The Power of Reinforcement

A few months ago I wrote a blog article in which I discussed something that may be a behavioural phenomenon. I argued that the reason why autonomy- supportive learning goes largely unused in higher education, is that educators become operant conditioned into using more traditional teaching methods, because that is what league tables and authorities reinforce.

The argument comes from Bjork (1994), who suggested that indicators such as the happiness of trainees, or externally set targets become reinforcers. Instead, desirable difficulties such as reduced feedback or frequent informal testing are key to lasting learning (Bjork, 1994).

I always wanted to find just a bit more evidence on just how powerful this conditioning might be. However I have struggled to find literature that demonstrates the strength that reinforcement could have.

While studying Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in a counseling lecture, we were reminded of a study in which the prejudices of early American eating establishments were measured in terms of whether a restaurant owner would refuse entry to a non-white guest in person compared with a written booking request.

Bear in mind here the time period when this investigation took place. The study (Kutner, Wilkins & Yarrow, 1925) demonstrated that when a white woman entered the restaurant, accompanied by a black woman, they were treated without discrimination. Yet written request to book a table for the same clientele were either ignored or rejected upon follow up.

In relation to pedagogical practise, this study demonstrates the disparity between attitudes and behaviour. The presence of the black customer was a strong enough reinforcer for the restaurant owner to admit the guests, but without that presence, their attitude (cognitions) prevailed. Likewise, I would ask: how many educators are aware of better ways, but when it comes to action, choose the more reinforced method.

The progress indicator and league table culture that abounds in today’s world disconnects policy makers from teachers and learners. There are better ways to motivate students, and more meaningful goals they could be working to achieve. But all of this research is useless until it is applied, and the top-down driven ‘performance indicator culture’ will override peoples’ best intentions as long as it exists.