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Skinner’s operant conditioning can be used by teachers to help their students learn many types of complex skills and behaviors. For example, the behavior I plan on teaching the child is to write the capital letter ‘A,’ from the Canadian Standards of Learning. This would be a beginning skill that the student would just be starting to learn. The child will be in kindergarten (about age six), in a one on one teaching environment, and the target skill will be writing the capital letter ‘A.’
The steps will be:
1. Write the left slanted line using a downward stroke.
2. Write the right slanted line using a downward stroke.
3. Write the bar in the middle that connects the two lines.
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A discriminative stimulus is a stimulus (or cue) that is always present when a particular response is being reinforced. For example, if when the teacher says “Take out your science books,” the students did so and readied for the science lesson and the teacher smiled and nodded as the students did so, then the teacher’s cue has become a discriminative stimulus. The discriminative stimulus (cue) of “Take out your science books,” always makes the students take out their books because this behavior was reinforced by the teacher smiling and nodding as the students did what they were supposed to be doing. Another example would be the teacher turning off the light to let the students know that they have five minutes to pack up and get ready to go. The discriminative stimulus of turning the light off cues the students to get ready and this could be reinforced by the teacher telling the students they were doing a good job of packing up.
Therefore, for step one, the discriminative stimulus will be me saying as I do step one on my own paper “To write the capital letter ‘A’ you first write a left slanted line downward, now you do it.” If the student correctly did step one I would draw a smiley face right beside the line on her paper and say “Good job,” this would be the reinforcement for step one. For step two the discriminative stimulus will be me saying as I do step two “Now, you have to write the right slanted line downward, you do it now.” If the student correctly did step two, I would draw another smiley face by the second line and say “Good job,” this is the reinforcement for step two. For step three the discriminative stimulus will be me saying as I do step three, “Now you have to connect these two lines with a little bar in the middle, your turn.”
If she correctly did step three I would draw a third smiley face under the bar, say “Good job, you wrote the letter ‘A’,” and give her a high five, this would be the reinforcement for step three. These are discriminative stimuli because every time I did the step and explained it, the child then did it herself, and then I reinforced her when she did each step. Therefore, she knew that she was doing the correct thing every time I reinforced her. All of the reinforcers I used were positive and assumed that the child correctly performed each step. This would be a fixed ratio schedule because she would be reinforced after every step. If she had performed a step incorrectly, I would have had to use a negative reinforcement. An example would be if she did a step incorrectly I would have to tell her, “That is not quite right, but let me show you again and then you can try again.”
I would probably perform this same shaping sequence at least one more time with the same reinforcers except I would only draw a smiley face and say good job after the third step was completed; this would be a variable ratio schedule because she would not know when I would draw the smiley face or say good job. The third time I would change the reinforcers. The third time I would tell the child that if she performed all of the steps correctly, she could do her favorite activity when she was done. All of the reinforcers I have used so far are contrived, but being able to do a favorite activity is a natural reinforcer. Natural reinforcers are events available in the setting that provide positive feedback.
Natural reinforcers usually sustain behavior or performance for longer periods of time than contrived reinforcers and include things like going to the next stage of a lesson, figuring something out that was confusing, and the material making sense. It’s the total opposite to the emotional diminishing strategy that is usually used while playing live blackjack and provokes misleading conclusions. The next day, I would ask her to write the letter ‘A’ and see if she could do it on her own while I watched. Hopefully, she would do it correctly and her reinforcement would be her knowing that she did it right and I would also tell her if it was correct. If she did not, though, I would follow from the beginning the sequence I did the day before.
In sum, the schedule of reinforcement is: first time-fixed ratio, second time-variable ratio, third time-variable ratio, and fourth and up-variable interval. It will be moved from extrinsic, me drawing a smiley face and telling her good job, to intrinsic, her feeling her own accomplishment after writing the ‘A’ through the shaping process discussed and the schedules of reinforcement used. Also, as the contrived reinforcers, associated with extrinsic motivation, are replaced with natural reinforcers, associated with intrinsic motivation.
It would not be hard to modify these procedures for diverse learners. For learning disabled or students with autism you would use the variable ratio schedule longer (go through the steps with it more times) and keep the contrived reinforcements longer. For more advanced students, you may be able to lessen the number of times you go through the steps using the variable ratio schedule and use the contrived reinforcements for a shorter period of time.
In conclusion, Skinner’s operant conditioning can be used to shape a child to learn innumerable behaviors and skills. Once the child performs the observable behavior and is reinforced for it, the teacher knows that the child can do it and can continue to do so when cued.