In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Nature of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory 2. Experimental Evidences of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory 3. Principles 4. Schedules of Reinforcement Suggested by Skinner 5. Educational Implications 6. Final Note 7. Some Objections.
- Nature of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory
- Experimental Evidences of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory
- Principles of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory
- Schedules of Reinforcement Suggested by Skinner
- Educational Implications of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory
- Final Note on of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory
- Some Objections to Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory
1. Nature of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory:
B.K. Skinner is a very staunch behaviourist. He was the professor of psychology in Harvard University. His theory of operant conditioning also known as instrumental conditioning is nothing but only an extension of S-R Bond theory of Thorndike, Watson and Pavlov. Skinner considers man like a machine or automation-with no personality and no inner free self and is only a tool of the environment.
His psychology is of engineering type and lays emphasis on application of psychological principles on actual life situations. Man in neutral and passive. His basic thesis is that an organism tends to do in future what it was doing at the time of reinforcement which meant that by bating at each step; one could make the organism to do what he wishes it to do.
In operant conditioning, the important stimulus is the one immediately following the response and not the preceding one. Any response which leads to reinforcement is thereby strengthened. If the occurrence of an operant is followed by presentation of reinforcing stimulus, the strength increases. Hence, carefully stated, an operant is a class of responses of which a specific response is an instance or member e.g., a rat presses a lever and gets food. Because of the same, the rat will be more likely to press the lever again.
The operant as a class of behaviour rather than the response at a particular instance is reinforced. It is not correct to say that an operant reinforcement strengthened the response which preceded it. The response has already occurred and cannot be changed. What has been changed is that the probability that class of responses will occur in the future has been increased. Since each reinforcement builds up reserve of responses, a pigeon may continue to raise its head or rat to press the lever several times even after food has ceased to appear.
The law of operant conditioning is that if the occurrence of an operant is followed by presentation of a reinforcing stimulus, the strength probability is increased. What is strengthened is not an S-R bond; the operant requires no specific eliciting stimulus. In so far as the organism is concerned the only important property of the operant contingency is time; the reinforcer follows the response. The process of operant conditioning may be described without any mention of a stimulus that acts before the response is made.
Sight of hot radiator – Touching of radiator
Touching of hot radiator – Withdrawal – Terminates contact with hot radiator (Reinforcement)
Sight of radiator – Withdrawal and avoidance of contact.
In operant conditioning the subjects seeing a bond is in no way essential. Skinner considers Thorndike’s expression Trial and Error’ to be superfluous and out of place, he observes that behaviour that is more likely to occur is dependent upon a response, not the stimulus that gave rise to that response. The discriminative stimulus does not elicit a response; it simply alters a probability of occurrence.
In brief, Skinner considers two types of behaviours. Firstly, respondent or reflective behaviour and secondly operant behaviour. In the first type of behaviour knowledge of stimulus is there while in second type of behaviour, why one specific type of behaviour occurred-the stimulus is not clear. He further quoted two types of responses-Elicited Response and Emitted Response. First type of response is related to stimulus directly while in second case no stimulus (known) is attached; such type of response is called operant. On its basis the bonds are also formed in two forms. First type of bond is called stimulus conditioning or S-type and second type of bond is called response conditioning or R-type. According to Skinner, R-type bond is more important.
In the words of Skinner-
“Operant conditioning is the learning process whereby a response is made more probable or more frequent and operant is strengthened i.e., reinforced.”
2. Experimental Evidences of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory:
Operant conditioning has come into considerable prominence in recent years as a result of Skinner’s success in training animals and more recently in shaping academic behaviour through programmed instruction. He performed many experiments on rats, cats, dogs, pigeons etc. Below are mentioned few important one.
In an experiment a hungry pigeon was kept in a Skinner box. The pigeon has to raise his head to a particular height and peck at a particular spot in order to get his food. In actual experiment, the pigeon was first rewarded with a food pellet, when it approached a disc, then only when it nodded toward it and eventually only when it actually pecked it. By certain repetitions it learnt to do so quickly and automatically. Skinner called such behaviour of learning to peck or to press a lever or bar to get the reward, as operant conditioning. Operant means effective or active and this term indicates that the organism is operating upon the environment.
Here, the process of operant conditioning is the change in frequency with which the head is lifted to a given height. The reinforcer is food and the reinforcement is the process of food presentation, when the response is emitted (the head is raised to a particular height and a particular spot is pecked). The operant is the height to which the head must be raised. By judiciously rewarding the spontaneous action of birds, Skinner has shaped the behaviour of birds in many ways. Some pigeons have been taught for example, to peck a bell back and forth across a table, to play ping-pong and to peck out tunes on a xylophone.
