THEORY OF OPERANT CONDITIONING
According to Dr. C. George Boeree (2006), B.F. Skinner first promoted the theory of operant conditioning as an alternative to Pavlov’s classical conditioning. The term “operant” is derived from the organism “operating” on the environment. During this operating process, the organism encounters certain reinforcing stimuli, which encourages it to repeat the behavior that led to the stimulus, or reinforcer. The theory is based upon the fact that certain behaviors have certain consequences. Pleasant consequences lead to repeated behavior to continue experiencing the pleasant sensations.
When behavior is followed by a reinforces, this increases the probability of similar future behavior. On the other hand, the extinction of operant behavior occurs in the absence of a reinforcer, or when the reinforcer is removed. The futile nature of the behavior becomes clear, and the organism gives up (Boeree, 2006).
Boeree (2006) also note that, according to Skinner, the return of the reinforcer would also lead to a much quicker return to the original behavior than it took to learn when the reinforcer was first introduced. This is based upon the context of a reinforcement history. Skinner also discovered that reinforcers could be scheduled. When scheduled at certain time intervals, Skinner discovered that organisms would pace themselves accordingly — slowing down right after the reinforcer’s occurrence, while speeding up again when the reinforcer time approaches.
When Skinner experimented with variable schedules, on the other hand, he discovered that organisms would no longer pace themselves, as there is no longer a clear rhythm in the appearance of the reinforcer. They do however continue the behavior in the hope of encountering the reinforcer — the behavior is resistant to extinction when the reinforcer is continuously presented, regardless of time interval.
POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT
Louis M. Smith (1994, p. 3) refers to Skinner as both an “experimentalist” and a “utopian.” In his theory of behavior, Skinner addressed not only human psychology, but also that of all other sentient organisms. He promoted the idea that positive reinforcement acted as a stimulus that encouraged behavior. He was not a promoter of negative reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement means that rewards are provided for desirable behavior. When the desirable behavior occurs, the trainer or teacher provides a pleasant stimulus. The organism associates the reinforcer with the consequences of the behavior and is encouraged to repeat the behavior.
Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, refers to unpleasant stimulus, which is provided to discourage undesirable behavior. This is tantamount to punishment for incorrect behavior. An electric shock, for example, would discourage undesirable behavior in certain animals, or a slap would create the same effect in children.
C. EFFECTIVE REINFORCEMENT
My tendency is to agree with Skinner — positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement. My reasoning is based not only upon the behavior itself, but also upon the relationship between the organism and the trainer. An organism that most receives negative reinforcement associates such reinforcement not only with the undesirable behavior, but also with the trainer. The relationship between the trainer and organism is damaged, and trust is undermined. Trust is important to effective training.
A better way to discourage undesirable behavior is perhaps to initially provide positive reinforcement, which is removed when the behavior is repeated, resulting in the organism eventually giving up. This maintains the trust between the organism and the trainer. The organism then also associates the pleasant stimulus with the trainer, which encourages a desire to maintain the trust relationship.
D. SHAPING BEHAVIOR
An example of using operant conditioning to shape behavior could be applied to the teaching context. Desirable behavior for children in a classroom is to sit quietly and listen while the teacher is talking or giving instructions. Unruly children tend to have a disruptive effect upon learning, as instructions are neither heard nor followed. To teach them the skill of listening carefully, I would then use operant conditioning by rewarding them for listening carefully and effectively. From my own school experience, the teachers who are most adored are those who obtain results not only by teaching effectively, but those who do so by reward rather than punishment.
E. REINFORCEMENT SCHEDULE
In a Grade 2 class, I would divide the young students into groups of two. I would ask them to listen carefully to a short story that I tell them. The story will be designed to raise their interest. They will then be ask to create a scene that follows the open-ended story I just told. The story that best follows the details of my own receives the reward of sweets or something similarly pleasant.
I will further reinforce good listening behavior by devising a different listening exercise on a daily basis. The best performance at the end of each listening class will be reinforced by a reward. I will also use rewards such as praise and high grades to reinforce similar behavior. The specific reward will be varied, but consistently applied to the desired behavior.
As a teacher, I believe that establishing a relationship of positive trust with students will result in much better student performance than a premise of punishment.
Boeree, C.George. (2006). B.F. Skinner 1904-1990. Personality Theories. http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/skinner.html
Modgil, Celia, & Skinner, B.F.B.F. Skinner: Consensus and Controversy. Routledge, 1987.
Smith, Louis M. (1994). B.F. Skinner. Prospects: quarterly review of comparative education, Vol. XXIV, no.3/4. Paris: UNESCO. http://www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/archive/publications/ThinkersPdf/skinnere.PDF
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