Thought Leaders 023 | Dr. Kent Johnson | Part 1

This month on Thought Leaders, we are joined by Dr. Kent Johnson as he tells us the story of how Morningside came to be. Join us as we go off on some fun tangents and learn all about his life and influences.


Psychology Today - Shapers at Work 


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Shauna Costello (00:02):

You're listening to Operant Innovations, the podcast brought to you by ABA Technologies. This month, on the Thought Leaders series, we are speaking with Dr. Kent Johnson and how he came about the idea of Morningside Academy decades and decades ago. We are here with Dr. Kent Johnson, and I'm very excited to hear this story. To start out: Where did you come from [Laughing] and how did you get to where you are today?

Dr. Kent Johnson (00:34):

When I was nine years old... [Laughing] That's where I'm going to start. [Laughing] I was very concerned, when I was in third grade, in school, the teacher would call on students like me, who could answer questions for the most part, and then move on. I'd look around the room and I'd see kids clearly not understanding the way I was understanding it. I remember a boy, Steven in particular, who I used to help after school. I asked my teacher, "So, how do you know when you call on me, the others have learned what you're talking about?" And she said, "Well, they haven't learned it as well as you have, perhaps, but everybody tries their best and they learn as much as they can, and that's all we can hope for." [Laughing] I thought, "Okay..." I told my mother the story and she got my concern about the children around me and she said, "Well, you know, your sister needs some help in math. Would you like to work with Sean too?" And I said, "Well, let's ask Sean. Would you like to work on math?" And she said yes. She learned a lot of math and then my mother talked to other people in the family, and my aunt said, "Well, Andre has trouble with writing. Could you help Andre?" I come from a background of entrepreneurial spirits and this was prior to getting on the bandwagon, the corporate express, because it's a little earlier than that. There were some big companies, but by and large people worked for smaller places. I lived in a town called Milford, Connecticut, about 90 minutes from New York City up the line. We were all entrepreneurs in my family going way back. I charged 10 cents a session, and here I was making some money and then I decided I'm going to make a flyer. I wrote a flyer and I distributed it all around the neighborhood and by the time I was 12, I had tutored about 40 kids in the neighborhood. We had a two car garage, and my father gave me one of the stalls and said, "You can do it in here, put your stuff here." I would do it in the backyard, in the nice weather. We had a lot of round tables. My grandfather got some more round tables for me, and kids would sit around the tables and they didn't all come at once, of course, but some days there were 12 or 15 kids, because I could put them in different tables. I could, "Well, you guys we'll work on rhyming. You guys sit over here and then the guys who need long division, you guys go over here." [Laughing] I had my own little homogeneous groups, [Laughing] of kids.

Shauna Costello (04:19):

You've been doing this for decades, is what you're saying.

Dr. Kent Johnson (04:24):

[Laughing] Yeah, it was better to make four dimes an hour than one dime an hour. [Laughing] I was like, "Okay, this worked." I could provide the same kind of service to a smaller group as I could to one on one. In fact, it worked a little more systematically with four than one. With one, you can get lost down a trail that you won't if you have four. I remember that feeling like, "Oh, this is a little more organized," [Laughing] than when you try to go on the roller coaster with one. I did that until I was 12 years old and the neighborhood in my town I lived, in Milford, was Morningside. That's where my school name comes from, [Laughing] Morningside Academy. I had my own clunky version of what I do now. Morningside gave me a framework and a lifelong interest. My favorite television program was Spanky and our gang. I don't know if you know that program.

Shauna Costello (05:40):

[Laughing] I don't.

Dr. Kent Johnson (05:42):

