Behaviorist Ed-tech — Ed-tech from the 1940s

So, how on earth have we ended up with this many myths continuing painfully from one decade to the next?

I’m afraid the answer is that too much of the training has been stuck in the 1940s. Too much is done by non-autistic people, often ones who happen to know an autistic person in some way (maybe a relative) but seemingly have never asked them about life. I mean ‘asked’ in any communication sense, not just speech. Over a million autistic people in the UK, and too often, such trainers have none of them as personal friends, none of them as colleagues. Isn’t that odd?

Such trainers pass on the ancient myths, generation after generation. They write them down, put them on Powerpoint presentations, and deliver them to you as if they are fact. Research based in part on materials from the 1990s and 1980s, which was based largely on watching groups of profoundly disabled young men in a care home, as far back as the 1940s. As far removed from a balanced view of autism as one can get, in fact.

Worse still, they often expect you to pay for this. It might look slick, with excellent graphics, and the trainer might look like they could pose for a fashion magazine . But…are you really wanting 1940s material?

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism. Is your training from the 1940s?

The 1940s behaviorism of the autism industry has entered public education via ABA, PBS, Class Dojo, SEL data collection, mindset marketing, and other priorities of private equity. Get this 1940s material out of our schools. Mainstream ed-tech is taking us backwards.

Behaviorism commodifies people. It is the opposite of personalized learning.

Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.

It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

We cannot replace agency with response to stimuli.

Source: MMCP: Critical Digital Pedagogy; or, the Magic of Gears | Hybrid Pedagogy

I am watching the US education system not very subtly invite punishment back into the mainstream classroom. This appears to be driven by the field of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).

Source: Defining Reinforcement and Punishment for Educators – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

We Exist As Friction

I highly recommend Liz Jackson’s episode of UX Cake, Changing the Disability Design Narrative, to all designers, tech workers, and educators.

Selected quotes:

…how do we insert somebody with a disability studies background into a design space so they can start asking the hard questions and the right questions so that we can get past this — this frame of mind that only thinks of disability in terms of just accessibility?

We exist as friction. The work that I do; it’s wildly painful.

People are creating interventions to get around actually having to talk to us.

And we burst that bubble.

But the thing is, is when you look at empathy, you realize that — that like other sort of charitable approaches, it’s actually caused just as many problems as the solutions that it’s trying to sort of create.

And so, if you boil it down and look at it step-by-step, you know, the first step is, is cultivating empathy. But to a disabled person, it can feel a little less like empathy and a little bit more like designers are coming in, they’re speaking with us, they’re observing us, they’re taking our life hack welcomes right? Our ingenuity, and then they’re going to sell it back to us as inspirational do good, right? Without ever giving us credit.

Source: Changing the Disability Design Narrative – UX Cake Podcast

Yes! We need disability studies folks in every school and company. We need folks who speak and live the social model of disability on our teams.

I’m disabled and neurodivergent with two disabled and neurodivergent kids. “We exist as friction.” I let forth a “hell yeah” when I heard those words. We exist as friction, and we’re constantly educating others on and hacking our way around structural friction, to the betterment of all.

disabled people, we are the original life hackers, right? Our innovative solutions have changed the world, right? Like, we created the Internet, we created the bicycle, we created the iPhone touch screen, we created audio books and curb cuts. And, you know, just item after item. And, you know, I think that it just demonstrates the value of really existing on the margins.

It’s tiresome work. We could use some help from abled and neurotypical allies working with us and alongside us instead of for us. Develop the lens.

…who is capable of developing this lens? I don’t think as a society we’re there yet, right? Like, we don’t always — we’re not so eager to have our bubble burst. Especially with one of the few things that sort of traditionally makes us feel good about ourselves which is what disabled people call inspiration porn, right?

Where the objectification of our body is used to inspire other people, right? Disabled people make everybody else in society feel better about themselves. And I’m taking that away. Right? And that’s not fun.

Develop the lens by changing our framing from deficit ideology to structural ideology.

Design is tested at the edges. Invite friction into our companies, schools, and teams. We’ll all be better off for it.

Drop the B from PBS

I’ve made quite a study of ABA and PBS over the last couple of years. I know a good number of ABA and PBS practitioners. I have seen the methods. I have the training materials. I have the books. I have seen the course content. I’m a professional, working in autism, and autistic. I train the Royal College of Psychiarists, alongside my fellow autistic professionals. We train Psychologists, Psychotherapists, schools, colleges, organisations across the country. We haven’t just ‘fallen off the back of a turnip truck’, to use a phrase. We know what a good therapy should include, and what is a really bad idea.

I think I shall echo the words of the National Autism Project, in their report, “The Autism Dividend”:

“Positive Behavioural Support in the form of ‘active support’ may work for some children and families – but this approach is not suitable for everyone, and indeed is not without controversy”.

In fact, as far as anyone can tell, there has been no good long term independent research into the use of PBS and autism. We have no idea what the impact is of using this behaviour modification approach on autistic individuals in the long term. It is approved for use with learning disability, and has therefore been assumed OK for autism. But autism is not learning disability. Autism is different. Very different indeed. I’ve read so many examples of PBS assuming that a child has to be taught to socialise in non-autistic ways. Taught to socialise through every lunch time, every break time, every after-school event. If they can socialise just like they’re not autistic, they’re ‘accessing the community’, and that is the goal. “Indistinguishable from our peers”. Perhaps allowed a tiny flap or rock, if that’s not inconveniencing anyone else.

I would suggest that ABA and PBS needs some very thorough and continuing research. Because we are gambling with the lives of an awful lot of children. The suicide rates for autism are already stratospheric. I note the legal cases in the USA from some individuals who believe they were deeply damaged by some therapies. If we’re wrong, and we are in effect doing the same thing as the highly discredited and damaging ‘gay conversion therapy’…. we are setting an awful lot of children up to have serious consequences later in life. No matter how ‘positive’ the title of the product.

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, ABA and PBS: Some questions

Ann Memmott on Twitter: “Important thread about realising that the Behaviour focus of autism treatment leads to distress in far too many cases. We need to Drop The B from ‘Positive Behaviour Support’. Positive support, with deep understanding of autism instead, is much better.… https://t.co/B5pVGxwTcf”

Ann Memmott on Twitter: “The NHS has now chosen to ignore concerns of #ActuallyAutistic specialists and professionals, & decided that the way to deal with pain is to apply ‘behaviour training’ to the autistic people, to stop them showing they’re in pain. I cannot begin to explain how wrong this is./“

Thank you to the autistic autism researchers pushing back against PBS. Get PBS out of our schools. Behaviorist ed-tech is an utter failure of imagination.

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