Have you ever wondered how you will control a class of students? There are various techniques in how teachers can “manipulate” students to act in a manner that is appropriate and conducive for learning. Behaviorism tells us that learning is observed through changes in behavior. When students respond to situations in their environment, this is when we can see the occurrence of learning unlike cognitivists that suggests learning is also an unobservable change that occurs within the brain. The use of behaviorism is prominent in a teacher’s classroom management plan as this is where the teacher wants to see an observable change in behavior.
Read Chapter 5 of our text to gain an understanding of Pavlov’s classical and Skinner’s operant conditioning.
In the first paragraph of your response, describe the difference between classical and operant conditioning. Reflect on your own educational experience. Describe examples of classical and operant conditioning that you have experienced. Also, describe outcomes of each.
In the next paragraph of your response, compare positive and negative reinforcement strategies. How is negative reinforcement different than punishment? Refer to the examples you shared in your first paragraph: explain whether they were instances of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or punishment. Provide your reasoning and explain how they impacted your learning.
LeFrançois, G. (2011). Psychology for teaching (11th ed.). San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
He was apparently the victim of what psychologists call one-shot taste aversion learning. It’s a type of learning easily illustrated with animalslike rats. When rats are given something to eat and then exposed to a single dose of radiation, which makes them ill, they will then refuse toeat the food they ate just before the radiation. This is a special kind of learning that can be extremely important for survival. If we, and otheranimals, didn’t easily learn to avoid things that make us ill, many of us wouldn’t be here today: Too many of our ancestors would havecontinued to eat mushrooms of the kind I can easily find.
The learning of taste aversions is a biologically based phenomenon, of little direct importance to the business of teaching. However, moregeneral forms of learning are absolutely central to the educational enterprise, which is really all about learning.
Learning, you see, is the acquisition of information and knowledge, of skills and habits, and of attitudes and beliefs. It always involves a changein one of these areas—a change that is brought about by the learner’s experiences. Accordingly, psychologists deﬁne learning as all relativelypermanent changes in potential for behavior that result from experience but are not due to fatigue, maturation, drugs, injury, or disease. (SeeFigure 5.1.)
Note that learning is found not only in actual but also in potential changes in behavior because not all changes involved in learning are obviousand observable. For example, in the case entitled “The Talking Marks,” there are some immediately apparent changes in the students’ actualbehavior—as, for example, when Tyler makes a pair of “talking marks” and places them appropriately, a behavior of which he was earlierincapable. There may also be other important changes that are not apparent but are still a fundamental part of learning.
For example, there may be an unfortunate change in Jenna’s eagerness to participate in class activitiesfollowing Ms. Swann’s refusal to allow her to do so and because of the loud scolding she received forthe may I–can I grammatical error. This change in disposition—that is, in the person’s inclination to door not to do something—is also an example of learning. Changes in disposition have to do withmotivation, a topic discussed in Chapter 8. Motivational changes cannot always be observed but are noless real or important.
Learning often involves changes in capability—that is, changes in the skills or the knowledge required todo something. Like changes in disposition, changes in capability are not always observed directly. Forinstance, in Ms. Swann’s class, many other students will probably also learn to make quotation marksand to place them “around the words that come right out of Mr. Brown’s mouth.” But, like Jenna, mostwill not be given an opportunity to demonstrate this learning immediately. To determine whetherstudents’ dispositions or capabilities have changed following instruction, teachers need to give them anopportunity to engage in the relevant behavior—that is, to perform.
Performance refers to actual behavior—to a real-life demonstration of knowledge or capability. WhenLeonard recites a poem he has been asked to memorize, when Lenora writes a test, when William dunksthe basketball for his coach, when Jenna later puts the “talking marks” where they belong, they areperforming. That is, they are demonstrating the effects of learning through their actual performance.What’s important to note is that the changes in capabilities and dispositions that define learning will notbe evident until learners are placed in a situation requiring the
Pavlov’s work was important because it demonstrated that the processesof learning could be studied scientifically, and that the principles ofconditioning were applicable to humans as well. Why is it significant thatwe understand that, just as conditioning is possible, so is“unconditioning”?
The basic facts of classical conditioning, which, according to Bitterman (2006), have changed very little since Pavlov’s work, are this: A stimulusor situation that readily leads to a response can be paired repeatedly with a neutral stimulus (one that does not lead to a response) so thateventually the neutral stimulus will have been conditioned to bring about the response. Note that learning in classical conditioning is typicallyunconscious. That is, learners do not respond to the conditioned stimulus because they become aware of the relationship between it and anunconditioned stimulus.
