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7 December; Positive Reinforcement and Uncanny Valley

9 December 2010

Many thanks to Graham for the final micro-teaching session which, as was pointed out in the discussion, was perhaps the most profitable of all, although perhaps no the most comfortable for him. Especial thanks for the reflective and critical way in which he evaluated his own session.

Someone has to go last, and it so happened that most of the topics Graham would have chosen had been taken, so he commendably took a chance with something he was not sufficiently familiar with to be entirely comfortable. And despite his best efforts he fell into a heffalump trap

He was teaching the principles of “positive reinforcement” as promulgated by Aubrey Daniels, a proponent of  performance management.  The minor problem was that he could not address the issue properly in twenty minutes.

The major one was that, thinking that Daniels has a distinctive and novel angle on reinforcement (much used, as he said, by blue-chip companies for in-house training), he did not check out levels of prior knowledge in advance. Had he done so, he would have found that at least five of the rest of you thought that you knew quite a lot about positive reinforcement, because your education in other disciplines had involved at least some exposure to the principles of behavioural theories in psychology.

The problem is that despite using very similar terminology and there being a substantial overlap of ideas, Daniels’ branded and corporate-focused angle on reinforcement is not quite the same as the classic behaviourist tradition (making no judgements–I’m not a behaviourist and this was the first time I’d ever heard of Daniels).

In the discussion I mentioned the “uncanny valley” phenomenon:

  • See here for the general principle, and
  • here if you have hours to waste for examples (although I think they expand/dilute the idea too much)

(I’ve mentioned a similar issue on my other blog under a different guise.)

Expressed simplistically, it comes out as “Tiny differences are more difficult to handle than gross ones”.

We have no problem processing obvious differences between objects, categories, ideas. But it gets more difficult when the differences are subtle and may not even be real. That requires serious attention and concentration… “I’d like to take these colour samples outside to compare them in daylight…” “I need to hear that again…” “Does Daniels mean the same thing as Skinner when he refers to ‘reinforcement’? I’m not sure…”

If the problem is up-front, then at least we can argue about it, bitter though such arguments may be (in inverse proportion to their importance in the real world, of course, as here).

But if it is not acknowledged, for whatever reason, there is a real problem. It was like that in the session when some of you were confused, asking themselves; “Am I just being stupid? Have I been misunderstanding this all along?” or “This guy has got it all wrong. But he is supposed to be the teacher and I want to be constructive–how do I confront the point without undermining him?” And that is without going into the possibility of any personal investment in prior beliefs

I’m doing my DIY carpentry. I’ve drilled a 4mm hole, but it is out of alignment by 2mm. Much more difficult to correct that than one which is 10mm out.

I’m driving down a rutted road; I need to steer a fraction to the right. I could do a right-angle turn, but I can’t make that kind of fine adjustment. The circumstances conspire against it…

I’m going beyond my exemplar here, but perhaps I’m discovering what many people –particularly perhaps in the coaching field– have known (and probably written about) for centuries.

And a great deal of teaching at advanced levels is about precisely this level of detailed adjustment. It calls for great open-ness on the part of the learner, and deep conviction on the part of the teacher that this “trivial” point is worth getting right, particularly in the case of threshold concepts (of which more next term).

Apart from that!

In the other part of the session we reviewed the micro-teaching exercise as a whole, using an evaluation form which concentrated on “feed-forward” (the implications for what happens next) rather than feed-back. Feed-forward is associated with the work of Phil Race, but strangely I can’t find anything of his on the web which goes into any more detail–however, Peter W will no doubt have something to say about it in Unit 3 next term.

What you resolved to make more of included;

  • Your time-management; 20 minutes concentrates the mind wonderfully
  • The range of methods and activities used; variety, alternative ways of getting to one’s goals, teaching styles, and specific techniques such as Alex’s carousel…
  • Reflection and discussion; this evening had provided an opportunity for more detailed examination than any previous session, but several of you noted how good it was simply to talk about how a session had gone–there is so much back-to-back teaching nowadays that review gets neglected.
  • Checking prior understanding!
  • Focusing as much on the process and methods for teaching the topic, rather than simply on knowledge of it.
  • Instead of discussing what you would do less of, you re-framed the question so as to emphasise doing more of something different. Not only was that a good point for the management of this discussion, it’s also a useful technique in teaching and behaviour management where it rejoices in the label “behaviour therapy by reciprocal inhibition” associated with Joseph Wolpe. Re-framing is a useful tool, too…

The major “take-away” items from the term were identified as:

  • Taking the learners with you, and checking that they are following.
  • Confidence and presence helps them to trust you and your professionalism.

Next week is tutorials, mentor training and a meal at Saffron.

Peter’s note on my tutorials says: “James will discuss Professional Practice 1 with you and review your Learning Itinerary, so please make sure this is up to date with observations from Tutors and Mentors and that your action plan is available for examination.” The itinerary is largely a device for making sure that we cover everything; the critical document is the Professional Practice learning contract and action plans associated with that and with practice observations.

All the paperwork can be downloaded from

See you then; if there are any attendance issues, please let Peter or me know as soon as possible in advance. Thanks


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