Okay. It was a sitcom and it was about a bunch of little children, actually quite multiracial for the time, although a lot of racist kind of comments were made in a joking manner at the time. We're talking about episodes from the fifties. There was a show called The Little Rascals that preceded it, and that really came out in the forties.There was some legacy of this, but this group of kids of Spanky and our gang, that iteration showed up, this group of children figured out ways to enact adult activities as children. They decided to have to do a school, so they would set up their yard or the woods in the back of their house. They'd get it all set up like a school or they'd have an office and then there was the boss and the workers, and so it was very Rube Goldberg. The neighbors would come and knock on the door and talk to the owner of the shop, and all this sort of thing. They would have dinner parties like their parents had. It was my favorite show for sure. I was all set to do Spanky and our gang with this little program of mine in the garage. [Laughing] It was an inspiration. I often will ask people who their icons are. Who's your icon? From a fairytale or from a television program or a movie? When you were a child, who did you really identify with? How did that influence your trail? Have you thought about those people? It's an interesting exercise I do. When grad students come out to our summer institute, I will often have this exercise about talking about our icons from our childhood. That was kind of the impetus for this program. My mother was the principal, [Laughing] at Morningside school, and so that's really kind of the background. In high school, I got interested in constitutional history and comparative government. I went to Georgetown University in Washington DC where you'd be right in the thick of it and I thought I'd be an ambassador. I remember thinking that's where I might wind up as being an ambassador for some president in some country. Low and behold, the summer before freshman year at Georgetown, I got a letter from the math department chair and she said, "You have to pick a math course for your first semester and there are five options." The one option particularly interested me, and it was in calculus and the way they described it was they took the material and the calculus course, and they broke it into small units. You studied each small unit and then you went to class and had an interview with a proctor who would tell you how prepared you were to take the quiz or not, and help you be prepared. You take a quiz, and if you got 90% or greater, then you could move to the next unit. If you didn't, no problem, you could study some more and get some more help, and then try again. You could try as many times as you wanted, and you go at your own pace. I thought that sounds like a really fun class to take. I took it, and I kind of zoomed through that. I loved the arrangement and I remember asking the teacher, "Barbara, how did you invent this? This is so amazing." And she said, "Well, I didn't invent it and I learned about it from this psychology Professor, Charles Firster, and he's over in the psych department, and there are other people like that over there. You can go ask them your questions and you could learn a bit more about it if this interests you, but will you be a proctor for me next year?" And I said, "Sure." I did serve as a proctor in the second semester class where the new students were coming. We're basically talking about the Keller Plan, a personalized system of instruction.

Shauna Costello (10:50):

I think that sounds awfully familiar.

Dr. Kent Johnson (10:53):

