Many thanks to my dear friend, Ted DesMaisons, who edited the English version for the articles of this series.Ted runs an amazing Blog about learning, teaching, meditation and improvisation: http://tedwordsblog.com/
The environment bombs us with stimuli. We learn to respond to these stimuli or–at least to those relevant stimuli–important for our “survival ” through the exhibition of certain behaviors. Inside the classroom you are – hopefully – seated; in the gym you train; in the agility yard, you (your dog, actually) jump the hurdles.
Learning consists of coming to know what behavior to exhibit, under certain conditions: we call these conditions cues. The behaviors become conditioned to these signals. When I type on the keyboard, I learn that to get the letter “A”, which I have learned, represents the sound “a”, I need to hit a given key <A>.
I do not learn to hit the key: I do learn under what conditions hitting the <A> key will work and it will be- reinforced. If you want to write “casa” (“home” in Italian), there are two sounds “A” that reinforce hitting the key <A>. If I, instead of <A>, type <E> I’ d get “Cese”, a word that has no meaning in my language and, for this reason, will not bring any reinforcement . Even my dog, Akira, knows how to hit on a keyboard; what he doesn’t know and he will never be able to do, given his physical-cognitive skills, is to discriminate the meaning of hitting the <A> key. (I can shape this behavior, but, to the dog, it will not have ever had the same meaning it will have for an human being.) Without disturbing my border collie, who, after his daily walk lies blissfully asleep, my son (5 and a half years old) knows how to hit on the keyboard. He can also send a text message to his older cousin: ”AIHHIHEEEEEE4444FDFFFF FFFFFFFFFFFFFFHJH” which means “Hello , how are you?”
Which is the skill that the kid should learn? Not the behavior of tapping the keys —he already knows that- but to discriminate when the tapping works (reinforcer) to hit the <A>. In other words, he has to learn to write.
Again, this is not to teach new physical motor skills. These skills are either present in the repertoire of the individual or are not, and cannot , therefore, be taught. These are things that will come, “naturally”, with the cognitive – psycho- physical development of the person in a natural and normal environment. Genes are activated progressively throughout the lifetime, to ensure in every moment the best behavioral resources and, consequently, the best chance of survival. This heritage of behaviors is shaped by the environment that selects both what behaviors will remain and when it will be appropriate to exhibit them. If I play soccer I know that it is appropriate to wear a certain uniform for the game, the same behavior: ”wearing my soccer team’s uniform” will not be reinforced by a romantic date. The behavior is the same, what changes are the cues. The game is a cue that, when it occurs, is the condition for which it makes sense to wear the soccer uniform, or rather, it will be reinforced. But the wearing behavior is not taught: or one individual is biologically able to wear the suit or he/she’s not . For this reason I will never get to teach Akira to dress himself with shorts: He lacks the right joints, the opposable fingers. Most importantly, he doesn’t have the cognitive skill to discriminate the “usefulness” of wearing the shorts.
What is taught is the conditioning of behavior given a specific cue. For this reason we must pay close attention so that, in the learning environment in which we operate, there are no other cues that may distract or confuse the student. If you teach a dog a hand target, the cue, presenting the hand, must be absolutely consistent, as is a traffic light when it turns red.
You can Imagine what could happen if traffic lights at different crossings would come in different sizes or in slightly different colors : larger or smaller, emerald green or lime green, … How many car accidents would happen then?
A cue that influences the behavior is always present during teaching. Shaping, in my idea, is not teaching in gradual increments a certain behavior, but, rather, is conditioning, in gradual increments, a given cue.