Pressing none of the right buttons

So, last week I made reference to a Year 7 lesson on Animal Behaviour  that I thought people might like to try. Scanning back through previous posts, a kind of retro-burble, I notice that I had already mentioned this in passing as part of a Year 13 lesson. Given that the new A-level specification has completely removed any mention of Animal Behaviour as a Biological topic (why? what were they thinking?!!? absolute madness!!!!) I have simply moved all the wonderful practical activities down to KS3 so that our students get at least some exposure to this fascinating area of Biology.

Which brings us to Skinner Boxes. This follows rather neatly from the work they did with Hettie and Herbie (our hamsters) in their splendid cardboard mazes. After a brief review of the pros and cons of studying behaviour in a laboratory setting, I explain that today they will be working with a brand new animal. Can they guess what it is?

I leave most of the girls in the lab, under the supervisory gaze of our technician, and take two of them (pre-selected) into a neighbouring lab. Here I show them the “Skinner Box”, simply some tables rearranged to enclose a small, square area, with a button-operated bulb on each side (your Physics technician can run up a pair of these in 5 minutes or less). I explain to the two girls that they will be operating the Skinner box. This involves following the instructions on a series of experiments (Skinner box operator instructions 2 Skinner box operator instructions 1 where “rats” (i.e. Year 7 girls) are put, one at a time, into the box and allowed to explore their surroundings. The operators sit outside the box, opposite each other, with a box of Maltesers (to provide suitable rewards), and a long ruler (to provide “punishment”) each.

They quickly grasp what they’re meant to do. I tell them to keep the Maltesers out of sight, under the desk, and to not let anyone else read the instructions. For the first series of experiments, every “rat” will be a sample in Experiment 1 – the “rats” simply have to do is press the button and light up the bulb – if they manage this, they get a Malteser….

I go back next door. Have they guessed the animal yet? Mice! Woodlice! Guinea pigs! Rabbits! No, it’s a much simpler animal. Very basic instincts. Very readily available in a school setting. At this precise moment you are never more than, oooh, 50cm from one…. Oh, is it us? Bingo!

I tell them that they will play the part of experimental rats. That I’m going to take them one by one into my other laboratory and observe their behaviour for 15 seconds. That’s all. They’ve seen how hamsters behave in a strange setting – just pretend you’re a hamster. And I will be filming it all on the department i-pad.

And we’re off. Olivia, the first “rat” in, provides a textbook example.  She snuffles around inquisitively and, with seeming inevitability, presses a button. Flora (one of the Skinner Box operatives) dutifully delivers a Malteser. Olivia giggles with surprise and delight and immediately presses the button again. Voila! Another Malteser is provided. I quickly stop her because I don’t want the Maltesers to run out – she’s got the idea, she’s learned the association.

Experimental rats get to watch the other rats being tested – it’s partly the logistical difficulties of having yet another holding area, but mainly because I want them to see and enjoy what’s going on.

At this point, something rather surprising happens. The next 5 girls do nothing – literally, nothing. They stand there, all self-conscious and slightly giggly, some not even looking around, but absolutely refusing to risk doing anything in case it’s wrong. “What am I supposed to do?” some of them mouth at the other girls, but they are under strict instructions not to give any clues, and after 15 seconds I put them out of their misery (i.e. I stop the experiment – I don’t put them down humanely!).

Sofia, rat number 7, behaves just like Olivia (hurrah!) and then, joy of joy, in steps Maria who just decides that she will spend her 15 seconds spinning like a whirling dervish, her long blonde pony tail whirling behind her. “I’m dizzy….” she gurgles delightedly as she staggers out of the test area. By now, of course, every girl in the room now realises that they should have done and while feeling rather foolish and frustrated, they’re also enjoying seeing others miss the point.

By the end, only 5 out of 20 girls were sufficiently curious and lacking in anxiety to win some Maltesers. The rest just didn’t want to risk doing anything in case it turned out to be wrong, whatever that might mean. Where does this fear come from? Our education system? Our nationality? Can we blame Michael Gove? Whatever the reason, it makes for a good life lesson. Take a chance! Just do it! What’s the worst thing that can happen? You might win a Malteser!

Of course, having now all seen the kind of thing that’s going on, they’re all suitably prepped for the second round of experiments. This time I let everyone watch, because all the experiments are different. And now they are wonderfully imaginative and creative in their quest to get the right behaviour pattern. I particularly like the girl who just stands in the middle of the box and says, very quietly and politely, “Please can I have a Malteser?” Some girls find they are being prodded by a ruler – which continues until they press the button. And so on.

It makes for terrific discussion. How is this different to the maggot behaviour? Which is better for learning, reward or punishment? Should you revise with chocolate or electric shocks? And where are the real life examples of this kind of learning? This last takes them a while, but they eventually come up with learning what stinging nettles look like (could be a good comparison to start the exercise – demo lots of different leaves – which ones do they know), and the warning colours of bees and wasps.

Learning about Learning by doing – the only type there is.

And that’s nearly yer lot for this year. I’ll post one more burble next Wednesday, and then it’s the summer holidays. I, for one, can’t wait.

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