Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Debilitating Effects of "Positive" Reinforcement

If you have any sense at all, you will regularly want to open up the back of your TV set in order to try to find and disable the bits of it that are responsible for receiving the BBC; this so that you will never again be tempted to watch these channels under the mistaken assumption that you will not be infuriated to the point of total enervation.

Bad enough are the weird realities that are generated by the news coverage of wars and elections, but I think I have found something even worse - by which I mean any programme that includes the corvine form of child psychologist, Dr Tanya Byron.

Just in case you have had the presence of mind to have avoided watching this individual at work, the basic idea behind all her programmes is that she wades in on a family who are having problems with their children, picks over the bodies and implements a problem of behavioural therapy, or more specifically operant conditioning, that should have been rendered obsolete decades ago.

Dr Byron's techniques basically consist of getting the parent or guardian to praise good behaviour and ignore bad. Now, whilst this may appear to work, and the behaviour of the children often does appear to improve, I am sure you are not in the dark as to why this is actually an APPALLING idea.

What actually seems to be happening is that the child becomes utterly dependent upon an authority figure for ascertaining whether his behaviour is good or bad. This is because explanations are not an implicit part of the system. He does not understand himself "WHY" his behaviour is deemed good or bad, and there is absolutely no chance that he will be aware of the possibility of parental judgement being flawed or tentative and up for discussion.

He will also tend to behave not because he himself wants to behave in this way but because he knows he will be ignored if he doesn't. The chances of him being intrinsically motivated in this appallingly condescending system are almost zero. Check out Dr Edward Deci, from the University of Rochester on this matter.

"Psychologist Edward Deci did research with two groups to see the effect of extrinsic rewards on learning. Group one received an extrinsic reward (money) for solving a puzzle called SOMA; the second group received no rewards. Afterwards, both groups were left alone and secretly watched. The group that was paid stopped playing; the group not paid kept playing. Deci summarized his findings thusly: "Stop the pay, stop the play." He concludes, "Monetary rewards undermined people's intrinsic motivation…. Rewards seemed to turn the act of playing into something that was controlled from the outside: It turned play into work, and the player into a pawn…. Rewards and recognition are important, but as the research has so clearly shown and I have reiterated many times, when rewards or awards are used as a means of motivating people, they are likely to backfire." --Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do".

I tend to think Dr Deci has a point and that Dr Byron is teaching atrociously bad epistemology. She is teaching the false doctrines of infallibility of authoritarian knowledge and she is teaching that moral behaviour is not related to the understanding of moral explanations, but simply is a matter of doing what you are told. Underlying the theory that you can get people to do what you want simply by rewarding them, rather than by offering tentative explanations, is the assumption that you can simply pour knowledge into the mind of the learner, rather as you would pour water into a bucket. She does not see that for a theory to become active in the mind of the learner, the learner must be activating the learning process, and therefore should be able to think critically about the pertinent theories. We may draw this conclusion since in her theory of operant conditioning, there is no room for a theory upon which the learner can think intelligibly.

I am aware that the people who read this blog probably already know how inferior this all is and also are aware of a vastly superior epistemology and system for offering these theories of knowledge in practical form to children...but just in case this has passed you by, Taking Children Seriously is worth investigating very thoroughly for this.


Anonymous said...

I so enjoyed reading this. You reflect exactly how furious I felt on seeing this appalling television programme, and am very intrigued by the book you refer to. Thanks so much for this.

Carlotta said...

It is very good to know that someone else out there experienced a similar revulsion. It strikes me as so sad that this type of thing is so mainstream and so suboptimal.

Hope you enjoy the TCS website and perhaps even Jan Fortune Wood's book. Would be very interested to hear your feedback on either of these.