All right. Here I am, and I love this method and I went over to the psych department and they showed me. Eventually I talked to different people, and I said, "Well, this is part of a bigger idea." There's this guy BF Skinner and he has this bigger idea about psychology. There I was, it was carpe diem for me and like, "Okay, no more. I'm not going to be an ambassador." I'm going to study this psychology here, [Laughing] and people would say to me, "Oh, you're going to major in psychology? Well, you listen a lot. You're good listener to people, so you'll probably be a good psychologist." I said, "Well, maybe I won't, but I do wanna study this." And that's where I went studying behavior analysis. Georgetown at the time, didn't have graduate students. They were much more interested in teaching and learning than research. At the time, we undergraduates got the chance to be like the grad students. We were the teaching assistants and the research assistants and all this. The whole thing that happens in psych departments and grad school played out for us as juniors and seniors at Georgetown. It was really lucky that I went there, even though I didn't study government. I studied behavior analysis and then I was thinking about where I will go to graduate school. Psychology Today, the magazine at that time, had just come out. The new issue, which is very timely for me, was called "Shapers at Work" and this was in 1972. You might go to a library and see if you can find it. It's fascinating. I probably have a copy of some of the articles from the issue, but it was all about this new field of applied behavior analysis and the whole thing was your psych today. I don't know if you're familiar with that magazine, but it's this flashy approach to bringing psychology to the masses. They had this whole thing about applied behavior analysis, and they had 42 behavior shapers at work, which was one of the articles. They'd have a little picture and then a column, which would describe what that person was doing, and it was all the professors, across all the different departments doing behavior analysis. It was right there in my lap. I'm like, "Oh, here's where all the people are. Where do you wanna go?" The person that stood out to me the most was Beth Sulzer-Azaroff. Psychology Today, I think called her the Queen of Token Economy, Beth Sulzer, who became a president of ABA. I went and studied with her because she had been a first grade teacher in Harlem, before she married her husband, Ed Sulzer, who was a behavior analyst, a therapist, an adult clinical therapist at SIU, Southern Illinois University. She married him and then studied behavior analysis and got into the field, but she was a first grade teacher. I knew that she was somebody who really was part of the trenches before she went to school. I learned all about the token economy, and she learned all about PSI and college teaching from me and it was a very mutual exchange. In the sixties, there were a lot of horrors on this whole junior colleague model where you're really invited into your professor's work and service by a junior member of the group, the community. It was very community oriented and I really took to that model. I know the junior colleague model still works among many professors at Western Michigan, and then certainly at the University of Nevada, Reno, and also at the University of North Texas. They still have this more of a horizontal way of working with their grad students. Beth was great, just a super advisor. There's going to be a new book coming out that Ruth Anne Rehfeldt is going to edit with some others about women who are practicing professionals and how that works out for women. I know Beth will have a chapter as a senior kind of woman. I think Beth's 90 years old, something like that. I haven't visited her in a while, but we still keep in touch. She was great, she was kind of like my mother, big sister in grad school, because none of my family was part of academia. The sixties were also a time where a lot of people were upwardly mobile. Lots of people were going to college for the first time, anyone in their families, that was me, my family cheered me on. I didn't know anything about going to college. My father had a GED, my mom had a high school diploma and they were doing just fine. All of those people were in the middle class at that time. You could earn a good living. I went to college and they cheered me on for that and studied at Georgetown, and then with Beth, and then I took my first job after that at Northeastern University in Boston. It was a very disappointing experience. I didn't like department politics, I didn't like a lot of things. I'll just leave it at that. So [Laughing] I left and I went to school in the area outside of Boston called the Fernald School and it was an institution for mental retarded people, as they said then, which became DD and Autism. This was the tail end of the institutionalization movement. Within 10 years, none of these people lived on in an institution. They went into group homes and you know the scene now. It was very different then and I worked there and I had some interest in developmental disabilities and Autism, but really my heart was back with the struggling learners, who did not have a disability per se, but needed help in school to keep up in general ed. I wound my way back and I decided I was going to move. I went out to visit some friends in Seattle, wherever that was. I thought Seattle was at the end of the earth, to this guy from Massachusetts at the time. People didn't travel quite as much as they do now and so [Laughing] I went to visit them and I had left Boston. 42 Inches snow had fallen in 24 hours and the whole city of Boston was just frozen. I took a plane out to visit my friends from Georgetown who had moved to Seattle, and it was 70 degrees in Seattle. They were like, "Now, it isn't the way it is in March, normally." I just fell in love with the climate in Seattle and with the culture, with the politics, everything just felt right. I said, "You know what? I'm going to pick up where I left off when I was 12, and I'm going to start a school." Here I am, 29 years old, in 1980. I'm going to start a school. [Laughing] I started in my living room and worked up from there and did odd jobs. I did some consulting for the human service department for the state, I did some training and group homes for staff working with adult DD people. I did whatever I could find. I did the kind of work I knew I could do, but I wasn't particularly interested just to earn enough money to keep the ball rolling and a couple of visits that I made before I started the school were really important. One was going down to Oregon to meet Segred Engelman and Doug Carnine at the University of Oregon and it was the summer of '78. I went to their fourth annual direct instruction training week in July and I learned a lot about those programs, which really helped me see it's not unrealistic to go start a school because they've written all these commercially available programs that looked pretty close to programmed instruction. Engelman wasn't a behaviorist by any stretch of the imagination. People tried to typecast him that way and he'd always push back on that. It's not my philosophy or my background, but otherwise he caught the wave in Illinois. Tom Gilbert was a behavior analyst who was in Champaign, Illinois at the same time that Engelman was there, and West Becker and Sue Marco were at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. It was a hotbed of people interested in instruction and what's become a whole field of instruction. They dovetailed off a program instruction, all of them by and large. In fact, Engleman's direct Instruction Tom Gilbert's model guide release approach. Tom said, "Demonstrate guide release," and Engelman said, "Model lead tests." That whole framework was laid on top of the kinds of programs Engelman was writing. It was really so good and it became direct instruction. It was in its fairly early stages when I was looking at it in the late seventies. It was solid, but there was still a lot more refinement to go, but I learned that stuff and then another visit I made was to Michael Maloney's Quincy Learning Center in Canada. Michael Maloney was big in precision teaching and I didn't know anything about it. In fact, I didn't learn about precision teaching until after I got my PhD. There was no sign of PTE, any standard acceleration chart, anywhere in graduate school at that time. It was all in schools with principals and teachers. This kind of crazy guy, Ogden Lindsley, who was a behavior analyst and worked with Skinner, but he wasn't much for academia. He put this precision teaching model together. I went to see Michael, he was probably the first one to combine direct instruction and precision teaching into a coherent classroom system, if you will, for learning. I went to visit him and he, [Laughing] also was very clever about how do you keep yourself alive? How do you move the money around? How do you make the money go around so you can stay alive while you're trying to start your own kind of business? [Laughing]

Shauna Costello (24:24):

I mean, still that's a question that people have, even today.