According to J. B. Watson (1913, 1916), who was greatly inﬂuenced by the work of Pavlov, people are born with a limited number of reﬂexes—simple, unlearned behaviors. Learning, explained Watson, is just a matter of classical conditioning involving these reﬂexes. Hence, differencesamong people are entirely a function of their experiences. This point of view is referred to as environmentalism.
Watson’s view was extremely influential in the early development of psychology in the United States. His insistence on precision, rigor, andobjectivity was very much in line with the scientiﬁc spirit of the times—as was his rejection of popular but vague terms such as mind, feeling,and sensation (Berman & Lyons, 2007). The belief that what we become is a function of our experiences also presents a just and egalitarianview of humans. If what we become is truly a function of the experiences to which we are subjected, we are in fact born equal. Watsondeclared that any child can become a doctor or a judge. In fact, however, things are not quite that simple: Not everybody can become a doctoror a judge.
Instructional Implications of Pavlov’s and Watson’s Behaviorism
Classical conditioning, especially of emotional reactions, occurs in all schools, virtually at all times, regardless of the other kinds of learning goingon at the same time. And it is largely through these unconscious processes that students come to dislike schools, subjects, teachers, and relatedstimuli—or to like them.
To illustrate, a school subject may be considered a neutral stimulus that evokes little emotional response when first encountered. But distinctivestimuli that accompany the subject may be associated with pleasant responses (a comfortable desk, a friendly teacher) or with more negativereactions (a cold, hard desk; a cold, hard teacher with a grating voice and squeaking chalk). After repeated pairings of the subject with adistinctive unconditioned stimulus, the emotions (attitudes) associated with the unconditioned stimulus may become classically conditioned tothe subject (see Figure 5.2).
In classical conditioning, an initially neutral stimulus (NS) is paired with anunconditioned, fear-producing stimulus (US) so that the subject is eventuallyconditioned to fear the previously neutral stimulus. Fear is now a conditionedresponse (CR) to a conditioned stimulus (CS).
In the case “Of Pig Grunting and Flinching”, there are clear examples of classical conditioning in the school. Most obviously, Robert has beenconditioned to flinch when Mrs. Grundy makes noises. Less obvious but perhaps even more important, he has probably also acquired a numberof negative emotional responses associated not only with Mrs. Grundy’s noises but also with her, with the classroom, with the subject sheteachers—perhaps even with school in general.
Cases from the Classroom: Of Pig Grunting and Flinching
The Time: 1848
The Place: Mrs. Evelyn Grundy’s classroom in Raleigh, North Carolina
The Situation: 6-year-old Robert has been “Misbehaving to Girls and Telling Lyes”
In this Raleigh school system in 1848, the prescribed punishment for Misbehaving to Girls is 10 lashes, and for Telling Lyes it’s 7 lashes for atotal of 17 lashes.* Mrs. Grundy administers the punishment herself. And every time she raises the cane to strike Robert, the effort makes hersqueal hoarsely, a little like pig grunting. By the tenth lash, Robert has begun to flinch just before the cane hits. He cries out quite loudlywhen it lands.
Later that day, when Mrs. Grundy is passing out the spellers, she turns her back to Edward and his ruler-propelled spitball catches her smackbehind the left ear and she squeals loudly. Robert flinches.
*By our standards, the punishment sounds extreme and barbaric. But in 1848, it was the prescribed punishment in this Raleigh school (see Coon, 1915).
The clearest and most important instructional implications of classical conditioning include the following:
- Teachers need to do whatever they can to maximize the number, the distinctiveness, and the potency of pleasant unconditioned stimuli intheir classrooms.
- Teachers should try to minimize the unpleasant aspects of being a student, thus reducing the number and potency of negativeunconditioned stimuli in their classrooms.
- Teachers need to know what is being paired with what in their classrooms.
The old adage that learning should be fun is more than a schoolchild’s frivolous plea; it follows directly from classical conditioning theory. Ateacher who makes students smile and laugh while she has them repeat the 6 times table may, because of the variety of stimuli and responsesbeing paired, succeed in teaching students (1) how to smile and laugh—a worthwhile undertaking in its own right, (2) to associate stimuli suchas 6 X 7 with responses such as “42”—a valuable piece of information, and (3) to like arithmetic—and the teacher, the school, the smell ofchalk, the feel of a book’s pages, and on and on.
