All our lives long, we are constantly learning and teaching. As soon as we interact with other individuals (both people or animals) we are going to change their and our behaviors: that’s the true meaning of the word “teaching”. We accomplish this by unbalancing our party through the stimuli that we present in order to get the desired behavior. We don’t realize it, but our activities are a continuous, single and life long lasting process of teaching and learning. I Can use different methods and techniques to achieve this result: from the most kind and compassionate to the most coercive and negative. When I started my own experience as Clicker Trainer I was taught that we can choose from four different types of tools:
R + (Positive Reinforcement): the delivering of something desiderable to increases the emission of a given behavior. The dog sits, the dog receives food.
R-(Negative Reinforcement): the delivering of something that the subject does not want –aversive- increases the frequency of a given behavior. Kick the horse’s flanks to make it move (of course I should stop when I get what I want).
P + (Positive Punishment): the delivering of something that the subject does not want with the intent to decrease the frequency emission of a given behavior. Beat the dog because he peed the carpet.
P- (Negative Punishment): take away something that the subject wishes to decrease the frequency of emission of a given behavior. Tonight Sam will not watch the TV because he went home lately after school.
A reinforcer is an event that occurs during the behavior; the subject performing the behavior may or may not receive or avoid changing its own behavior. If the horse takes a step he is no longer kicked. The choice is up to the subject: he/she is the one who decides to operate his/her behavior according to its consequences (hence the definition “operant conditioning”). Punishment, on the other side, takes place after the behavior and the subject cannot avoid it, but only endure. Sam can only not watch TV tonight, and the dog cannot help but be beaten because the carpet is wet. I’m not dividing between more or less coercive behaviors. A lady told me tonight thats he slapped lightly her dog because he flew away. I’m sure the slap was really light, but it was still a punishment. In this case, even a simple “bad dog!” would be labeled as punishment.
My opinion is this: since it happens after the behavior, and has no educational significance to the recipient (the dog has learned not to pee?) we can get rid of punishment from our choice of useful tools for teaching. Let’s leave the punishment to the role -sometimes legitimate, as in the case of the lady- vent of our frustration for not being able to change the behavior of the subject according to our wishes. A this point are left with R + and R-. We could then assume the learning process, not as a cross divided between reinforcements and punishments as described, but as a flowing continuum. In the middle we have our students with R + and R – to the sides. Task of us teachers is to keep as much as possible our student in the central zone that is where optimal learning happens, correcting the course through the two reinforcements. We must be cautious in the use of reinforcements since their misuse can unbalance the behavior of our student and keep it away from our area of learning.
“Could you pass me the salt?” is a stimulus that unbalances the balance of the person we are addressing to. As easiest way to get her balance back he/she has to performe the required behavior: to pass the salt. Our “thank you” works as reinforcement (happens during the behavior) and indicates that we got what we wanted. The person who has passed the salt understands that you are satisfied, regaining in this way his/her balance. In this example, our request (our teaching) has minimally skewed balance (probably the person to whom we turned to will not even raise his head from the dish) and everything went smoothly.
My parents went on holiday in Poland. Of course, they do not speak Polish and, of course, they had some difficulties with the language. A simple ” Podaj mi sól, proszę?” is a demand (we can call it stimulus) rather unbalancing: when we do not understand a request we employ all our resources to try to understand and this is pretty overbalancing. If this situation should last for a long period there might be serious consequences. When we can no longer rely on the language, we find ourselves in the same condition in which we are when we work with animals.
Imagine being invited to dinner in Poland. A diner asks you, “Podaj Mi Sol, prosze?” You try to understand what you are asked and you move a little, nervous, in the chair. The diner gets angry and slams his fists yells at you “Podaj Mi Sol, prosze?”. You’re in panic! What the hell do he wants from you? Why he’s getting angry? You try to stand up and he gets angry even more, he threatens you, screams etc etc. You try something, there’s some water on the table. you pass the water and hew completely freaks out: he grabs you by the shoulders, shaking and yelling his: ” Podaj Mi Sol, prosze?”. Somehow you understand that the diner’s behavior has something to do with the table … but you are out of your spirits, frustrated and angry. You get out coarsing to the diner and slamming the door. In the meanwhile the diner turnes to other guests saying, “osoba leniwa the nieinteligentny …”
What happened? Simply that the stimulus that you faced with was too unbalancing and you have decided to quit. Wouldn’t it be better if your diner should have shaped your behavior instead of screaming’? Using kind words and affably signaling and marking your progress toward what he wanted and keeping silent about your not successfully attempts. Relax and calm you would understand what he wanted and you would have learned your first words in the new language.
As you can see the first situation is a metaphor for teaching coercive, based on punishment and negative reinforcement, the second is a positive teaching based on positive reinforcement. Where were you better? Where do you think your son, your coworker or your dog would do better? As long as we can keep our learnes inside the understanding zone we are provide them with the perfect environment for a safe learning, and this will make us great teachers.
The concepts of “understanding zone” and teaching as a flowing continuum are gift from Les Kiger. Yu can find Les’s thoughts here: http://equuality.com/blog/
The idea that we, as teachers, are deliberately unbalancing our students is a gift from Ted DesMaisons. Ted share his thoughts here: http://tedwordsblog.com/