Smiley Faces are Better Than Mad Faces

August 4, 2010

For the whole time we’ve been in Korea I’ve had trouble with two classes, every time that I teach them.  They are wild and won’t listen to anything that I say no matter what I do.  I’ve tried yelling at them.  I’ve tried staring a hole through them.  I’ve tried writing mad faces next to their names.  I’ve tried yelling louder.  I’ve tried yelling louder than that.  Then maybe two or three weeks ago I decided I would only write little smiley faces next the people who were doing good in class.  I wasn’t going to give them candy for a good class, or money, or any large reward but if they were good I would give them a little smiley face on the board.  As soon as I started doing it I got this huge turn around.  As soon as one kid got a smiley face two more kids would be quiet and when those two got smiley faces two more and two more until they were silent and listened to everything that I was telling them.  Besides it being a nice little tool for managing class I feel like it’s saying more about the psychology of people.  I’m not suggesting an exact correlation but I wonder if my little class hints at something more universal.

Maybe one of the strongest motivators is creating a defining line that separates people into two groups.  In my class, if I give even two of the kids a mad face and the rest a smiley face the kids with the mad faces will drag the rest of the class down.  On the other hand if I define who’s good and leave the others ambiguous with nothing beside their name, then there is still an opportunity to be a part of those who I’ve deemed “good”.  Once someone is labeled “bad” then they are “bad” so why does it matter what they do from that point on.  Even when I present them with the opportunity, “If you’re good for the rest of the class then I’ll give you a smiley face too”, it doesn’t seem to cause much change in the behavior of the student.  They’ve already been put into the position of the outsider and as the outsider their goal is to pull people into their group in order to not be alone anymore.  Instead, if they are all a part of Grape Class, which is “good”, then they tend to do more things in order to be consistent with that label.  If Grape Class is good and they are a part of Grape Class then by extension they should be good too.  In this case they are given a label which makes them act in a way consistent with positive behavior but many other negative labels in wider society seem to simply create obstacles.

I think maybe a person is treated or given a specific label which puts them into one of two groups.  A line is drawn arbitrarily by someone, then people are told which side of the line they fall. They are ugly or pretty, rich or poor, good or bad, intelligent or stupid, there are a million examples.  I think this often creates a situation where people will do whatever they need to in order to maintain say, being pretty, but face a daunting obstacle that may remain for years when they’ve been told they are ugly.  The rich do whatever they can to stay rich (or to at least appear rich) and the poor often have a hard time believing that they will be anything but poor.  It’s true that many have overcome such labels but how many others end up living the difficult life of their parents or others in their ethnic group or their socioeconomic group or whatever else they have been labeled as.

I realize that being human means our brain is constantly trying to categorize and make sense of the world.  If the brain doesn’t do that then there is too much information for it to process all the time but I do suggest a danger in putting a label to something when it is not necessary.  Especially verbalizing a label or having it shape how you treat someone can create the line which keeps a group from being united.  How many conflicts are based on defining sometimes the most minute differences and how many problems would seem a lot smaller if we could focus on the ways we are similar?


One Response to “Smiley Faces are Better Than Mad Faces”

  1. Jenny Brown Says:

    Yea Scott you totally described “positive reinforcement” A teaching tactic that has been used for many years and you seem to have done it very well. I think you and Cassie are both learning so much about teaching and about human nature in general. Stay well and keep the updates coming. Miss you, jen

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