Pavlov's Dogs

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote stuck in the corner of my whiteboard

Ivan Pavlov first used the term ‘reinforcement’ as a psychological theory back in the early 1900s. In the famous experiment trained dogs so that when he rang a bell they knew they were about to be fed. After a short while they would start salivating (a conditional response) upon hearing the bell (a conditional stimulus).

The same principle applies in classrooms. In practice, many of us recognise that praising a pupil reinforces their positive behaviour, and most of us refer to this as positive reinforcment (although it differs from the technical term as used in psychological theory). It seems a sound enough argument – reward somebody for doing well or trying hard and they are more likely to want to do well and try hard in the future.(1)

My first thought after this is ‘what is negative reinforcement?’ Is it reinforcing negative behaviour, such as giving attention to attention seekers when they behave poorly? Is it taking punitive measures when somebody misbehaves? Or is it as simple as not providing postive feedback when someone has done well or tried hard? Which of those lead to negative results?

I’ve been thinking about this after watching my daughter (4) at her dance class. She was mucking about and not listening to the teacher and so I gave her ‘the look’ from the sidelines and made it clear that I wasn’t happy. She immediately started sulking and paid no more attention to the teacher than she had before.

A few minutes later she looked back over to me and I gave her an encouraging thumbs up and a smile. The response was immediate – a happy, smiling, attentive and energetic little girl dancing around and keeping to the steps.

It’s often difficult to offer positive reinforcement when there isn’t positive behaviour to reinforce. There is, however, always positive potential – and if we can reinforce that then maybe some of those situations that are turning sour might just be turned around.

It’s not a perfect solution and it won’t guarantee a good lesson from that horrible class you dread on a Friday afternoon. I can’t even honestly say I use it often enough myself, but it’s worth bearing in mind. In an attempt to remind me, I’ve made up and printed out the image at the top of the post and stuck it in the corner of my whiteboard, to remind me that my actions have a heck of an impact on students. Something worth remembering.

(1) Interestingly, the ideal outcome would be for a pupil’s positive behaviour (conditional stimulus) to invoke positive feedback/praise (conditional response) – making the teachers the subjects of the psychology, not the students.

It’s interesting to think that badly behaved attention seekers use psychological tools to get their desired conditoned response…

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2 thoughts on “Pavlov's Dogs

  1. simfin says:

    It was a long time ago that I concluded that managing a class is similar to living with a dog – in both cases the best results come from consistency, fairness and rewarding correct behaviour. Both take a dim view of punishment/negative feedback. With a new dog in our house I’ve noticed a further challenge; how do you get a dog to do the right behaviour, while he’s doing the wrong behaviour – if negative reinforcement – is ineffective? eg he runs after joggers when I get him back do I scold or praise? Scold, he doesn’t come back next time, praise and he thinks chasing joggers is a good thing. My strategy is; when i see bad behaviour is imminent – I give him something positive to do and praise. Can the effective teacher pre empt the negative moment by providing opportunities to be praised?

    Paws for thought 🙂

  2. I am in the process of reading NLP for teachers and came across a chapter very similar to what you are saying and have been experimenting at home with my young children and also in class. It is fair to say that the ignored child then often craves the attention even more but starts to focus on doing something right / praiseworthy. “CATCH EM DOING SOMETHING RIGHT!”
    There is an interesting section on peripheral vision and praising to the left and right of the offending child thus focussing the attention in the direction of but not at the “naughty” / attention seeking child. Interesting stuff.
    thanks for the post 🙂
    Suzi Bewell

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