How do we learn? In a new series of blogs I am going to explore the science and methods of learning. I have long had a keen interest in learning methods and this has become of increasing interest to me due to in my involvement within Insight Arcade.
Early learning theorists surmised that learning was largely ‘cause and effect’; one of those key theories, ‘Operant’ learning, placed an emphasis on reward and punishment as a way to modify behaviour. I’ve direct experience of using this method as I was formerly a physical training instructor in the Territorial Army (now re branded the ‘Army Reserves’). I had at my disposal, the means, to dish out timely and instant punishment in the forms of additional physical exercise - not something most people relish! Was this an effective learning instrument? It kept recruits in line but it only ever really guaranteed that those people who were punished would do what was required not to be punished. It didn’t exactly engender top performance or a personal commitment to physical fitness. In fact I found too much punishment damaged performance by turning recruits off the idea of exercise.
However the flip side of punishment was ‘reward’ and I found positive reinforcement toward recruits was more effective. For example if I praised a recruit for doing well after noticing an improvement, I found this reinforced good behaviour and was likely to help motivate the individual. It also made the recruits less fearful of me, which as their instructor, was important. Fundamentally though I found that only those who really wanted to take part in my classes and who wanted to be fit, got the most out of it – no matter how much I praised or criticised.
What do the principles of Operant learning mean for those of us concerned with learning within organisations? On a day to day basis it tells us that operant conditioning has at least some importance in terms of shaping the behaviours of our workforce. Behavioural reinforcement – particularly positive – is an important part of the suite of skills required for coaching individuals. However as a principle by which to embed a culture of ‘deep learning’ and to drive the sort of innovative change many organisations now seek, I’d suggest it is only a small part of the total equation.
I'm interested in asking people's opinions; how much do people think Operant learning is still used as a principle of learning within organisations?