says, “Here I am a man of the cloth and I’ve been swearing at the slow play of two blind men.” The psychologist is also mortified; he says, “Here I am a man trained to help others with their problems and I’ve been complaining about the slow play of two blind men.”

The economist ponders the situation-finally he goes back to the caddy and says, “Listen, the next time could they play at night.”
JokeEc-Jokes about Economics and Economist

This joke illustrates how economist view their work and approach in comparison to psychologist. In this view, psychologist are all about helping others by being kind, while the economist takes the purely functional approach.  I think this overly idealizes the practicality of  economists, and underestimates the functional approach in some branches of psychology, especially when it comes to education. I think economist could learn something from what’s been done there already since the overlap between behavioral economics and behavioral psychology looks pretty darn slim to an outsider.

This all started, as many of my posts do, as a conversation I had with Larry Ferlazzo. Larry’s thinking on “reward systems” in education, like many others, started with exposure to Alfie Kohn’s work, Punished by Rewards, a critique on behaviorist approaches in education. Larry also came to teaching through organizing which is based on the notion of building community.

I will admit that I never read this work, although it was certainly popular (but not assigned) by any of my ed professors. I likely read an excerpt at some point. Since I started teaching as a sub, where you have little time to establish a “community”-based management of your classroom, behaviorism worked a lot better for me. Three years working in a “behavior” school cemented this vision of myself as a “behaviorist”.  But, at our heart, Larry and I are pragmatists. After all these years, I do many things that build a sense of community and develop intrinsic motivation in my students, without even realizing it. When needed, Larry will use positive behavior-systems because what works is what works, and that is our bottom-line, not adhering to some doctrine of education.

So, we were discussing some of the recent articles on incentive based systems to “pay” students for school work/grades. The Education Policy Blog: Pay Kids to Do Well in School? I Vote Yes was decidedly optimistic about an article in Time about such programs. Larry being the way he is, took the opposite point of view in The Problem With “Bribing Students” | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…. But, I noticed something at the end of Larry’s piece about needing an exit strategy that showed that Larry had picked up on something in behavioral psychology that a lot of these plans had been missing, and it got me thinking (dangerous, I know).

I have many identities in this world, and one of them is being the mother of a child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). My son is what’s referred to as “high functioning”, but part of the life of autistic families is lots of “therapies” to help with the behaviors or lack of typical behaviors in these kids. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time practicing amateur behavioral psychologist to get my son to do things like self-care, his homework, etc. Compared to how “behavior” in manipulated in psychology, most of these reward systems in education seem exceedingly crude.  Let me show you what a well done behavior plan looks like, and you’ll start to see what’s missing, something that Larry intuited pretty well…

1. Analysis of the behavior is always the first step. You start of with something like, “I want my kid to stop tantruming,” but when the behavior specialist sees you say this, they will chuckle to themselves, and ask you to be just a BIT more precise. One of my peers in a parenting class I attend while my son does a social skills class works at a group home where she described how the functional behavior list for teaching kids to shower that has 81 steps. Okay, that’s for a non-neurotypical kid but, to change the behavior requires that you analyze and break it down into really discrete steps, which is why, as Larry says, it’s better for more mechanistic behavior.  You don’t write a plan to have a kid stop tantruming, you have it so they stop screaming, and throwing themselves on the floor and kicking when asked to do their homework, identifying the specific behavior, AND the conditions leading to said behavior. For tantrums, you’ll want to give them “replacement” behaviors (self started time outs, etc.) As my sister told me (she worked on a research team under Dr. Lovas the “father” of using ABA therapy for treating autism), “There is no joy in doing behavior mod, but it works.”

2. Next you implement your plan, with reward intervals. You start off with frequent, and rapid reinforcement. Doing this is, well, mechanistic.  This is the dangerous part because you are starting to get the desired results, but I’ve joked that sometimes it can feel like I’m the one being trained to give the reward, and in a sense, you are if you leave out the next step.

3. Now that your child has you trained to give them M & Ms at a regular interval, it’s time to “wean” yourself off this candy giving merry-go-round. Seriously! You space out the reward interval, and amount until, BINGO! it’s not needed anymore, but the kid is still doing what you want them to do! As Dan points out, works for students and dolphins. I’ve heard this referred to as “weaning” and “tapering off”, but when I looked ABA up on Wikipedia it referred to “fading”. This is what Larry referred to as the “exit strategy” and it is the key to effective use of behavior modification, otherwise you are not “training” the child, but being trained to reward them.

Most of these pay for grade programs, and pay for test score programs, can have all the “value-added” data added that you like, but they are crude when compared to the how individualized the approach is in behavioral psychology. What is regarded as well designed in most economics studies of incentives in education are so crude in comparison to this, you might as well be throwing money out of a helicopter in the South Bronx. I’m sure it would be about as effective.


Education Policy Blog: Pay Kids to Do Well in School? I Vote Yes

The Problem With “Bribing Students” | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

What Really Happens When We Pay People for Test Scores? | LFA: Join The Conversation – Public School Insights

Have You Ever Taught A Class That Got “Out Of Control”

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“It’s all about the exit strategy…”


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