The Real Dichotomy: Part 2

Give to every man according to his deserts, and who shall scape whipping? 

We are all behaviourists. Some of us are simply more conscious of it than others.

“It is not true that reinforcement is an invention of behaviourists. Reinforcement is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Behaviourists have simply applied the effects of reinforcement in a thoughtful and systematic manner. ” (Alberto and Troutman).

If I find my salary rewarding, that is reinforcement. I have not met a teacher yet who was happy to do what they do for free. That does not mean that their salary is everything they feel they deserve, but it does mean that it encourages them to turn up for work. In behavioural terms, it is maintaining that behaviour. If I like a particular food, that is reinforcement. If I find a certain food aversive, that is punishment. Likewise music, sport, personalities. Things we find motivating are reinforcers. Things we find demotivating are punishers. That’s what we human beings are like.

But I can change my behaviour by thinking. I don’t need a rewards system to do that. My behaviour is cognitively driven. 

1. There is the obvious point that thoughts are also behaviours. They simply aren’t much use for scientific observation because they cannot be directly observed. For that matter, they aren’t directly observable in the classroom either. We infer thoughts from behaviours – actions, speech, essays, answers, questions, even facial expressions.

2. There are reasons why we do things. It may be the desire for instant gratification (I have to eat that last piece of cake in the fridge right now!) or it may be a long-delayed goal (I am determined to save up the deposit for that house regardless of how tough life is in the meantime). The reason for doing something is our motive; the goal we obtain is called, by behaviourists, positive reinforcement. The time scale is variable.

Teachers are behaviourists whether they like it or not. They have to be to survive in the classroom. Why do we praise students? To let them know they did something right. To make them feel good about it. To encourage them to do it again. That’s positive reinforcement. If you praise then you are, to this extent, already a behaviourist.

However, if you consciously accept that you are using praise as a tool to shape students’ learning behaviours, you can “systematically and thoughtfully” find out how to use praise more effectively. For example, behaviourists can tell you that praise, like other reinforcers, can reach satiation – that is, students hear it so many times it no longer seems worth anything. You can find out that if praise is contingent on specific behaviours (e.g achieving learning goals), and is explicitly linked to those behaviours, it will be more effective. Indiscriminate praise can lead to students feeling rewarded for whatever they do – and so they will do “whatever”. Praise has to be varied in wording. It can be understated, subtle, even private, and be more effective. If used unwisely, praise can be aversive. Have you ever felt patronised by praise? Have you ever called a fourteen-year-old “good boy” when he desperately wants to be regarded as a young man?

The allegation that behaviourists encourage giving sweets as rewards is simply wrong. It is always – always – used by people with limited or no real knowledge of behavioural science. If you are trained in behavioural techniques, you will know that you should use rewards – especially “primary” rewards such as food – with great care. Behaviourists will tell you that such rewards can actually distract students from what you want them to achieve. They must be used judiciously. We must have a plan for “fading” them out. Such rewards should only be used to establish a behaviour reliably, not to maintain it over time – and even then, only with exceptional children. Behaviourists will tell you of the importance of working towards naturally occurring reinforcers, i.e. the reasons people normally do things: for praise, social approval, personal satisfaction, curiosity, income, stable relationships, and so on. To fail to do this is to make the student dependent.

It was behaviourists who discovered “learned helplessness”, a phenomenon that plagues our classrooms with students who have been given too much help, so that they do not work independently. It was behaviourists who systematised “scaffolding”  through prompts, chaining and cognitive strategies. Behaviourists developed applied behaviour analysis programmes that actually helped ‘ineducable’ autistic children to learn;  it was behaviourists who implemented programmes to help ‘ineducable’ children with Downs Syndrome to read.

All this has very little to do with pigeons, rats, or strange people in white coats pulling electric switches. These stereotypical images have been fed to generations of teachers by “progressive” teacher trainers, horrifed as they are by the notion of “control” which they see as implicit in behavioural techniques.

Behavioural techniques are as controlling as our ethics, and our environment, will permit. The very fact that people fear the power of these techniques suggests that they are indeed effective. Once upon a time, schools used physical force regularly. Now we don’t. There have been incidents where staff (often poorly trained staff) in educational institutions used behavioural techniques in clear violation of ethics. This post is not about that. It is about the fact that generations of teachers have missed out on a systematic and thoughtful way of improving their effectiveness, because of misrepresentations and misconceptions.

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