What does a teacher who makes students suffer grimly through their multiplication tables teach?
Skinner’s Operant Conditioning
By deﬁnition, behaviorists are concerned with behavior. They deﬁne learning as changes in behavior and look to the environment forexplanations of these changes. Their theories are associative; they deal with associations that are formed among stimuli and responses. And,typically, they explain learning on the basis of contiguity (simultaneity of stimulus and response events) or in terms of the effects of behavior(reinforcement and punishment). Pavlov and Watson are contiguity theorists; Thorndike is a reinforcement theorist, and so is B. F. Skinner, oneof the most inﬂuential psychologists of the 20th century and the man behind the theory of operant conditioning.
Respondents and Operants
There are two kinds of behavior, explained Skinner. Elicited responses are all the many responses that are caused by stimuli and can beclassically conditioned (like sneezing; blinking; being angry, afraid, or excited). These are also called respondents because they occur in responseto a stimulus. They are largely automatic, involuntary, and almost inevitable responses to speciﬁc situations.
Emitted responses are a much larger and more important class of behaviors that are not elicited by any known stimuli but are simply emitted.Skinner called these behaviors operants because, in a sense, they are operations performed by the organism. Driving a car, surfing the Internet,singing, reading a book, and kissing a baby are generally operants. Their common characteristics are that they are deliberate and intentional.And they are subject to the laws of operant conditioning. (See Table 5.1)
|Table 5.1: Classical and Operant Conditioning|
|Classical (Pavlovian)||Operant (Skinnerian)|
|Deals with respondents, which are elicited by stimuli and appearinvoluntary||Deals with operants, which are emitted as purposeful(instrumental) acts|
|Reactions to the environment||Actions upon the environment|
|Type S conditioning (S for stimuli)||Type R conditioning (R for reinforcement)|
What Is Operant Conditioning?
The clearest illustration of operant conditioning involves a typical Skinnerian experiment in which a rat is placed in a Skinner box, a small,controlled environment (see Figure 5.4). The Skinner box is constructed to make certain responses highly probable and to allow theexperimenter to measure these responses and to punish or reward them. For a typical experiment, the box might contain a lever, a light, anelectric grid on the ﬂoor, and a food tray, arranged so that when the rat depresses the lever, the light goes on and a food pellet is released intothe tray. Most rats will quickly learn to depress the lever if rewarded. And they can also be trained to avoid the lever if depressing it activates amild electric current in the ﬂoor grid, or to depress it if doing so turns off a current that is otherwise constant.
A Skinner box. Operant conditioning is clearly demonstrated by Skinner’sexperiments observing a rat’s (e) interactions with a light (a), food tray (b), lever(c), and electric grid (d).
From G. R. Lefrançois, Theories of Human Learning: What the Old Woman Said (5thed.). Copyright 2006 Wadsworth.
Most of the basic elements of Skinner’s theory are evident in this situation. The rat’s depressing the lever is an operant—a behavior that issimply emitted rather than being elicited by a speciﬁc stimulus. The food pellets are reinforcement: they increase the probability that the rat willdepress the lever.
In general terms, operant conditioning increases the probability that a response will occur again. Furthermore, the reward, together withwhatever discriminated stimuli (SD) are present at the time of reinforcement, are stimuli that, after learning, may bring about the operant. Forexample, the rat’s view (and smell) of the inside of the Skinner box may eventually serve as stimuli for lever-pressing behavior. But, cautionsSkinner, these are not stimuli in the sense that a puff of air in the eye is a stimulus that elicits a blink. Rather, these discriminated stimuli aresignals that a certain behavior may lead to reinforcement. (See Figure 5.5 for a model of operant learning in the classroom.)
In operant conditioning, unlike classical conditioning, the original response isemitted rather than elicited by a stimulus. In this example, a variety of off-taskand on-task behaviors are emitted. Reinforcement leads to the more frequentoccurrence of on-task behaviors.
The causes of behavior, Skinner insisted, are outside the organism; they have to do with the consequences of actions. Thus, his science ofbehavior seeks to discover how consequences affect behavior (Skinner, 1969; see Figure 5.6).
The variables Skinner studied.
