Operant Conditioning and the Arts

B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning is primarily concerned with the final consequence of behavior rather than the mechanisms behind the behavior (Thomas, 2005). Consequently, the inner workings of the mind become one of the constructs in behaviorism. Using operant conditioning, an organism makes an association between a voluntary behavior and a consequence using stimuli (Thomas, 2005). Key constructs in Skinner’s theory include desired behavior, reinforcement, and punishment (Thomas, 2005). Behavior can be measured with concepts related to students performing a task a specific way or number of times (the student listened to the music homework for three hours).

The reinforcement or punishment can be measures with concepts related to reward and aversive stimuli (the student was given two pieces of candy each time they listened to music for three hours, or the student was given electrical shocks each time they listened to music for three hours). Operant condition can effectively be used in classrooms, even in a discipline like the arts.

Altman and Linton (1971) argued operant conditioning is ideal for classrooms because a traditional role for teachers and schools is to modify behavior. Operant conditioning shows promise for preventing behavior problems and increasing desired behaviors. Altman and Linton (1971) reported a test where teacher attention decreased disruptive behavior for students. The teachers’ attention was a positive punishment. In this case the “disruptive behavior” and “teacher attention” are the constructs. This technique could be used in any classroom where teachers can use attention, praise, etc. as a positive stimulus for a desired behavior (studying, sitting quietly, etc.

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). Shaping can also be used in the classroom. Glaser (1966) described “shaping” as moving the student from rudimentary performance to mastery by establishing sequentially higher standards for the student’s performance. For example, a music student can learn tempo precision using shaping. The instructor gradually narrows the range of a satisfactory performance during the teaching sequence as the student becomes more precise with the tempo (Glaser, 1966).

Instructors of arts appreciation and history courses may be dismayed when students do not see the value of art as they see it. However, Dorow (1977) found teacher approval of music increased the likelihood of a student selecting the approved music and concert attentiveness when listening to said music. The constructs of “teacher approval” and “student music selection” were measured in the following ways: teacher approval was measured in terms of frequency of approval and ratio of approval to disapproval; student music selection was measured in terms of listening time (Dorow, 1977). The positive reinforcement of the approval reinforced the student’s desire to hear the music. Humanities instructors could use operant conditioning to encourage students to “taste test” new art forms and genres they initially may not find appealing.

Raygor, Wark, and Warren (1966) found operant conditioning with a secondary reinforcer increased the reading speed of adults. Johnston et al. (1966) found motor skills can be improved through reinforcement. A teacher could use operant conditioning to increase skills like reading speed or motor skills. Consequently, operant conditioning could possibly be used to help theater students read and memorize scripts faster, or for dance students to improve movements.

Georges (1990) concluded the performing arts are learned rather than instinctive behaviors, though studies by Marcus (2012) and Honing et al. (2015) found some elements of creating and perceiving music are possibly innate. Performing music, dancing, or acting is behaving to “generate consequences” (Skinner, 2005, pg. 65). The stimulation (a construct) provided by the performing arts reinforces us to continue the acts. Reinforcement, like audience behaviors indicating appreciation, has encouraged the arts to endure (Georges, 1990). The audience is reinforced to continue support of the arts, and the arts are reinforced by the audience support. Some audiences react negatively to a performance, and the performer is positively punished with negative reviews, jeers from the audience, etc. Extinction occurs when performers cease presenting genres, instruments, or a form of art due to lack of reinforcing consequences (Georges, 1990). Performing arts student experience reinforcement and/or punishment in the classroom by performing for classmates. Teachers can encourage a class to praise a student’s performance (positive reinforcement), or to withhold praise if they think the performance was subpar (negative punishment). Higher education instructors can use this method as it reasonably simulates the professional performing arts experience.

  1. Standley (1996) noted music is an exceedingly effective stimulus for increasing desirable behavior and decreasing undesirable behavior. Music used as a reinforcer in education has: increased achievement in math and reading, increased acceptance of disable children in classes with non-disabled children, increased on-task practice time and motor skill precision for athletes (Standley, 1996). Based on these results, it’s possible the arts can be used as a stimulus to improve behaviors and skills in a variety of disciplines in schools.
  2. References
  3. Altman, K. I., & Linton, T. E. (1971). Operant conditioning in the classroom setting: A review of the research. The Journal of Educational Research,64(6), 277-286. doi:10.1080/00220671.1971.10884161
  4. Dorow, L. (1977). The effect of teacher approval/disapproval ratios on student music selection and concert attentiveness. Journal of Research in Music Education, 25(1), 32-40.
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  6. Flohr, J. W., & Brown, J. (1979). The Influence of peer imitation on expressive movement to music. Journal of Research in Music Education,27(3), 143-148. doi:10.2307/3344965
  7. Georges, R. A. (1990). Skinnerian behaviorism and folklore studies. Western Folklore,49(4), 400. doi:10.2307/1499753
  8. Glaser, R. (1966). Psychological bases for instructional design. AV Communication Review, 14(4), 433-449.
  9. Honing, H., Cate, C., Peretz, I., & Trehub, S. (2015). Without it no music: Cognition, biology and evolution of musicality. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 370(1664), 1-8. doi:10.1098/rstb.2014.0088
  10. Johnston, M. K., Kelley, C. S., Harris, F. R., & Wolf, M. M. (1966). An application of reinforcement principles to development of motor skills of a young child. Child Development,37(2), 379. doi:10.2307/1126811
  11. Marcus, G. F. (2012). Musicality: Instinct or acquired skill? Topics in Cognitive Science,4(4), 498-512. doi:10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01220.x
  12. Raygor, A. L., Wark, D. M., & Warren, A. D. (1965). Operant conditioning of reading rate. Journal of Reading, 9(3), 147-156. doi:10.1037/e666632011-202
  13. Rossett, A. (1986). The theoretical and conceptual bases of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development,9(3), 28-28. doi:10.1007/bf02906276
  14. Skinner, B. F. (2005). Science and human behavior. Retrieved from http://www.behaviorpedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Science_and_Human_Behavior.pdf
  15. Standley, J. M. (1996). A meta-analysis on the effects of music as reinforcement for education/therapy objectives. Journal of Research in Music Education,44(2), 105-133. doi:10.2307/3345665
  16. Thomas, R. M. (2005). Comparing theories of child development (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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