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Unselfish Behaviorism

A TC adjunct faculty member is literally giving all he's got to help students in his program

A TC adjunct faculty member is literally giving all he’s got to help students in his program

ADJUNCT PROFESSORS DON’T MAKE A LOT OF money. So Suzanne Murphy, TC’s Vice President for Development and External Affairs, was a bit startled when one approached her last spring with a proposal to donate his annual TC salary in order to create, over a period of years, a scholarship fund of $250,000.

“I’ve worked with many donors over the years and seen many generous gifts, but this one is truly extraordinary,” says Murphy.

The fund—which she hopes will be augmented by gifts from others—will support doctoral students in the Applied Behavioral Analysis program led by R. Douglas Greer, Professor of Psychology and Education. The program has trained generations of teachers and researchers in techniques for helping children with autism and other language, learning and behavior disorders. The donor—who has asked to remain anonymous—is not only a graduate of the program, but has also personally struggled with severe attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a range of learning disabilities all his life.

“I was the bad kid in school—the class clown who read three levels below grade and got put in the corner all the time,” he says. “I can’t really tell you what made the difference for me, but I know that the techniques I learned in Doug Greer’s program have helped me save many lives. These tactics are scientifically validated, and there are thousands of other kids across the country who could benefit from teachers who are trained.”

Greer’s teaching system is based on the ideas of his own late mentor, the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. The guiding precept is that human beings learn to do things (or not do them) in response to “reinforcers”—food, encouragement and other stimuli. Over the past 40 years, Greer and his students have created scores of reinforcement-based interventions to induce children with language deficits to reach milestones in their preverbal development. They have helped hundreds of autistic children speak their first words and many thousands more to lead normal lives. More recently, they have demonstrated that the same techniques can be highly effective in mainstream classrooms with children who are English language learners or whose language deficits are the result of growing up in disadvantaged circumstances.

“The beauty of Doug’s system is that, first of all, it is comprehensive, by which I mean that no theory is excluded,” the donor says. “It draws on everything from Bandura’s observational learning theory to the mnemonic devices of cognitive psychology. It’s all about what really works. These techniques are also effective with all students, regardless of how they have been classified. And we apply them across homes and communities as well as in the classroom, so that all the key players in a child’s life are using the same tactics.”

Many students can’t afford to pay full tuition for Greer’s program, the donor says —an issue he understands from personal experience.

“I myself would never have been able to afford the doctoral training here if Doug hadn’t awarded me an 80 percent merit scholarship,” he says, adding that Greer saw past other obstacles as well. “I told him that, with my ADHD and learning disabilities, my GRE scores were very low. Doug said—and I’ll never forget this—‘How can a score on a standardized test determine whether you’re going to become an effective and caring educator?’
“All we hear about nowadays is the achievement gap and how important it is to close it. Doug Greer has been showing us the way for the past 42 years. I’ve been in the field a long time, and I’ve heard about numerous reforms, but his system really works.”   

To give to the fund, contact Scott Rubin at 212-678-3722 or e-mail sr2670@tc.columbia.edu.

Published Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011


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