The Blackboard Jungle  

I smell a rat

It was 1987 and I was just finishing up my master’s degree and one of the most intriguing areas of study for me had been a comparison between B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers.

Skinner was the behaviorist and Rogers the originator of self-actualization.

Now, I had just come back to the elementary level from the junior secondary and I had been awarded the most rambunctious, high-spirited, rollicking group of Grade 4s I’d ever seen.

The boy-girl ratio was about 4-1. I knew I had a great challenge in front of me.

On the first day of school, I began with a captivating discourse about classroom expectations.

As I spoke, Matthew Taggart, who was about four feet tall, had a long neck and beady eyes, slowly disappeared behind his desk. Being an experienced teacher by now, I continued to speak while slowly circling around the room.

My intention, of course, was not to draw any attention to the situation, but handle it indirectly and in a non-threatening way. This was a great opportunity to show my students how fair and basically ‘intelligent’ I was.

As I got to the back of the room, I looked to see what Matthew was doing. To my amazement, he was playing with some little trucks and cars, running them back and forth along the track inside his desk.

He was completely oblivious to anything I had said, especially the part about listening to directions.

When I think about it now, I believe that Matthew was “self-actualizing” in his own way. The problem was that I needed him to behave in a different way.

The other problem was that, as I viewed the other boys’ desks, they were all stuffed full of cars and trucks as well.

“Matthew!” I roared. My façade was shattered, however, Matthew jumped up on his chair, folded his hands and looked about like a smiling little angel.

I continued my sermon, pleased with my victory. By the time I made it full circle to the front of the room, Matthew had disappeared once again.

After about a week, I was completely flummoxed with this little group of angels. They had no intention of listening to reason.

I couldn’t even shame them into being more grown up. All they really wanted to do was play with their little trucks and cars.

What I needed to do was teach them some math, reading, writing, spelling, grammar, speech arts, social studies, science, P. E., health, music, art, drama…

Yikes! That’s a lot.

Enter B. F. Skinner. One of Skinner’s most notable achievements was the Skinner Box.

He placed a chicken in a small cage that had a lever. When the chicken pecked the lever, a piece of grain came down a shoot.

The secret to this experiment was to find the frequency threshold. In other words, if a piece of grain came each time the chicken pecked, it would peck so many times per minute.

But if he withheld the grain at certain random intervals, the chicken would go into a frenzy. Slot machines are based on the same principle.

I was fascinated with this concept, and desperate. So, I slipped on my imaginary white coat and devised my own plan of operant conditioning.

I programmed my classroom computer to “beep” at random intervals. I told the students that, if they were listening or working quietly when the computer beeped, I would put a tick on the board.

If we reached 20 ticks by the end of the day, we’d have five minutes of free time. After finding the perfect threshold frequency, my plan worked like a charm, and my students actually enjoyed this little experiment.

After awhile, I even eliminated the reward and my students continued to “beep” along joyfully.

But then there was a slight nagging sense of guilt. Was I treating my students like lab rats? What about Carl Rogers and self-actualization? I decided to stop and see if the “training” in this experiment had any effect.

The first day without the “beeps” was hugely successful. My students worked quietly and actually listened to me.

After about a week, things started to regress and I was getting that confounded feeling again, except that when I moved to the part of the blackboard where I had put the ticks before, my students seemed to quiet down.

Then I realized that I was doing most of my talking and teaching right from that spot. When I moved away, my students became distracted and noisy. When I moved back, they quieted down.

I was hit with a thunderbolt. I was the lab rat, not them.


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About the Author


Richard Knight is a retired educator living in Kelowna. During his 30 plus years as an educator, he taught pretty much everything from primary to the junior high (now called Middle School).

His experiences generated many memorable stories, which is what this column is about.

He also gained some valuable experience at the university level as a faculty adviser in the Faculty of Education at UBCO.

Until recently, Richard wrote his column The Blackboard Jungle for The Daily Courier.

This was a mixture of fond memories and some political commentary. Now, Richard would like present his column on Castanet.

He can reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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