Basic learning principles

Another interesting article after scientific research: http://phys.org/news/2012-07-urge-rethink-monty-roberts-horse.html#jCp

Operant conditioning is what we use when we train an animal. It is also how children learn their behaviours. It is how every individual of every animal species learns to live in a way that works for that particular individual to thrive in their given environment. It is quite simple and we can see it happening all around us.

When teaching using operant conditioning (which can also be called operant learning), we need to understand that the response that we give to the student animal will either be reinforcing or it will be punishing or it will have no effect.

If a student performs a behaviour and the response it gets is reinforcing, the student is more likely to perform that behaviour in the future.

If a student performs a behaviour and the response it gets is punishing, the student is less likely to perform that behaviour in the future.

A response that is not changing the probability of the behaviour occurring in the future is not teaching the student to change their behaviour. It is the student’s perception of the reinforcement or punishment that is important, ie whether the student finds the outcome of performing the behaviour motivating or aversive. For example, if you gave a chocolate to a little boy for cleaning his bedroom but he didn’t like chocolate, he may not want to bother doing the chore in the future – the teacher needs to find the treat the boy likes to reward him appropriately. Timing is critical. For example, If you punish a dog for urinating on the floor of the house but it urinated and then came to you, you have effectively punished the animal for coming to you.

This can be further dissected.

When teaching or training, we understand that operant conditioning can be broken down into four components:

Positive reinforcement is occurring when the student receives something pleasant immediately following a behaviour that increases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the future. An example is a treat for being good. Toddlers will repeatedly perform a behaviour when their parents smile and give attention for it. They feel successful and they are motivated to repeat the behaviour in the future.

Negative reinforcement is occurring when the student is released from something unpleasant immediately following a behaviour that increases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the future. This is what is discussed as happening in the link above with “pressure release”. It is what is used with a lot of horse training. It is also used in some forms of torture, when the victim will give information so that the painful stimulus is taken away. It is how choker chains work on dogs and it is how bits work on horses.

Negative punishment is occurring when the student loses something pleasant (that the student wants) immediately following their behaviour that makes the behaviour less likely to occur in the future. “Time-out” for children is a good example of this form of teaching.

Positive punishment is occurring when something the student finds to be unpleasant occurs at the time or immediately following a behaviour that makes the behaviour less likely to occur in the future. An example might be a smack given to a child. But keep in mind that a smack that does not reduce the behaviour occurring in the future is not an effective punisher. It is a form of teaching that has been shown to decrease learning and memory and increase fear in the student. Note that this is also used in some other forms of torture.

Current accepted practice is that positive reinforcement is most humane and most effective. It is recommended that training should use only positive reinforcement with rewarding desired behaviours and ignoring undesired behaviours. This is the safest form of training, physically and psychologically. The perception of each individual is very different and something one individual finds mildly punishing (eg the teacher may think a smack is not too bad) could be intensely fear-inducing to another individual (eg the student receiving the smack could have sensitisation of the fear pathways in the brain and develop an anxiety disorder that may then require medical treatment at a later date).

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