Reinforcement is the effect of any stimulus that increases the probability that a response will occur. There are two broad classes of reinforcers:primary and generalized. A primary reinforcer is a stimulus that the organism does not have to learn is reinforcing. Primary reinforcers areordinarily related to unlearned needs such as the need for food, drink, or sex. Stimuli that satisfy these needs tend to be highly reinforcing formost organisms.
A generalized reinforcer is a previously neutral stimulus that, through repeated pairings with other reinforcers in various situations, has becomereinforcing for many behaviors. In one sense, five dollars is only a piece of paper; that’s all it is to a very young child. But to an older child or anadult for whom dollars have been paired with many reinforcers, five dollars—or better yet, a whole fistful of five dollar bills—is an extremelypowerful generalized reinforcer. And so are prestige, fame, power, and high grades.
A stimulus is a positive reinforcer if it increases the probability of a response occurring when it is added to a situation. A negative reinforcerhas the same effect when it is removed from the situation. Negative reinforcers tend to be aversive stimuli (unpleasant outcomes such as anelectric shock or detention). Positive reinforcers tend to be positive stimuli (pleasant outcomes such as money, food, or tokens).
In the Skinner box example, food pellets are positive reinforcers—as might be the light if it’s paired with food. However, if a mild current wereturned on in the electric grid that runs through the ﬂoor of the box, and if this current were turned off only when the rat depressed the lever,turning off the current would be an example of an aversive stimulus serving as a negative reinforcer.
In summary, there are two types of reinforcement: One involves presenting a pleasant stimulus (positive reinforcement; reward); the otherinvolves removing an aversive stimulus (negative reinforcement; relief). Similarly, there are two types of punishment: removing a pleasantstimulus (penalty; often termed removal punishment); and presenting an aversive stimulus (castigation; sometimes called presentationpunishment).
Keep in mind that both positive and aversive stimuli can be used for either reinforcement or punishment. As Figure 5.7 illustrates, this dependson whether stimuli are added to or taken away from the situation following a behavior. Also keep in mind that whether a stimulus is reinforcingor not depends entirely on its effect on behavior. (See Figure 5.8 for classroom examples of operant conditioning.)
Reinforcement and punishment.
The first two classroom examples of operant conditioning (positive and negative reinforcement) lead to an increase inthe likelihood of the response. The last two examples (both forms of punishment) lead to a decrease in the likelihoodof the response. Teachers may also inadvertently reinforce maladaptive behaviors (second example). Note that in reallife, the implications of each of these consequences may not be so simple and straightforward.
Aversive and Positive Control
Note that negative reinforcement and punishment describe two very different situations. The two are often confused because each can involveaversive stimuli. But each has very different effects on behavior. Speciﬁcally, punishment is meant to bring about a reduction in behavior;whereas, negative reinforcement, like positive reinforcement, increases the probability that a response will occur. Thus, a child can beencouraged to speak politely to teachers by being smiled at for saying “please” and “thank you” (positive reinforcement). Another child can bebeaten with a cane (or threatened therewith) when “please” and “thank-you” are forgotten (punishment)—with the clear understanding that thecane will be put away only when behavior conforms to the teacher’s standards of politeness (negative reinforcement). In the end, both childrenmay be wonderfully polite. But which child, do you suppose, will like teachers and schools more? There is surely an extremely important lessonhere for teachers.
Strange as it might seem, the use of negative reinforcement as a means of control is highly prevalent in today’s schools, homes, and churches,as is the use of punishment. These methods of aversive control (in contrast to positive control) are evident in the issuance of low grades andverbal rebukes, threats of punishment, detention, and the unpleasant fates that most major religions promise transgressors. These methods areevident as well in our legal and judicial systems, which are extraordinarily punitive rather than rewarding.
Types of Reinforcement Schedules
The variables Skinner was most interested in investigating were type of reinforcement and reinforcement schedule (how reinforcement ispresented). He wanted to know how these affect behavior. He looked at how rapidly learning occurs, the rate of responding, and how longbehavior persists in the absence of reinforcement (Figure 5.6).
One of Skinner’s important early conclusions was that even a very small reward will lead to effective learning and will maintain behavior over along period. You don’t have to feed a dog an entire steak to teach it a sequence of simple tricks; a tiny morsel will do just as well. Besides, it’sclear that too much reward (satiation) may lead to a cessation of behavior. After several steaks, the dog might well say, “Enough, thank you, I’m—belch—going to curl up and sleep now.”
How reinforcement is administered is referred to as the schedule of reinforcement. Schedules always involve either continuous reinforcement,where every correct response is reinforced, or intermittent reinforcement (also called partial reinforcement), where only some correct responsesare reinforced—or some combination of the two.
