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Reinforcement and punishment

The notions of positive and negative reinforcement are probably familiar to you, but the latter is often misunderstood. Positive and negative don’t mean pleasant or unpleasant, but rather whether something is being added or removed (+ or –). Positive reinforcement is easy to remember, as it refers to providing something nice as a reward for a desired behavior, like a dog getting a treat for rolling over.

Negative reinforcement is still a reward because it involves removing something bad, like removing a dog’s muzzle when it stops growling. Positive punishment is about adding something unpleasant, like clapping near the dog’s ears when it barks. Negative punishment involves removing something pleasant, like not letting the dog sleep inside after it pees on the carpet. Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the likelihood of a behavior, while punishments decrease it. I use animal examples here, mainly because they’re easy to understand and dogs are cute, but indeed Skinner conducted his experiments largely on nonhuman subjects (he especially liked rats and pigeons). Many critics of behaviorism refer to the problematic nature of research on lab pigeons being applied to children in schools, and regard it as unsuited to supporting the breadth and complexity of human learning. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most easily recognized strategies at work in education today—even on the web.

As politically incorrect as punishment has become for learning since the days of rulers on knuckles to “encourage” correct behavior, behaviorist learning strategies continue to permeate our experience online and off. Fortunately, the methods are now less sadistic on the whole. For example, schoolchildren are still sent to detention (positive punishment) or excluded from playground games (negative punishment) for misbehaving.

But reinforcement and punishment need not be as dramatic as they sound. Something as simple as a teacher’s smile or frown can motivate a child. The consequences online can be as subtle as wording or color choice. When Flickr praises you for uploading your photos “Good job!” or the Blackboard Learning Management System displays a confirmation in bright green that says “Success!” as if it’s celebrating with you for posting to a forum, you’re experienc- ing a type of positive reinforcement. Games and gamification often rely heavily on rewards. The so-called “Four- square technique” consists of providing a series of positive reinforcements in the form of badges, points, levels, and leaderboards.

Many of the most widely used eLearning programs and educational apps employ rewards like these to motivate learners such as primary maths resources. Critics of ill-founded attempts at gamification caution that these motivators are limited because they’re entirely extrinsic, that is, the learner’s motivation to achieve a goal is based on external motivators (buttons and badges) rather than on what she’s actually learning. We’ll look at motivation in depth in Chapter 7, “Learning Is Emotional.”

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