In a similar experiment Skinner put a hungry rat into his box. The box was equipped with a bar and food tray. The bar could be depressed. Occasionally, the rat would wander over and push the bar down. After a while Skinner would reinforce this action by permitting a food pellet to fall into the tray when the bar was depressed by the rat. The Skinner further modified his experiment, food pellets would be supplied under certain conditions when the bar was pushed down, for instance, when a tone was sounded.
The experiment involves all the basic principles of classical conditioning as, the rat learned to press the bar more frequently when the behaviour was reinforced by a food pellet. If it was not reinforced, extinction occurred, for a while the rat generalized and pushed the bar down at the same rate when the tone was sounded. Eventually after selective reinforcement had been repeated it discriminated and pushed the bar only certain conditions when the bar was pushed down, for instance, when a tone was sounded.
The experiment involves all the basic principles of classical conditioning as, the rat learned to press the bar more frequently when the behaviour was reinforced by a food pellet. If it was not reinforced, extinction occurred, for a while the rat generalized and pushed the bar down at the same rate when the tone was sounded.
Eventually after selective reinforcement had been repeated it discriminated and pushed the bar only when the tone was sounded. Although the experiment seems similar to Palov’s experiment as regards with dog and rat, Skinner’s rats are more active as they operated on the bar. It is thus that Skinner called this operant conditioning as instrumental since the behaviour of organism is instrumental in accomplishing the purpose.
In 1950, a man of 70 who had lost his speech at the age of 50 years could not be cured by psycho-analysis and was later subjected to operant conditioning. Kessoran treated him. The subject was supplied food and Kessoran herself set aside, watching the subject, the man looked and looked again at the food but could not speak. The woman did not pay any attention to him nor, looked at in support. The man just moved his lips and did not perform any activity. The woman took away the food.
Next day, when the food was supplied again, the subject made greater efforts with the speech apparatus. At this moment, the woman put some food before him. As a result of the experiment in about 25 days, 75% of his speech was restored. As the man was 70 years old his 100% speech could not be restored. Operant conditioning technique (OCT) is often used to modify the behaviour in many cases in mental hospitals. Later on this technique proved of great importance in the field of education also.
3. Principles of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory:
To repeat any desired activity or to make a desired behaviour permanent Skinner has suggested a schedule of reinforcement. On account of these schedules any desired behaviour can be made fixed or permanent. The behaviour which suits us is repeated again and again. The individual who performs desired behaviour in his first attempt is provided incentives so that he repeats the same behaviour again and again. Such incentives may be provided through schedules of reinforcement.
Before coming to the meaning of schedules of reinforcement, one should understand the meaning of reinforcement. Actually, any stimulus whose presentation or removal increases the probability of a response is a reinforcer. There are two categories of reinforcers, the positive reinforcer and the negative reinforcer. Teacher’s similes, reward, praise, an affectionate pat at the back are positive reinforcers. Loud noise, punishment, rebuke, anxiety, fatigue etc., are negative reinforces. The ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ adjectives do not come under the category of reinforcers.
Apart from primary reinforcement the concept of secondary reinforcement is also very important, as it can be used in accounting for learning in which there is no apparent primary reinforcement. In operant conditioning secondary reinforcement has been demonstrated in training a rat to run down a straight alley to a goal box containing food. The goal box was either black or white. In the initial training, the goal box always contained food when it was black and never did when it was white.
The animals were then taught a simple maze in which they had to choose between two alleys, one leading to a black goal box and the other to a white one the rats learned to go to the black goal box even though it never contained food. The black box become reinforcing because it had been previously paired with a primary reinforcement, food. The black box thus served as a secondary reinforcer. From teacher’s point of view secondary reinforcement is very important as it is not possible for him to provide primary reinforcement to strengthen student’s learning all the time.
4. Schedules of Reinforcement Suggested by Skinner:
As regards, schedules of reinforcement is concerned Skinner has suggested the following schedule of reinforcement:
(i) Fixed Ratio Schedule:
Fixed ratio reinforcement is given when the frequency of reinforcement depends on the rate at which responses are given i.e., the pallet of food is delivered after each fourth, eighth responses. Higher ratio should be approached gradually.
(ii) Variable Ratio Schedule:
In a variable ratio schedule the reinforcer is presented after a different number of responses on different occasions. Sometimes the difference amounts to one or sometimes two. Thus, the digit goes on changing as one, four, seven, nine etc.
(iii) Fixed Interval Schedule:
On a fixed-interval schedule a fixed interval of time has to elapse before the reinforcer can be presented i.e., every 2 minutes or 4 minutes. This is also known as periodic reinforcement. So, interval reinforcement depends simply on the passage of time. Shorter intervals yield more rapid response rates than the longer ones.