Intermittent schedules of reinforcement might be based on a proportion of responses (a ratio schedule), or on the passage of time (an intervalschedule). For example, a ratio schedule might reinforce one out of ﬁve correct responses; an interval schedule might reinforce one correctresponse for every 15-second lapse. In either case, there are two more options: Reinforcement can be given in a predetermined fashion (ﬁxedschedule) or in a more haphazard manner (random or variable schedule). And, of course, different schedules might be used at the same time inwhat are termed concurrent schedules.
There is, also, one additional choice: a superstitious schedule. A superstitious schedule provides regular reinforcement no matter what thelearner is doing. It’s a ﬁxed-interval schedule without the requirement that there be a correct response before reinforcement occurs. Skinner(1948) once left six pigeons overnight on a superstitious schedule (they received reinforcement at regular intervals no matter what they did). Hefound that by morning one bird had learned to turn clockwise just before each reinforcement, another pointed its head toward the corner, andseveral had learned to sway back and forth.
Skinner suggests that we too learn superstitious behaviors as a result of reinforcement that occurs independently of what we do. For example,some of us are very careful to always put on our red and yellow underwear whenever the home team plays. After all, they won that one timewe wore those things. And they lost that time we forgot. Figure 5.9 summarizes Skinner’s schedules of reinforcement.
Schedules of reinforcement. Each type of schedule tends to generate a predictable pattern of responding.
Effects of Various Schedules
One of the things Skinner was interested in discovering was the relationship between various schedules of reinforcement and rate of learning,extinction rate, and response rate. Some of these results have important implications for teaching.
In the early stages of learning, it appears that continuous reinforcement leads to the highest rate of learning. When learning simple responsessuch as pressing a lever, the rat might become confused and would almost certainly learn much more slowly if only some of its initial correctresponses were reinforced.
Interestingly, although continuous reinforcement often leads to more rapid learning, the extinction rate for behavior that has been continuouslyreinforced is considerably faster than for behavior that has been reinforced intermittently.
Among animal subjects, rate of responding is clearly a function of the schedule used. Pigeons and rats, for example, often behave as thoughthey had developed expectations about reward. A pigeon that has been taught to peck a disk and is reinforced for the ﬁrst peck after a lapse of15 seconds (ﬁxed interval) often stops pecking immediately after being reinforced and starts again just before the end of the 15-second interval.If, on the other hand, the pigeon is reinforced on a random ratio basis, its response rate will be uniformly high and constant, often as high as2,000 or more pecks per hour. (See Figure 5.10.)
Idealized graphs showing pigeon pecking with two reinforcement schedules.
The Effects of Schedules on Humans
So! One can reinforce the behavior of rats and pigeons in a variety of clever ways and note a number of consistent effects this will have on theirridiculously simple behaviors. From this, many graduate dissertations and yards of published research can be derived for the erudition of thescholars and the amazement of the people. But what of human beings? How are they affected by schedules of reinforcement?
The simple answer is, in much the same way as experimental animals. Kollins, Newland, & Critchﬁeld (1997) reviewed 25 studies that looked atthis question. They conclude that humans seem to respond to schedules of reinforcement much as animals do. In the early stages of learning,we perform better under continuous schedules, but our responses are more durable and more predictable if we are later reinforcedintermittently. That the attention-seeking behaviors of young children are so highly persistent may well be precisely because these behaviors areoften reinforced intermittently.
Concurrent Schedules of Reinforcement
Clearly, however, human behavior is seldom as simple as might be the bar-pressing behavior of a rat or the key pecking of a pigeon. Neither therat nor the pigeon has a lot of choices in its highly controlled environment: to press or not to press; to peck or not to peck. . . . But you, on theother hand, might have a near-overwhelming array of choices: To go to a movie or not to go; to study or not to study; to call this friend or thatfriend or the other friend; to text-message a parent; to update Facebook; to twitter your current thoughts for the amazement of your friends;and on and on. To each of these choices is linked the possibility of reinforcement. And each might be associated with very different schedules ofreinforcement—a situation that defines concurrent schedules of reinforcement.
In studies of concurrent schedules, the organism can choose among two or more different behaviors, each of which is linked to a differentschedule of reinforcement. For example, a pigeon might be placed in a situation where pecking disk A is linked to a variable ratio schedule andpecking disk B is linked to a variable interval schedule. Studies of pigeons under these circumstances indicate that they typically select whichdisk to peck and adjust their rate of pecking in clearly predictable ways that tend to maximize reward. A pigeon is not totally stupid!
Not surprisingly, studies with human subjects lead to much the same conclusion: Our behaviors in experiments where responses are tied todifferent schedules of reinforcement tend to be directed toward maximizing reinforcement (Silberberg et al., 2008).
Shaping Through Operant Conditioning
“We cannot teach cows to retrieve a stick,” Guthrie informs us.Fetching sticks is simply not something that is of any interest tothis cow. The point is that the things we teach our children shouldbe things that they both can and want to do.
It is relatively simple to train a rat to press a lever, a pigeon to peck a disk, ora 2-year-old to say “Wazoo.” Why? Because these are some of the things thatrats, pigeons, and children do. But as Guthrie (1935) observes, “We cannotteach cows to retrieve a stick because this is one of the things that cows donot do” (1935, p. 45).
But maybe Guthrie is wrong: It just might be possible to train a cow toretrieve a stick. The psychologist charged with that task could stand there,leaning on the fence, day after day, watching for the behavior in question toappear. And when the cow ﬁnally decided in her cowlike way to pick up thestick, it would be a simple matter to reinforce her—say, with a nice new baleof timothy hay—thus, increasing the probability that the behavior would occuragain. Unfortunately, both the psychologist and the cow would likely die of oldage before the desired operant appeared.
Shaping is a much better way of teaching animals complex behaviors. Itinvolves reinforcing the animal for every response that brings it slightly closerto the desired behavior. For example, to teach the cow to pick up a stick, theexperimenter might initially reinforce the cow every time it turned toward thestick. Later, once the cow had learned to turn toward the stick, it would nolonger be reinforced until it moved slightly closer to it. And if thereinforcements were accompanied by a distinctive stimulus such as the soundof a cowbell (a discriminated stimulus), eventually the cow might walk directly to the stick every time it heard the bell. And, following thesystematic reinforcement of behaviors successively closer to the desired operant, in the end the cow might have learned to pick up and retrievethe stick, placing it gently in the psychologist’s hand, which would surely have amazed and confounded my grandmother!
Generalization and Discrimination
It isn’t possible for schools and teachers to give students experience with all situations in which a speciﬁc learned behavior will or will not beappropriate. Yet one of the most important tasks of schools is to prepare learners to respond appropriately in new situations. And reassuringlyoften, children do respond appropriately when faced with completely new situations. They learn to discriminate between situations where aparticular behavior is appropriate and others where it isn’t—termed discrimination learning. And they learn when to apply a behavior indifferent situations where appropriate—termed generalization.
As an example, many children learn very early in life that their mother will pay attention if they cry. And they soon learn to generalize thisbehavior from speciﬁc situations where they have obtained their mother’s attention to new situations where they desire her attention. Andoften, a wise mother can bring about discrimination learning simply by not paying attention to her child in those situations in which she doesn’twant to be disturbed—like when she’s on the phone.
Instructional Implications of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning
The principles of operant learning are enormously relevant for teaching. A classroom is in many ways like a gigantic Skinner box. Like a Skinnerbox, it is engineered so that certain responses are more probable than others. For example, it is easier to sit at a desk than to lie in one, and itis easier to remain awake when sitting than when lying down. And at the front of a million classrooms stand those who are among the mostpowerful dispensers of reinforcement—teachers. They smile or frown; they say “cool” or “that stinks;” they give high or low grades; occasionallythey grant special favors; at other times they withhold or cancel privileges. Through their use of reinforcement and punishment, sometimesdeliberate and planned and sometimes quite unconscious, teachers shape the behavior of their students.
One clear implication of Skinner’s theory is a strong emphasis on methods of positive rather than aversive control (positive reinforcement ratherthan negative reinforcement and punishment).
