Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On the Behavior and Health of Organisms

My Instructional Theory and Design class keeps me pretty busy these days making photo-essays and narrating videos on educational theories. The following video deals with the theories of B.F. Skinner, the lead figure in psychological behaviorism.

Skinner is a polarizing figure among educators because his research and subsequent theories focus solely on observable behaviors, and the powerful role reinforcement plays in shaping those behaviors. Skinner's theory in a nutshell (or in a "skinner bed") follows these lines: to achieve a desired behavior it is essential that proper reinforcements are used to encourage the behavior.

Skinner's research was interesting to say the least. His experimental animal of choice was the common pigeon; the "fresher" the better. He also experimented using rats, but he really loved his pigeons. Based on his studies he found that if you reward desired behaviors the organism will continue to do them because of the positive consequences. The question is knowing which reinforcements will motivate the behavior. Skinner solved this tough question simply by depriving the pigeons of food until they were operating at 80% of their normal body weight. I suppose after a good starving any animal would peck a dot or push a lever for a bite.

Skinner's theory of behavior makes perfect sense; the problem is figuring out what kind of reinforcement will allow students to reach the teacher's behavioral aims. In the following video I try to show how Skinner's theory operates, but I also ask an important question which I do not feel Skinner ever answered, namely: what makes a reinforcement positive?

In the video, the behavior I'm struggling with is studying. The cigarette acts as my positive reinforcement (or reward) for my work. Skinner's analysis of the video would stop here. What I seek to show in the following pictures is that my positive reinforcement actually interferes with the behavior it is supposed to encourage--the studying. Not only that, an addictive behavior begins to form: smoking, which not only interferes with the studying behavior, but has aversive consequences upon my health (the coughing). Now I need a need a positive reinforcement to counteract the smoking behavior which was meant to encourage my study behavior. And the cycle continues.

My conclusion: positive reinforcement must encourage the desired behavior and be healthy for organism doing the behavior; otherwise the adverse side-effects of the reinforcement interfere with the desired behavior (along with poisoning the organism). Of course Skinner never had to worry about figuring out what kind of reinforcement to use; he just deprived his subjects of food, and for some reason I don't think school districts would go along with that kind of teaching method.
I like this picture because Skinner actually made a pigeon-guided bomb for the U.S. Military. The "pigeon-guided bomb" proposal was rejected; but its development demonstrated Skinner's awesome ability to shape pigeon behavior. Imagine a world with pigeon-guided bombs...

1 comment: