Saturday, 26 May 2012

Rats in the Computer Lab

I had a real “AHA” moment in the computer lab this week with my students.  I had spent the week reading about Radical Behaviorism based on the work of Thorndike and Skinner and was struggling to understand how these theories translated to learning in a classroom.  As I watched my grade one and two students complete a task in the computer lab that some people may think is too challenging for students at that level, I saw how I had employed behavior management principles without even realizing it.
First, I am not made to be a teacher of young children, and I am more suited and accustomed to upper elementary children who are more independent.  But this year I teach a combined 2\1 class, so I have had to adapt.  I, like many elementary teachers, am quite particular, like order and structure, and I like for things to go as planned.  If you have ever been in a computer lab with 7 year olds of varying ability, you know that order and structure are quickly replaced with chaos and noise.  It’s enough to turn your hair grey. 
 But this week, as my students sat down to complete as task of typing 10 sentences in their second language in a word processing program, including special characters (accents in French) correct marked errors, include and cite a picture from the internet, and print the work on the correct printer in a 60 minute period, I reveled in the order and structure of it all.  It did not start out that way.  I include this post to encourage teachers to overcome their fear of the computer room with young students, by simply employing behavior management strategies in the dreaded computer room.  
Referring to Chapter 2 Psychology of Learning for Instruction by Marcy Driscoll
, here is how I have compared my teaching in the computer lab to Behaviorist theory.  
Strengthening and Weakening Operant behavior in the elementary computer lab

Proper login
Praise and moving to the next step quickly
Troubleshooting login
Removal of the error screen
Opening the correct program
Praise and success
Focusing on task at hand
Positively  and with the Premack Principle
Completing a low frequency behavior(completing task)  so I can play a game online (high frequency behavior)
Seeking help from peers
Positively and negatively
Praise and not encountering a grumpy teacher
Seeking teacher’s help inappropriately
Adverse stimulus of the annoyed teacher
Overcoming learned helplessness in any procedure
Praise and success
Navigating different drives (c drive, personal drive, shared drive) on the network
Accessing fun activities stored on various drives
Ability to complete complex tasks
Positively and through punishment
Praise and success comes with accomplishment, 
Punishment of using recess or home time to complete tasks.

While some of this might seem a bit silly, I cannot stress enough the value of using a simple behavior-reward (stimulus) system with students.  Like rats in a Skinner box, students can confidently push a lever (ex. complete a successful login) and expect their satisfying conditioned stimulus of praise, feeling success and free time. Things work so much more smoothly now than they did seven months ago and I hope that the learning they have will stay with them.  When I think about Behaviorism vs. Cognitive theories, I always think of behaviorism as cut and dry, no thinking about how the learner gets there.  My behavior and training of my students in the context of the computer room is just that, simple.  You do this, you get this.  And it has worked beautifully.  I have taken a big step back, and allowed the behavior training and learning guide the students to great success.  And I have less grey hairs.  

1 Driscoll, M.P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed). Toronto: Allyn and Bacon. p.36-44


1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful example of moving theory into the classroom. I'm guessing, if we're really honest with each other, that we could identify all kinds of ways we employ operant conditioning in our daily lives and classrooms. Behaviourism has become a dirty word in some circles, but I've never really understood why there is such emotion attached to the opinions. I'm wondering if there is a wee bit understanding that it is a guilty pleasure we all indulge in from time to time, even when it is in conflict with our dominant opinions about learner centric learning.