The speciﬁc and systematic application of operant conditioning principles to education requires that teachers become behavior analysts—thatthey dedicate themselves both to identifying and establishing environments that will lead to desirable behaviors and to providing reinforcementconsequences that will maintain these behaviors. A collective label for the application of operant principles in education and in therapy isbehavior modiﬁcation (discussed in Chapter 9). (See Table 5.2 for other classroom applications of operant conditioning principles.)
|Table 5.2: Some Operant Conditioning Concepts Applied to Instruction|
|PositiveReinforcement(reward)||Probability of abehavior increasesfollowing thepresentation of aconsequenceusually perceivedas positive||Ellen writes an original poem, reads it in class, and receives highpraise||An increase in thelikelihood of Ellen’swriting more poems andreading them in class|
|NegativeReinforcement(relief)||Probability of abehavior increasesfollowing theremoval of aconsequenceusually perceivedas aversive||Leonard is terribly afraid of making a fool of himself when hepresents his science experiment to the class; he stays home on theday of the science fair; his fear disappears||An increase in thelikelihood that Leonardwill subsequently try toavoid stressful situations|
|PresentationPunishment(castigation)||Probability of abehaviordecreasesfollowing aconsequenceusually perceivedas aversive||Leonard’s father reprimands him severely for having stayed homefrom school||Leonard may be morelikely to go to school inthe future, even whenfaced with fearsome tasks|
|RemovalPunishment(penalty)||Probability of abehaviordecreases when itleads to theremoval of astimulus ordinarilyperceived aspositive||Sammy bullies the smaller children on the playground; as aconsequence, his teacher slashes his playtime in half for a week||Sammy is less likely tobully the playgroundchildren again|
|Shaping||A complexbehavior isbrought about ormodified throughreinforcement ofsuccessively closerapproximations||Early in her Spanish class, Sylvia is praised for saying “hey meee,nah me emportay,” and other similar phrases, no matter what herpronunciation. But later in the class, she receives praise only forphrases that no longer contain her most elementary errors. Finally,there is praise only for correctly pronounced phrases||Sylvia’s pronunciationimproves dramaticallythrough the course|
|Generalization||Responses learnedin one situationare transferred toanother similarsituation||A grade-2 teacher sets up a “store” in her multilingual ESL classwhere children can use play money to buy various objects||Juan, who is newlylearning English, cansubsequently shop in hisneighborhood store withfar more confidence,applying addition andsubtraction rules learnedand practiced in school|
|Discrimination||Responses learnedin one situationare judgedinappropriate inanother similarbut not identicalsituation||In early September, all the children yell and shout at each other onthe playground during recess; many of the first grade childrencontinue to do so when they go back into their classrooms afterthe buzzer sounds; teachers in the different classrooms use variouscombinations of reinforcement and punishment to suppress someof the noise||By October most of thefirst-grade children havelearned to discriminatemore readily betweensituations where loudnoise is appropriate andsituations where it is lessappropriate|
|Extinction||Responses thatare not reinforcedbecome lessfrequent||Cheryl delights in making her classmates laugh, usually bycontorting her face or making rude noises with her palms and herarmpits, often disrupting the flow of classroom activities; she paysno attention to the teacher’s request that she stop thesebehaviors, and appears unfazed by the various punishmentsorganized by the teacher and principal. In the end, the teacherasks the students to ignore Cheryl as much as they possible can;they comply.||Cheryl’s acting outbecomes more and moreinfrequent, finallydisappearing altogether|
Limitations of Operant Conditioning Applications
There are many, however, who are quick to point out that behaviorism is not a universal cure for all our educational ills. Even if we agree thatbehavioristic principles should be applied whenever possible, we would soon discover that in countless instances they cannot be applied veryeffectively at all. The fact is that teachers seldom control the most powerful reinforcers that affect student behavior—for example, peeracceptance and praise, parental approval, and so on. This means that teachers are often relegated to using what are, at least for some students,relatively weaker reinforcers—teacher approval and grades.
A second problem is that one of the central tasks of teaching is often to bring about a desired response rather than simply to increase itsfrequency or to prevent it from being extinguished. This is quite unlike the Skinner box situation where the main problem is to control andmaintain a speciﬁc response through the manipulation of reinforcement; eliciting the response is often a minor problem.
A third problem is that although operant principles can be used to control maladaptive behavior, their application sometimes has limitations.Martin and Pear (2007) point out that behavior modiﬁcation techniques applied to behavior problems often ignore the causes of misbehaviorand sometimes lack long-term beneﬁts.
Finally, there are those who object to Skinner’s theory on more philosophical grounds. They argue that the view that rewards and punishmentscontrol our behaviors reduces us to puppets and robs us of our freedom and dignity. They suggest that experiments with animals don’tgeneralize well to humans—that we are much more than just animals. Yes, Skinner replies: “Man is much more than a dog. But like a dog he iswithin range of scientiﬁc analysis” (1971, p. 21).