(iv) Variable Interval Schedule:
When the interval between reinforcement is randomly variated it is known as a variable interval schedule. In this situation the subject is reinforced on a time interval basis but the interval of time is indefinite. Sometimes, the subject is reinforced a couple of times very close together and sometimes a considerable amount of time is allowed to elapse.
5. Educational Implications of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory:
Skinner’s operant conditioning theory is of great importance in teaching-learning situations.
A few situations have been discussed in detail as under:
1. Conditioning Study Behaviour:
For Professor Skinner, “Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement which expedite learning. He is convinced that operant conditioning, so effectual when applied to animal, training promises equal success when used in schools.” Furthermore, he thinks than the most effective control of human learning requires instrumental aid. He thinks that, when teachers have taught successfully, they always have arranged effective contingencies of reinforcement, but they are more likely to do this if they understand what it is that they are doing.
Hence, if we want that student should learn something at his own, the teacher should reinforce such behaviour of students who come well prepared in the class, sit in the library and act actively in school programmes through a variety of incentives such as prize, medal, praise, smile, affectionate patting on the back or even by giving higher marks in the examination.
2. Conditioning and Class-Room Behaviour:
On order to change the behaviour of the pupils in the classroom and to bring desired change in their behaviours, conditioning is of immense importance, if a child’s experiences in a certain classroom, while studying a certain subject with a particular teacher are predominantly unpleasant, the unpleasantness becomes conditioned to the teacher, the subject and the classroom. If this is repeated, the child will develop a dislike to the subject as well as for the teacher.
Hence, to check all these, suitable behavioural contingencies may be used and atmosphere of recognition, acceptance, affection and esteem may help the child in approaching the teacher and the subject with good will. For instance, if a student is not serious in his studies, the teacher can control his behaviour by using negative reinforcement such as showing his negligence for the student or by criticizing him in front of the whole class. On the other hand, a student who is serious in his studies should be provided positive incentives such as prize, medal, praise, smile etc. An interesting example is quoted here.
A student was having a transistor in classroom. The teacher neglected him totally and he was indulged in talking with other good students for a long time. The teacher even did not look once to the naughty boy. After a long time the naughty boy asked in the middle of conversation, Sir, till now you are receiving assignments, I will also submit you. Thus, the important behaviours are conditioned.
3. Managing Problem Behaviours:
Generally, students perform a variety of behaviours that seems undesired and problematic form social conduct point of view. Hence to utter them a great success may be achieved through the process of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning has established as an important behaviour therapy technique in the recent years. It use in schools in shaping students behaviour is going on increasing day by day.
In this regard Albert Bandura’s views are of great significance. But, one has to admit here that instead of making use of negative contingencies, such as punishment a teacher must make use of positive contingencies such as praise, appropriate encouragement for better learning prospects. Behaviour of the students is generally dominated by aversion (escape) stimulation. And, hence, they somehow want to run away from the dull and dreary classes.
4. Dealing with Anxieties through Conditioning:
Students develop many fears, anxieties, prejudices, attitudes as well as perceptual meanings through conditioning. When we see that a train or a car stops whenever, there is red light, we interpret the red light as a sign to stop. In war-time, when a siren is blown in a particular way, we interpret is as a signal for air raid. A child, who has received a painful injection from a doctor, may develop an aversion to or fear of any doctor. Such examples cause anxiety in the human being.
Anxiety is a generalised fear response. To break such habits or fears, conditioning may be helpful. For this, the subject should be kept repeatedly in the situation that causes fear in him and he may be treated by controlling fear producing response. The technique is known as de-sensitization. In this technique firstly, we provide a very weak form of conditioned stimulus then gradually the strength of stimulus is increased.
5. Conditioning Group Behaviour:
Conditioning is not useful only to make an individual learn something, but it is equally important to make the entire group learn something and also in breaking out their undesired and unsocial behaviours. Generally, the complete behaviour of the entire group is changed on the basis of those reinforcements which form the basis of common expectations of students with their teachers. For instance, if most of the students feel that putting questions to their teachers or telling a lie with them will make their teachers annoyed, then in such circumstances they learn to keep mum in the class and become conditioned by the teacher’s authority.
On the other hand, if their common expectation rests in the view that by asking questions to their teachers or taking active participation in class discussions will make the teacher feel happy, then in such conditions pupil-teacher interaction will increase remarkably and will help in making teaching-learning process more effective.
6. Conditioning and Cognitive Processes:
Feedback or knowledge of progress is another form of reinforcement. The concept may be utilized in controlling the cognitive behaviours of the students. The concept demands such favourable conditions to be created for the students, so that he may respond correctly and actively. Also, he must be kept well informed regarding his progress, as it will act as a source of motivation for him to reach his goal. Programmed Instruction and Teaching Machines are based on the same principle.
