Psychological conditioning has been around forever even if it didn’t become a science or field of direct study until Pavlov came along with his dogs.  Does that ring a bell?

There’s a problem with conditioning–you may train for a situation to generate a specific response during training (or education) but you don’t get what you expected.  There are a couple of apocryphal examples to illustrate:

“The SD Police Dept.” (told to me twice, once by John Kessel in his role of youth development for USA Volleyball and then by LTC Joe Shusko during a leadership course with the USMC)

Twenty years ago, the SDPD wanted to train its undercover police to disarm assailants who pull a gun on the officer.  In a situation with a loaded gun, the reaction of the officer has to be precise and done at reflex-speed.  The best way to get proficient at something is repetition, so the officers would pair off, one would draw, the second would disarm hand the weapon back, and they would repeat this over and over before switching the roles of the first and second officers.  There was an unexpected problem.

When an officer was confronted with this in the real world, he quickly disarmed the perpetrator–just like training–and then –just like training– immediately flipped the gun around and handed it back to the criminal!!  …because that was what was done during training–take the gun then hand it back.  As the story goes, both officer and criminal were shocked and the officer took it a second time without harm…after which, the SDPD immediately changed its training.

“The Soviet Anti-Tank Program”  In the early weeks of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the Soviets were desperate to stop German tanks blitzkrieging across the Soviet plains.  Short of men and guns, the Red Army began training dogs.  They would strap bombs to the dogs and teach them to run underneath tanks where the bombs would then be detonated, destroying the tank.  The dogs were trained and the first set were sent into battle near Kiev (now Kyiv, capital of Ukraine).  And when released, the dogs did exactly what they were conditioned to do.  Can you tell what that was?  Yup–they immediately ran under the same types of Soviet vehicles they had been training with rather than towards the German tanks and trucks.

So you can see the problem here with hammering something in via conditioning–teaching without analysis or critical thinking.

Now think about modern schools.  Where’s the thinking?  In American schools, everything is geared to standardized tests used across the US.  Student and school success is then judged by those test results, funding comes from those test results.  Your job depends on the results.  So what happens?  By gearing everything towards knowing how to succeed on a standardized test, we lose the key aspect of school–teaching young people how to think independently and critically.  Instead, they are conditioned that school is a series of tic-marks to achieve before moving on.  Learning for the sake of learning?  Nope.  That happens by accident.

The easiest solution would be to ditch those standardized tests, but there’s an entire industry that has grown around them and permitted to entrench.  That’s not just the test makers.  It’s also increased the number of administrators–administering tests, evaluating tests, determining new metrics and new tests.  All of that but no one asks (search for stuff…I’m rather serious) “How can we get kids to think for themselves?”  It is about what they know, not how do we get them to WANT to learn.