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I was playing Scrabble — yes, the old-fashioned way! — with two good friends.

In between plays, Rich was sharing what he recently read about some teachers using a short song as a cue to indicate that it’s time for students to pack up.  This classroom management method was highly effective, it seems, because the song was a clear, unmistakeable cue to begin the pack up procedure.

Kaye and I almost simultaneously chimed in with “there’s quite a ‘Pavlov’s dog’ thing going on there, don’t you think!” and we all laughed…

Rich went on to share that in one particular classroom on one particular day, a parent happened to be early to pick up her child, and decided to sit in on the last few minutes of the class.  When witnessing the efficiency with which the kids organized the classroom and their belongings upon hearing the music, she excitedly approached the teacher and exclaimed, “I need to get that song for home!”

For a brief moment I was silent and contemplative, until exclaiming “that there is a blog post!”

I know, I know; I’m such a geek about such things!  But heck! you’re still reading, so…. 🙂

Not That; This.  Part One:  Attribution Theory

Is it the song?  Is the secret sauce that. particular. song?

Do you think that parent was only a little bit disappointed when trying that technique at home the next day?

Of course it’s not the song!  That is undoubtedly a misattribution.  It gets the cause and effect wrong; the effect (students packing up with uncommon efficiency) is wrongly attributable to the inferred cause (the song) instead of to the real cause (what the song represents).  Like Pavlov’s dogs associating a ringing bell with dinnertime and therefore salivating simply upon hearing the bell, this teacher has accomplished similar conditioning, with her students associating the song with class over, time to pack up!

Misattribution happens all the time, everywhere, by everyone… Over the next few days, you will notice; I am quite sure.  You will want to say “wait a minute, is it that?  Or is it this…”  And sometimes you will be talking to yourself!

Not That; This.  Part Two:  Contingency Theory

Let’s imagine that parent at home with her child the next morning. It’s after breakfast and it soon will be time to catch the school bus, and she puts the song on — that very same song! — while verbally encouraging her child to get ready to go… and nothing happens.  There is no behavior that is even remotely similar to the classroom scene.

What’s up with that? mom wonders.  The child has been conditioned, no?  Time to pack up, no?

The effectiveness of the song to produce the conditioned response is clearly contingent upon other factors.  So what’s different?

  • Home instead of school.
  • Mom instead of teacher.
  • Morning instead of afternoon.
  • Kitchen instead of classroom.
  • No peers instead of several peers…
  • What’s next is “school” instead of “not school.”

I suspect you would agree with me that some of those differences might be important factors to consider!

Missing the requisite factors that the desired behavior and/or performance is contingent upon is also really common.  “This is what I did where I used to work and it was really effective” is one of the most common ways I experience contingency theory in action.  I can’t help but think of the myriad of factors that that effective result might have been contingent upon … and wondering to what extent those factors are present or missing or different enough to matter …

We provide great value to ourselves and others when we are able to recognize a misattribution when we hear one, and facilitate exploring some contingency factors to promote a better understanding.

  • I’m not sure it’s that, so much as it is this…
  • Do you think it might be because of this, and not that?
  • “Wait a minute, is it that?  Or is it this…”
  • Or “_____________________________.”

Not that, this.

It’s important!  Because at work attribution and contingency errors cost beaucoup time and money, and in life: stress, embarrassment, heartache, …

Time to go.  I need to prep for my 10:00.  Bill Gates just rang that tiny bell.  I’m salivating at the opportunity to attend this meeting.

🙂

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