Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Behaviorism Is Alive And Kicking

Marginal Revolution linked to an article about a school/mental asylum that uses behavioristic methods to keep the special education students well behaved.

They use electric shocks as a punishment. The shocks are administered by devices that are all the time connected to the clients. If the clients behave badly, the staff members can zap them, producing a shock that is comparable to a bee string. The punishment is not arbitrary, but "each student has a sheet listing the types of behaviors that prompt a staff member to administer a shock".

One of the basic ideas of behaviorism is that punishments and rewards should be (1) immediate (2) recognized as punishments/rewards and (3) appropriate for the student's level of understanding. The immediacy is important to ensure that "even a student with a low IQ or a severe psychiatric disorder might be made to understand that whatever he just did was unacceptable". The shock is unquestionably recognized as a punishment. However, it is important to notice that a punishment is not always experienced as a punishment - the article lists counseling as an example: "School literature states that counseling is done "as needed," but not when it could be seen as a reward for bad behavior".

In addition to electric shocks, the school uses a wide range of positive reinforcement. Also the mere threat of shock is for many clients enough to keep the behaviour in line so that actual shocks are not needed.

My take? Wish I could buy an alarm clock that would deliver an electric shock if the I don't rise from bed and press the button three times during the next half an hour.

The article also mentions that the founder of the institute tried to manufacture behavioristic teaching machines in the 60s. I've written about them here. Basically, the 60s teaching machine movement was trying to build mechanical and electric teaching devices to help with rote memorization, but the 60s technology was too inflexible. Present-day flashcard programs, including the ones I've written, are descendants of this tradition.

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