Just moozing

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Teaching methodology

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I started teaching last year. Most of it was as expected but I have had surprises. I am much for doing things using positive motivation, but I find it wickedly difficult, so I started reading about it. This entry is mostly about punishment.


I recently read a book on clicker training by Karen Pryor. It was a good read, and properly highly motivating for people who want to train animals. I don’t and I don’t was to treat my student as animals, so most of the book was lost on me.

There was, however a couple of noteworthy points, she discusses and gives examples of tag teaching. Apparently, it is a tool for teaching skills (as opposed to knowledge). An example is that it is useful for teaching french pronunciation, but not verbs or the like.

To me it makes me think of the comments I have read (and experienced) about unit testing, where you get a kick (“a positive reinforcement”) whenever the tests succeeds and are all green.

Another interesting point was a reference to the book “Behavior analysis for effective teaching” by Julie S. Vargas (Amazon link). If you are interested in animal training, Vargas is related to Skinner who did the first experiments on operant conditioning, which is somehow different from Pavlov and his dogs.

Vargas has made an effort of making the book readable, with all the relevant tricks of “in this chapters you learn…” and info boxes to increase readability. That doesn’t change the fact that it is hard stuff, but it is made accessible through examples and statistics. I started reading chapter 11 “Punishment and why to avoid it”. I am not yet into the gory details of operands, so I started in the chapter which had the most direct relation to daily life, since everybody knows and uses punishment to some extend.

Below, I will be paraphrasing from this chapter.


It takes many forms, but punishment is a way to stop something from happening. The problem is that you don’t control the result, only what should not happen. She points out that everybody knows how to punish, and we employ it to stop something adverse to us. It is cause-and-effect on a short timescale.The long term effects are likely to prove counter productive.

There are some cases where punishment works as intended, but they are primarily self-inflicted punishment. When doing something stupid, and you get hurt or you break something you like, it is punishment, but the kind that no-one has decided to impose on you. It is the way to learn not to play with fire. There are no reward (no positive reinforcement), only punishment, so why continue.

One of the key points is that punishment cannot build behavior. It will suppress something. If I want to, say, make the students meet on time and pay attention, punishment cannot do it. It may be used to suppress people talking, but not make them pay attention.I must find a way to make them want to be one time and pay attention – a reward, not a punishment.

The way I understand it, it is all about motivation. Punishment is negative motivation that one will try to avoid or escape. It will create an atmosphere of covering up and trying to hide. I want an atmosphere, where it is allowed to fail. Anyone who has ever achieved something have failed (miserable) at some point and the trick is then to learn from the mistake – that is where the teacher (as a coach) comes in.

Are we in the case where there are positive reinforcement, and someone is punishing you to stop – the result will be cheating or aggression. I teach young adult (20+ years) and they have chosen the education, so I feel safe from physical aggression, but it is nonetheless unwanted behavior – at the very least, it is bad for learning and teaching.

News to me was the effect of punishment on the onlookers. Apparently, the one being punished gets the sympathy. This affects the relation between other students and the teacher punishing – Not just the relation to the single student. Handling the situation in a constructive, non-punishing fashion, then the others will benefit instead of being embarrassed.

The solution is, of course, to give (figurative) points instead of removing them. I would consider that obvious, but you need to be reminded from time to time, and be given examples of how to do it. There must be people who do not agree, since corporal punishment is in widespread use (not just in schools).

It is an interesting chapter with references to scientific studies (that I have not pursued) to back the opinions.. I will read it again when I finish the first 10 chapters đŸ™‚


Written by moozing

August 2, 2010 at 23:55

Posted in Teaching

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