As regard knowledge of progress is concerned we feel that too great a lapse of time exists between behaviour and its reinforcement. A boy who stands first in the class in the month of March or emerges as the all-around best Athlete even earlier in the month of January is rewarded in the month of December in the ceremonial annual prize distribution of the school.
Hence, in order t6 make effective use of operant conditioning principle the technique of programmed instruction is best suited. Programmed instruction is a system of teaching and learning within which pre-established subject matter is broken down into small, discrete steps and carefully organized into logical sequence in which it can be learned readily by the students.
Each step builds deliberately upon the preceding one. The learner can progress through the sequence of steps at his own rate and he is reinforced immediately after each step. Reinforcement (positive) comes when the response is correct. The pupil does not go ahead if his response is not correct. The technique is of great significance in the teaching of arithmetic, spelling, science etc. Hence, the need of a ‘teaching-machine’, which is the main instrument in carrying on programmed instruction, is must.
7. Shaping Complex Behaviour:
To control such complex behaviours which exist in the form of a chain of small behaviours, the extended form of conditioning, known as shaping technique, is employed. In this technique the smallest behaviour of an individual at the very initial stage is controlled. Then, gradually the next order of chain of behaviours is controlled or conditioned on behalf of different contingencies. In schools, the technique is widely accepted for its use to control students’ behaviour.
Skinner recognizes the first task of teachers to be to shape proper response, to get children to pronounce and write responses properly. But, lie sees their principal task as bringing proper behaviour under many sorts of stimulus control. Teaching spelling is mainly a process of shaping complex form of behaviour. In other subjects, for example, arithmetic, response must be brought under the control of appropriate stimuli. To achieve this task, Skinner recommends the use of programmed learning.
6. Final Note on of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory:
In brief, it may be quoted that conditioning is an important principle of teaching-learning process. In order to make learning conditions effective in the class-room these may prove of immense significance.
In this regard following three points should always be borne in mind:
(i) Reinforce desired behaviour.
(ii) Extinguish undesired behaviour by ignoring them.
(iii) If necessary, mild punishment may be used for students who do not work properly. Ultimately-
“Society has conditioned us all. None of us has a mind of his own.”
The educational implications of the theory can be justified on the following ground:
1. Theory of operant conditioning should schedule and control the learning process and environment in such a way that the learner should be encouraged to advance ahead and he should have the least failure and dis-appointment.
2. Theory of operant conditioning is used effectively for the modification of behaviour. We should be aware of the suitable reinforcer for the particular child whose behaviours are to be modified. As soon as the child starts behaving in the desired way, he should be immediately encouraged by suitable reward.
3. According to the theory of operant conditioning motivation is the best means to generate desired learning and success in performances. Serving food to the rat and pigeon is good enforcer. In the same way knowledge of the correct answer by the student is a good enforcer. Few words of appreciation, encouraging attitude of the teacher, feeling of success, more marks etc., are such enforcers which encourage and motivate the student to learn the task with eager and zeal.
4. Theory of operant conditioning can be used for the proper development of personality. According to Skinner we are in ourselves the same for which we are rewarded. Personality is nothing but the result of enforcement received by us from time to time who shape us and our behaviour.
5. According to theory of operant conditioning we can achieve success in learning when-
(i) The learning material is arranged in such a way that the learner achieves maximum success and minimum failures.
(ii) He should be receiving reinforcements immediately after accurate performance and correct responses.
(iii) Learner should be allowed to learn at his own speed.
6. The theory rejects use of punishment to correct bad habits. Instead, it recommends the use of suitable rewards for desired behaviours.
7. Some Objections to Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory:
Skinner claims that by operant conditioning he could make any professional of any child by positive reinforcement. He, for instance, made pigeons play ping-pong as some other trainers have made dolphin fish playing net ball or passing through a ring each time being rewarded on successful attempt by having a bait of a smaller fish. This work of Skinner is corroborating Watson’s assertion that if a child was given to him before the age of five, by proper conditioning he could make him a scientist, a mathematician, a gentleman, rowdy or a thug.
Although such dogmatic assertions are sheer boasts, because we cannot ignore the inherent capacity on which very largely, future learning depends, the mechanists like Skinner think that learning is the moving of the machine and they do not know that in a living organism that what really moves is the motive or the urge.
To make the pigeon to learn to peck the lever, he has to keep him hungry. If the pigeon were fed, any attempt on Skinner’s part to teach it even a step would be impossible. So, the mechanists like Skinner easily forget that the bases of learning are the urges or needs. His theory, to an extent, thus only explains the how of learning and not the why of learning.