Dr. Kent Johnson (24:31):

Very important. Basically, I'm an educational psychologist by interests and training. That's the degree I got with Beth. It was in the psych department, PhD in educational psychology and that's my area, and behavior analysis is my operating principles. When people identify themselves, I don't say I'm a behavior analyst first, because I think of myself as an educational psychologist whose operating framework and principles are behavior principles in behavior analysis. There used to be a lot more of us in the office world like that. Not necessarily ed psych, but primarily from a discipline, where this discipline of behavior analysis becomes their operating principle and now there are people who directly see who they are, professionally, as behavior analysts. It's a change over time and also a lot more people are doing work outside of developmental disabilities and Autism than now. Our field has become very truncated, but we can come back to where I see the field. Let me go back to my story here. I started Morningside Academy in 1980, and it's still going. I'm the executive director, but I've been pulling back lately. I just turned 70 this spring. Oh my God. Really? [Laughing] My mother's 90. She took me out for my birthday lunch. She was like, "Look at us here. Look at your 90 year old mother taking out her 70 year old son."

Shauna Costello (26:41):

That's awesome.

Dr. Kent Johnson (26:42):

We feel very blessed and we're both not what that number seems to mean to others.

Shauna Costello (26:51):

You are goals of what I hope to be.

Dr. Kent Johnson (26:54):

[Laughing] Well, I hope I'm an inspiration to you. I liked the fuller field, but noticed also ed psych and also the whole programmed instruction world I feel these days are not so readily available. You were lucky to work with Jessica, so you had some of that framework I'm talking about, but an in-depth understanding of the whole area of instructional design. There are so many instructional design courses in various departments around the country, and they're using Sue Marco's books mostly because Joe Lang and I didn't shut up about Marco during ABA. In fact, in the eighties, I would bring a box of her books to ABA and when I went to a meeting room, I'd put it on the table and I'd sell them to people, [Laughing] who could buy these books by Marco. Joe didn't get all salespeople personally about it, but he otherwise would talk about Paul and Joan. A few of us would talk a lot about program instruction in the eighties at ABA in the seventies and now you see, from that period, departments are still using those books still. There's maybe one class, maybe two. It takes a long time to learn instructional design. It's not like this one thing you learn in one course and you're an instructional designer. It's super analytical, especially when you get into breaking things down and putting them in a sequence and in hierarchies. When you're trying to go beyond teaching just one task or one concept, that's one thing, but to put a program together is a very different thing. The thing about instructional design is if you take more instructional design principles to bear on that work that you just described, it will alter the order of the presentation of the material in the first place. Rather than simply write guided notes across a chapter in a book, you start to see the 12th thing I put should have been second. You start seeing the gradual emergence of logically based sequences of instruction. Tennis teachers know perfectly well, you match the student up with someone who's just a little bit better. You don't put the expert with the novice. Music teachers know this, PE teachers know it. Somehow wearing this magical dualism when it becomes verbal, then it's different than motor and therefore everything is different about cognitive and learning than motor learning and it's not true. We don't need dualism, just all these principles apply to behavior. The topography doesn't change the nature of the business that we're at here. That's another soapbox.

Shauna Costello (30:53):

I know exactly what you're talking about. Sorry, I know I took us way off on that tangent, but starting Morningside and getting going...

Dr. Kent Johnson (31:01):

Morningside's about the forgotten 40%, right? We're trying to capture a much broader swath of kids than the tail end of the distribution of 5% disabled and all this sort of thing. Some educators talk about tier two. Our learners are gen ed kids who struggle to stay there. Once they get the wave, if you could put those foundations in, these kids fly and they're very creative. The ADHD kids are the most creative kids, because they can shift their attention across a number of different focuses. If they learn how to manage that multiple focus that they're so adept at tuning into, if they can manage that, they're the most creative people because they put two and two together like nobody's business. They're not just strict, linear, logical people and so I love working with them. Those are my darlings and I love middle school because you can impress the middle schoolers. You can really make a big difference with them and people are afraid of the middle school kids, because they just say what's on their mind. They haven't learned to edit, they haven't had enough punishment for saying things that someone might not like.

Shauna Costello (32:45):

My dad was a middle school teacher for about 25 years, so I've heard plenty,

Dr. Kent Johnson (32:52):

None of it ever offends me. I really get it. I really like working with them. Middle schoolers are my favorite kids. Now we have about 150 schools around the US and Canada, who do part or all of what we do at Morningside Academy. Morningside Academy has become a lab school for investigating best practices and changing. It's also become a demonstration site. People want to see what a school looks like all run on behavior principals. You can come and see what it looks like and so that's where I have my stakes in the ground.

Shauna Costello (33:50):

Thank you for listening to this episode of Thought Leaders. Come back next month as we continue to talk with Dr. Kent Johnson about where he sees the field going. And as always, if you have questions, comments, feedback or suggestions, please feel free to reach out to us at


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