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Learning in Humans: The School System

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People interested in clicker training often ask how we might fit this approach into the school system: not the clicker per se, but the whole technology. Actually the behavioral scientists have been working on this for a long time. A recent exchange on the topic appeared on the ARF listserv, run by graduate students of the Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas. Here are the highlights.

Eddie Fernandez on Skinner and better teaching methods

Eddie Fernandez, manager of the list, wrote:

"There's quite an extensive amount of literature and research on behavior analysis and teaching. It happened to be one of Skinner's most often discussed areas. In fact, he developed an entire field on teaching called programmed instruction and developed specific devices called 'teaching machines.' [This was before the days of computers, which of course are also teaching machines. KP] I highly recommend checking out these books: Skinner and Holland's 'The Analysis of Behavior', Epstein and Skinner's 'Skinner for the Classroom', and I ESPECIALLY recommend checking out Skinner's 'The Technology of Teaching.' I think it's a horrible shame that many educational programs have not picked up on these relatively straightforward and well-researched areas.

"Beyond that, two of the most important and well-known behavior analysts have also developed their own methods for instruction, and I've used both methods to teach college students. One is called 'Precision Teaching,' and was developed by Dr. Ogden Lindsley. The other is Dr. Fred Keller's Personalized System of Instruction (PSI). I won't go into detail about either, but if you're interested in these methods, I suggest you do a PsychLit or web search or e-mail me privately.

"Finally, many behaviorists that work within school settings are heavy supporters of Direct Instruction (DI). DI was not developed specifically by behaviorists, but much of its applications seem to have instinctively adhered to such behavioral principles. Beyond that, DI has VERY good supporting data, and by all comparison research that I've heard of, largely buries the teaching methods currently popular... For anyone else curious about these things, I highly encourage you to examine it for yourself. Good science and data can and should be directly applied to our schooling methods and systems, and somehow the educational leaders have convinced many that they simply 'know' what is best for our kids..."

Marian Bailey on the history and principal figures in the battle with the educational system

To this post Marian Bailey, Ph.D., (behavior [at] hsnp [dot] com), perhaps the most revered behavioral scientist in the clicker community, responded:

"Dear Eddie, Thanks for your post (and thanks for helping spread the word!) on behavior analytic methods in education. Their history has seen a long and bitter fight between the entrenched educational institutions and Og Lindsley, Fred Keller, Sigfried Engelmann (Direct Instruction) and a few other pioneering behavior analysts, who have battled for recognition of the possibilities of the methods.

"I recommend to all who are interested to get from the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies the sad tale of 'Project Follow-through.' [KP:This is a concise and well-written monograph on one of the most successful precision teaching programs that ever took over a school system, how rapidly it raised the grade levels and turned the kids into happy scholars, and how effectively the educational system shot it down. You can order it from www.behavior.org.] In addition, Ed Anderson has written an excellent monograph called EDUCATION THAT WORKS. [Also available from the Cambridge Center. KP]

"A large glimmer of success is in the works, in what is known as the Morningside Model (created by behavior analysts Kent Johnson, and T. V. Joe Layng), named from the Morningside Academy in Seattle. They are now marketing their highly successful methods to many municipal school districts, including Alberta, Canada; British Columbia Indian schools; and Chicago elementary schools. These are a blend of Lindsley's Precision Teaching, Fred Keller's PSI, and the Engelmann-Wesley Becker Direct Instruction."

To which dog trainer and behavior analyst Steve Rafe (steve-rafe [at] erols [dot] com) added:

"I might as well mention that Behavior Analysis is being implemented in some private (usually non-profit) schools with amazing results. Here is the homepage of one of those schools (in which I was lucky enough to work this summer): www.centuryschool.org

Karen Pryor on personal experiences at reinforcement-based schools

I have long been interested in behavior-based systems in schools. I mean, what if school were fun all the time? What if you got reinforced for progress, not just for end results? Why is my memory of school just one long experience of thousands of little corrections, even though I was a fairly good student? Why don't we train kids like dolphins, instead?

Well, some schools are different. I have visited Morningside Academy in Seattle. When I was there, if I remember correctly, Morningside only accepted children who were two full years behind in grade level; they promised to raise them one full year by Christmas, or your tuition money refunded; and they never had to refund. The kids worked in short intervals, keeping track of their own progress on special charts. Reinforcers were such things as a few minutes of computer time; but the ever-escalating charts were pretty reinforcing in themselves. Kids who could think better to music (it wipes out other distractions) were permitted to wear earphones and play tapes to themselves as they worked. Everyone was going at their own pace, but in clusters according to ability in that subject, not according to age; thus the writing class, say, might range from six to twelve years old, but everyone was succeeding. The teachers were young, brilliant, enthusiastic, and focusing as hard as we do when we clickertrain.

The teachers identified the point at which each kid was stuck-in one case it was as fundamental as writing numbers easily. By the sixth grade having to stop and think each time you write a digit really interferes with learning math; so that kid was being shaped for fluent number-writing, something that he'd never happened to pick up. I watched this boy struggle, on his own, to write a good line of 1's, 2's, 3's, etc. up to 9's, and then flush with pride when he got ten of each down on paper before the one-minute ding went off; when he went to put a new dot on his data chart.

I also had a chance to visit the Century School, when I gave a graduate seminar at the school of Education at the University of Kansas a couple of years ago. What a treat. All ages, all ranges, all working at their individual Best, all positive reinforcement, all progress all the time. One little boy proudly showed me his math chart-his rate of improvement made a line going at about a 45% angle, in other words he was improving steadily and fast. He was eight. He was doing algebra. He was not some supergenius, he was just getting the information he needed and developing the skills and being reinforced consistently, so that's where it took him. Another little girl of about the same age proudly showed me her chart, which she also kept herself, and she was improving fast too; but her chart was for life-skills (tie shoes, come on time, hang up coat, etc.) A child with some developmental delays; but she had confidence, social skills, good manners, and was beaming with pride, and learning fast, just like the algebra boy. She was 'mainstreamed' alright-in a mixed age, mixed task room-and she was getting the right education for her right then. She told me she had just earned the right to go to the library (in another building) by herself. She was thrilled. Yes, I was thrilled for her.

The teachers are having fun all the time because they, too, are a) free to work in their own way, at their own speed (which is top speed) with a really interesting bunch of animals (kids are a lot of fun to shape behavior in) and under the tutelage of top 'clicker trainers,' not punishers. Most of them are getting their MA's or Ph.D's as they work, plus getting paid.

Soo...if you wondered where you could go with your clicker skills, there's plenty of room for pioneering in education.

To visit the Century School website, go to www.centuryschool.org/
To learn more visit www.behavior.org, a huge informational website and the top scientific source for general behavioral analysis information.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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