Make Sure Your Stick Is A Stick

My fiancée and I, this weekend, attended what for reasons of space will be described as “professional development for engaged couples.”

There were threats all throughout the literature: if you left early, brought a cell phone, left the grounds at all, or committed any number of minor-league infractions, you would not receive a certificate of completion.

Nope. Don’t – no, y’know – just stop begging. Stop it. You were seven-and-a-half minutes late to our noon session. No certificate.

Thing was, me and my girl didn’t much care for a certificate. And after it became evident our presenters were going to read from a script all day, we left.

The relevance of this anecdote to classroom management is left as an exercise to the reader.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. The reading from the the script part is what resonated with me. I hate to be read to; just had that happen last Sunday at church when a younger minister on staff did the sermon, and he read about 1/3 of it from a book someone else had written. And, no, it wasn’t the Bible.

    My partner in crime with whom I have taught for almost 20 years and with whom I share one brain, talk about this thing all the time. We hate to go to any presentation where the person thinks they are so dog-gone interesting that people will listen for hours (or what seems to be hours to us) and they never shut up. Both of us believe that if it can’t be said in 5 to 10 minutes, then it probably either shouldn’t be said, or it should be put in a handout.

  2. Hm. Partial credit to dkzody for picking up the “don’t bore your audience” subtext, though that isn’t the biggest classroom management I’ve mounted under glass here.

  3. One stands out to me is that the reward being offered (certificate) didn’t motivate compliance (attendance).

  4. I’d guess you didn’t go there for the certificate. Instead, my conjecture is that you had an expectation for what this thing was going to be about or what it would be like and they weren’t delivering that at all.

    Bottom line, they weren’t working in your ZPD so you burned out. Being adults you walked. If you were captive students you would have been throwing spit balls at the teacher.

    My question for you though, is why the hell you weren’t out laying on a beach somewhere?

  5. Seems like everyone’s dancing around the matter pretty well. Just to analogize it a little, let’s say I’m in class and I need everyone working hard.

    “If you guys don’t stay on task, you can’t have any asparagus!”

    That kind of stick just … isn’t a stick. You know?

  6. Yep, there’s nothing there that will actually get you there on time. Seven-and-a-half-minutes late isn’t got-a-flat-tire late, it’s just-slightly-unmotivated late.

    It’s kind of like this story I have to tell. I was in observing a student in the classroom last year, and I was stunned to see how on-task this entire group of 5th graders were. While the teacher was talking, every single student–ADHD, high-risk, gang-affiliated, emotionally unstable, every last one of them–was attentive and leaning forward in their chairs in anticipation of what the teacher was going to say next. And this was a rough group of kids to begin with. I had never seen anything like it in my professional life. What she had on the screen augmented what she said; none of it mirrored. Her classroom management style was tied directly her ability to get her kids hooked. Pure poetry.

  7. Oh, I knew where YOU were going, but like your students, I took off on my own little trail. I knew the certificate didn’t justify the sitting all day and listening to someone blather at you. But I took off on the blathering part as it was what resonated with me.

    I find that sometimes I think I’m going to teach one thing, but my students take it in a different direction, and it works. Hey, I teach marketing, anything works in marketing!

  8. Okay, I have two morals to the story:
    1. The trainee gets to define what is a positive reinforcer and what is a negative reinforcer, not the trainer.
    2. If there’s only one reward and any infraction loses that reward, then once someone’s lost the reward the trainer has lost any power to influence that person.

  9. Oh, man, number one’s the truth. That’s awesome, succinct stuff.

    w/r/t #2, the instruction at this PD for engaged couples was pretty solid. They should’ve made that it’s own reinforcer – like the teacher whose class is so satisfying, students don’t want to get tossed out – tallking that up, making sure that was as good as it could be.

    This situation illustrates the difference between classroom management in an elective and in a required class.

  10. Let me get this straight. You’re saying I can’t stand in front of my students and read my goals, objectives, procedures and types of evaluation?

    Now, I’m going to have to re-assess my methods entirely.

  11. “The trainee gets to define what is a positive reinforcer and what is a negative reinforcer, not the trainer.”

    *cough*student autonomy*cough*

    (…and Dina retreats back underneath her summer rock)

  12. “The trainee gets to define what is a positive reinforcer and what is a negative reinforcer, not the trainer.”

    *cough*student autonomy*cough*

    Is there some history here I’m missing?

  13. @Dan: well, yes and no. In the sense that the student is merely choosing to be uninvested in asparagus, then agreed, that’s not strictly student autonomy– it’s only resistance. (Deci’s got some interesting things to say about resistance not actually being autonomous.) But in the sense that a teacher might make active efforts to involve students in the evaluation of their behavior at the ground level, and mutually make the decisions on appropriate consequences– now *that’s* autonomy.

    I’m playing around with the idea of having no universally defined consequences next year– only immediate conversations and relentless follow-up, where kids determine their own consequences. I like this rule of thumb I read somewhere: “You must feel it’s fair; and I have to be able to live with it.” We’ll see whether I am brave/stupid and thoughtful enough to actually implement this come fall.

    Of course, I’m having trouble imagining this set up successfully in Catholic Pre-Cana, but that’s perhaps a can of fish I should put on the back burner.

    @ Tracy: sorry. :) Yes, I’ve been banging autonomy theory/practice over Dan’s head for closing in on a year now. Try my blog for some background.

  14. Thanks Dina for asking my question.

    When I said “The trainee gets to define what is a positive reinforcer and what is a negative reinforcer, not the trainer.” I was saying what I believe to be true, regardless of what the trainer thinks, or how the classroom is set up. For example, I remember a teacher who would single out a kid and praise them in front of the classroom by comparing them favourably to the rest of the class. From memory, and of course I may have been missing some subtext, she intended this to be a reward. Of course, from our point of view the praise was a bad thing because of the reaction of our fellow classmates, so we learnt to avoid behaviour that resulted in being praised in front of the class. She was providing a negative reinforcement rather than the intended positive reinforcement.