Shaping A Child’s Behavior

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Charlotte Thomson IserbytDay 15: Skin­ner Hor­ror Files

More his­to­ry that would upset par­ents if they only knew…


B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skin­ner

In 1961 PROGRAMMED LEARNING: EVOLVING PRINCIPLES AND INDUSTRIAL APPLICATIONS (Foun­da­tion for Research on Human Behav­ior: Ann Arbor, Mich., 1961) edit­ed by Jerome P. Lysaught was pub­lished. An excerpt from the intro­duc­tion by Thomas H. Miller follows:

To intro­duce the sub­ject, we would like to have each of you work through the first les­son of Dr. B.F. Skinner’s course in psy­chol­o­gy. We would hope, inci­den­tal­ly, that a por­tion of the mate­r­i­al is some­what new to you so that some learn­ing will actu­al­ly take place in your encounter with the sub­ject mat­ter. Fur­ther, we hope it will demon­strate cer­tain phe­nom­e­na that will be spo­ken of repeat­ed­ly today, such as effec­tive rein­force­ment of the learn­er and progress at the indi­vid­ual rate.…

Your intro­duc­tion to the course con­sists of the pre­sen­ta­tion of the pro­grammed learn­ing sequence on the next pages.

The direc­tions are sim­ple. You should read the first stim­u­lus item, S‑1, con­sid­er it, and then con­struct in your own words the best pos­si­ble answer. As soon as you have done this, turn the page and com­pare your answer with the answer list­ed at R‑1, the first response item. Pro­ceed through the pro­gram, going on to S‑2 on the next page.

Skinner photo2Under the sec­tion enti­tled “Prin­ci­ples of Pro­gram­ming,” writ­ten by Robert Glaser (see pre­vi­ous blog­posts here and here), we find
the fol­low­ing excerpts to be revealing:

It is indeed true that this book would nev­er have been con­ceived with­out the well-known and per­haps undy­ing work of Pro­fes­sor Skin­ner…. It is large­ly through Pro­fes­sor Skinner’s work that all this the­o­ry and excite­ment about teach­ing machines and pro­grammed learn­ing has come about.

The essen­tial task involved is to evoke the spe­cif­ic forms of behav­ior from the stu­dent and through appro­pri­ate rein­force­ment bring them under the con­trol of spe­cif­ic sub­ject mat­ter stim­uli. As a stu­dent goes through a learn­ing pro­gram cer­tain of his respons­es must be strength­ened and shaped from ini­tial unskilled behav­ior to sub­ject mat­ter com­pe­tence.… Our present knowl­edge of the learn­ing process points out that through the process of rein­force­ment, new forms of behav­ior can be cre­at­ed with a great degree of sub­tle­ty. The cen­tral fea­ture of this process is mak­ing the rein­force­ment con­tin­gent upon per­for­mances of the learn­er. (Often the word “reward” is used to refer to one class of rein­forc­ing events.)…

Skinner lab ratThe term “pro­gram­ming” refers to the process of con­struct­ing sequences of instruc­tion­al mate­r­i­al in a way that max­i­mizes the rate of acqui­si­tion and reten­tion and enhances the moti­va­tion of the stu­dent.… A cen­tral process for the acqui­si­tion of behav­ior is rein­force­ment.

Behav­ior is acquired as a result of a con­tin­gent rela­tion­ship between the response of an organ­ism and a con­se­quent event. In order for these con­tin­gen­cies of rein­force­ment to be effec­tive, cer­tain con­di­tions must be met. Rein­force­ment must fol­low the occur­rence of the behav­ior being taught. If this is not the case, dif­fer­ent and per­haps unwar­rant­ed behav­ior be learned.

computer kidsThe com­put­er (Skin­ner’s “teach­ing machine”) was par­tic­u­lar­ly suit­ed for pro­vid­ing imme­di­ate “rein­force­ment” to chil­dren. This was Skin­ner’s “Pro­grammed Learn­ing,” and we are now 53 years lat­er. Just what is hap­pen­ing to your child in the class­room these days? Do you even know?

The above material was adapted for blog posting, with emphasis added. It comes from page 61 of my book. Want to know more? See Appendix 3 of my book the deliberate dumbing down of america. Be sure to read yesterday’s post HERE for more context and background.