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Musical interlude #2
Why would the song "Accentuate the Positive" be important?
If you don’t remember the song Accentuare the Positive, you may wonder why I would consider this song be important. I mean, isn’t is just something that your grandparents might remember? Well, here’s why I’m talking about it.
In my classes on behavior and classroom management, I used songs to underscore what I considered core principles of effective instruction. One of the principles that I emphasized (I called them “rules”) early in the course and repeatedly thereafter was that teachers should understand the power of and employ practices that…well, accentuated the positive; I was making a play on the song with that title that Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen wrote in 1944.
Here are the first few lines of the lyric:
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum …
Hunh? What does that have to do with teaching. Well, I advised students to follow practices such as these:
Instead of catching kids being bad, they should catch ‘em being good, as O’Leary and Schneider (1985) recommended.
Teachers should embrace the value of positive reinforcement, which has roots in the powerful work of Skinner (1953; also see Schneider, 2012).
Rather than employing warnings, punishment, aversives, and other negative prompts and consequences, they should create an environment rich in positive reinforcement.
Teachers should phrase classroom rules in positive terms rather than proscriptions.
Teachers should put feedback (green tinted?) on correct answers on worksheets rather than red Xs on mistakes.
Teachers should treat activites, assignments, ways of doing things, and others as important, valuable, worthwhile, because doing so will prompt students to give those things a positive valence; treat long division as important, emphasize collaborative problem-solving as valuable, address kids as worthwhile….
I encouraged students in my classes to suggest ways that they could imagine themselves accentuating the positive. (They got better and better at this as the term progressed!)
Students, I explained, would figure out pretty quickly who was and who was not a reinforcing teacher. Teachers might overhear kids saying, “Oh, that Mr. Lloyd. You do anything, and he’ll yell at you. But, man Ms. Rodrigues...she’s sooo nice...she’s always telling you how good you’re doing.”
Of course, I’d lard into those lectures studies illustrating the power of positive reinforcement. It would only take me 5-6 brief sentences, as in this fictional illustration:
Latoya and Jones wanted to know whether scheduling a brief “dance party” to occur when 90% of the students scored at or above 80% on a quiz would increase students’ accuracy on their daily work. Working with four entire classes of students, 14% of whom had IEPs, they implemented the dance contingency first in one class and then successively in the other classes. They found that the postive-activity contingency of having a dance party resulted in higher levels of accuracy for all students, including those with disabilities. [Show graph.]
To be sure, the study I just cast here is my pure invention. But I suspect many readers can cite an example of similar illustrations of the power of positive reinforcement. Just start with Hall et al. (1976) and bring it forward!
So all of this by way of saying that I used Mercer and Arlen’s Accentuate the Positive to encourage prospective teachers to use positive reinforcement as their first-order teaching procedure.
Here is one of Bing Crosby’s 1940s versions of the song:
Readers with reasonable search skills will be able to find Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretation, Aretha Franklin’s take, Willy Nelson’s delivery, Mac (“Doctor John”) Rebennack’s rendition...there are many...just let them sink in as a key aspect of an approach one should employ in teaching students well.
Please understand that not all the song’s lyrics fit with the theme I am promulgating here. But, I hope you get my drift: Accentuating the positive in students’ behavior is a good way to help them learn appropriate behavior and using positive ways of teaching behavior is a valuable approach to instruction. Doing so will help promote joy in learning and create a caring environment where outocmes of effective procedures can be celebrated (“Yay! I got it!”).
Teach ‘em well!
Hall, R. V., Lund, D., & Jackson, D. (1968). Effects of teacher attention on study behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1(1), 1-12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1310970/pdf/jaba00083-0003.pdf
Mercer, J., & Arlen, H. (1944). Accentuate the positive. See Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate_the_Positive
O'Leary, K. D., & Schneider, M. R. (1985). Catch'em being good: Approaches to motivation and discipline. Research Press.
Schneider, S. (2012). The science of consequences: How they affect genes, change the brain, and impact our world. Prometheus.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Macmillan.