Students As Dolphins

My TA (name’s Katy, perhaps you’ll recall) works at a veterinary hospital after school, holding down German Shepherds twice her size for vaccinations.

She was talking to me the other day about reinforcers and punishments, how punishments are so much less effective than reinforcers ’cause animals will modify their behavior just enough to avoid them and no further.

She also said that punishments are plainly ineffective with open water animals like dolphins, which can’t be caged up, or sent outside, or sent to their rooms for punishment.

They just swim away.

This anecdote’s application to classroom management is left as an exercise to the reader.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Interesting “Skinner-esque” theory. I would add that reinforcers should be changed or modified once in a while or else the reinforcer will start to lose its appeal.

  2. Actually this isn’t Skinner-esque at all! Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning (which is the strongest contender for a theory to back up classroom management) is all about positive and negative reinforcements.

    If a behavior is changed just long enough to avoid a certain behavior (i.e. dogs) then the behavior is not reinforced long enough to cause a more ingrained change.

    Naturally, if the dogs are getting vaccinated once every six months, anything you do is temporary.

    The implications for students here is minimal, unless you really dig into Skinner (which is good stuff) and understand Operant Conditioning.

    I could talk much more about this, but you don’t like it when I do.

    Look, if you’re interested in classroom management, you OWE it to yourself to understand theory, especially Operant conditioning. It is marvelous and will explain why the kids disobey so many other teachers when there is no consequence for misbehavior.

    Chris Craft (NOT Ph.D.)

  3. Sometimes I worry we go too far the other way, though. “Punished by Rewards” as my buddy Alfie Kohn would say.

    “Hey – I was nice to that girl in the hall. Where’s my candy bar?”

    When we go overboard with the rewards, people (or dolphins or German shepherds) lose any intrinsic motivation they may have had and will tend to do JUST ENOUGH to get the reward (as opposed to LITTLE ENOUGH to avoid punishment).

    If you’ve never read any of Alfie’s stuff, it’s interesting reading.

  4. Yeah, dunno, what Kohn or anyone else would say about anything, but I don’t think the reinforcers have to be of the obvious, extrinsic, token variety. Leastwise those aren’t my usual stock, resorting instead to a lot of positive attention when a student does something awesome for its own sake or for their own.

    “Dang, that’s some smart thinking right there. You guys catch that?!”

    “Alright so Sam’s on his way here with one of the best wrong answers I’ve seen all period. Check him out.”

    Etc. Cornball. Etc.

  5. Doesn’t Kohn distinguish between praise for controlling purposes and praise as feedback (or is that someone else)? In the latter case the reward (accomplishment, mastery) may really be more intrinsic to the activity, and the praise is an indicator of progress toward that reward rather than a biscuit in and of itself. Or something. Lots of distinctions begging to be made here, and so little time. Where’s Dina?

    You’d think there’d be annual conferences on psychology (and moral philosophy) for educators. Probably there are. Why aren’t we hearing about them? (Or: Why don’t I hear about them?)

  6. I think I understand what you’re saying…

    We need to build smaller cages to control our students.

    That way it is easier to “manage” their behavior.


  7. Maybe I’m a cynic here, but too much reinforcement when you’re a kid sets you up for an unhappy adulthood…where you have to learn that it should count as “positive reinforcement” when someone isn’t yelling at you for screwing up. Or to realize that the only way you know you’re doing a good job is that enough extra work is being piled on you that you think your head’s going to explode.

    I know, I know – we need to have “intrinsic motivation” but once in a while it’s nice to be explicitly told you’re doing a good job. I don’t tend to infer that I’m doing a good job from no feedback at all….

  8. Ricki,

    The thing where somewhere isn’t yelling at you is known as “negative reinforcement” or avoidance conditioning. It’s the removal of an adverse stimulus, and in and of itself, a reinforcer. Much of the prevailing motivation for schooling functions on this model. Do well and you won’t…

    …get yelled at
    …get detention
    …make your parents mad/sad
    …fail in life
    …end up homeless

    It ceases to function when the adverse stimuli being negatively reinforced are not terribly adverse or are so far removed from the understanding of the individual, so as to be unfelt and not understood. In other words, it fails all the time.

  9. Kohn (and others) point out a difference between positive reinforcement in a specific, relevant way (what Dan is doing when he talks about a student’s work in a positive light) and giving out random “treats” when students do something good (like so many “positive behavior” programs where kids get tangible items for doing nice things).

    I’m just glad to see that so many (at least in their online personas) are moving beyond the, “Do something bad and I will make something bad happen to you,” mentality. This gets us nowhere.

  10. For 18 years I have taught in a program that gives lots of awards. Every month, each of the 4 teachers gets to pick a student of the month for their class, then we all get together to pick an overall student from the sophomore, junior, and senior classes. We have an awards program where the chosen students are praised in front of their peers and teachers, given a certificate (some of which come with money) and their picture is taken.

    It seems that just as we name a student of the class, that student starts to do really dumb things, getting into trouble, dropping their grades, not coming to school. Any explanation for that phenomenon? I’ve always believed in positive reinforcement, but sometimes we are adverse to naming a student for fear of ruining them.

  11. scott – maybe people like me aren’t speaking up?

    my approach to classroom management is a lot like mr. k’s, except, i’m not at the point where i’m figuring out what it is that didn’t work / how to change it next time. probably part of it is that i’ve spent my (short) career split between high school and middle school, which are galaxies apart in terms of the kinds of behavioral issues (and hygiene).

    another question. anybody else out there in an immersion school? or beyond that, a bilingual immersion school, which is where i am. how would you deal with admin telling you to not allow a whiff of mother tongue in school? so far my approach is to claim that i can’t tell mandarin chinese – allowed – apart from cantonese chinese – not allowed. but the kids know the truth, that i have a rudimentary understanding of handful of both dialects…

  12. Maybe I’m a cynic here, but too much reinforcement when you’re a kid sets you up for an unhappy adulthood…where you have to learn that it should count as “positive reinforcement” when someone isn’t yelling at you for screwing up.

    Is this true? I thought that it would be more that too little postive reinforcement as a kid would set you up for an unhappy adulthood where you tolerate an abusive environment. I understand that children who have been badly abused are statistically more likely to wind up in abusive relationships in adulthood than children who had decent parents. People who grow up in abusive environments tend to regard those sorts of horrible situations as normal, and inescapable.

  13. dkzody – the definition of a postive reinforcer is “a reinforcing stimulus that serves to increase the likelihood of the response that produces it”. Given that your school’s rewards are decreasing the likelihood of the response that produced the reward, the school’s rewards are by definition not positive reinforcers for the students in question. Therefore the school is not using positive reinforcement.

    In this case, I would guess that the chosen students dislike being singled out as different from their peers, and thus go over the top to prove that they are the same as their gang of friends.

    What is a positive reinforcement is determined by the person receiving the reinforcer, not by the person giving it.