As the cover suggests, this text regards learning as a topic of critical importance in human behavior.

Learning & Behavior

Now in its 6th edition, L&B has been in print for over 30 years and remains one of the most widely used texts in learning and related courses. The book presents learning as a survival mechanism rooted in biology, an "evolved modifiability" that enables us to cope with a constantly changing environment. Unlike many texts in the field, L&B views animal research not as the subject of study but as a means of discovering insights into human adaptation. The book is widely praised by students and instructors alike for its ability to make learning principles both interesting and understandable.

From Chapter 2, The Study of Learning and Behavior:

Poets, educators, and philosophers have long admired learning, sung its praises, and wondered at its power. But learning has been the subject of scientific analysis for only about a hundred years.

What does scientific analysis mean when it comes to learning? Answers to this question vary, but many researchers now take a natural science approach to the study of learning. The natural sciences use a variety of techniques to understand their respective fields. The tools of the physicist are not the same as those of the biologist. However, there are certain common elements in their work. One of these is an emphasis on physical events.

The ancient Greeks may have "explained" the behavior of falling bodies by theorizing that the object feels a need to return to its natural place, Earth, but the modern physicist's explanation has to do with the relative masses of the object and of Earth and of the distance separating them.... In the natural sciences, explaining a phenomenon means identifying the physical events that produce it.

This approach has proved tremendously effective, not only in improving our understanding of the natural world but also in producing practical solutions to problems. Yet we have been slow to apply the same approach to behavior. We routinely say, for example, that a man slams a door because he feels angry or that a rat presses a lever because it knows lever pressing produces food.

Such "explanations" are troublesome, not so much because the events referred to cannot be publicly observed, but because the explanations they provide are circular. In a circular explanation, the evidence for the explanation is the very thing that is being explained: Why did the man slam the door? Because he was angry. How do we know he was angry? Because he slammed the door. Why does the rat press the lever? Because it knows that lever pressing produces food. How do we know that the rat knows this? Because it presses the lever. In science, this simply will not do!

This is not to say that thoughts and feelings do not exist or are unimportant. It may well be that a man who slams a door is angry, but his anger doesn't explain his behavior. For if we blame the door slamming on anger, we must then ask, "Why is he angry?" Similarly, a rat may know that pressing a lever produces food, but why does the rat know this? These questions bring us back again to physical events. To explain behavior, we must identify the physical events that reliably produce it.

From Chapter 8, Operant Applications and Interpretations:

Education --

Each issue of the prestigious educational journal Phi Delta Kappan includes numerous cartoons. If you examine a few issues, you will see that a lot of the cartoons depict students with low test scores, bad report cards, difficult math problems, disapproving teachers, and various forms of punishment. The unstated message... seems to be that school is a place where kids are frustrated, fail, and get into trouble.

How sad, particularly when you consider that we know how to make school a place where students are challenged, succeed, and enjoy themselves (Chance, 2008). Making use of learning principles, particularly shaping and positive reinforcement, is one key to this transformation.

The reinforcing effects of approval and attention on student behavior have been demonstrated many times. In one early study, Charles Madsen and others (1968) asked two second grade teachers to alter the way they responded to appropriate and inappropriate student behavior. One of these teachers, Mrs. A, generally ignored good behavior and dealt with misbehavior by scolding the offending child or making loud, critical comments. There were frequent periods of something approximating chaos, which Mrs. A. dealt with by making threats.

The researchers asked Mrs. A to make a simple, but fundamental, change in her behavior. Instead of ignoring the kids when they were good and criticizing them when they were bad, she was generally to ignore the kids when they were bad and praise them or make other approving comments when they were good.... [The researchers] suggested that she pay special attention to two students, Cliff and Frank....

The change in Mrs. A's behavior resulted in a marked change in her students, especially Cliff and Frank. As figure 8-2 shows, the two boys were initially misbehaving in about half of the 20-minute intervals during which the researchers observed their behavior. When Mrs. A began recognizing good behavior, the boys responded. When she went back to ignoring good behavior... their old habits returned. At the conclusion of the study, the boys were misbehaving less than a third as often as they had at the beginning....


Self-injurious behavior --

Children with developmental disorders such as autism and mental retardation sometimes seem bent on self-destruction. Some of these children will repeatedly bang their heads on the edge of a table or cabinet, sometimes causing retinal detachment or brain damage. They have been known to blind themselves by repeatedly poking themselves in the eye with a finger or fist. Some have chewed their flesh down to the bone or chewed off fingers.

Not so very long ago, such behavior was... dealt with by putting the child in restraints. This might take the form of a straightjacket or straps that fastened the hands to the sides. Sometimes patients were tied to their bed, spread-eagle, so they could not hurt themselves. This practice is far less common today thanks to the development of effective treatments based on operant learning. Those treatments are available largely because of research in the 1960s.

One day Ivar Lovaas at UCLA was working with an autistic boy. During the session the phone rang, and as Lovaas was talking on the phone, the boy began banging his head against the wall....

Copyright 2009 Wadsworth, Cengage Learning

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