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Marc Gold: Reinforcement and Influence

Marc Gold

Marc Gold began his career as a special education teacher in Los Angeles. It was there that he formulated a values based systematic training approach, "Try Another Way." This approach was based on a few fundamental beliefs: Everyone can learn but we have to figure out how to teach; students with developmental disabilities have much more potential than anyone realizes; and all people with disabilities should have the opportunity to decide how to live their lives. These video segments demonstrate his philosophy, and the respect and value he placed on the abilities of each of his students.

Reinforcement and Influence

Look familiar? At sometime or another we've all used this stuff or something like it. Too often it's become the currency between a buyer and a seller. The market place is the trainer-learner situation and the name of the game is reinforcement.

Most trainers rely almost exclusively on some kind of reinforcement system as the primary source of power for training people.

Here we are at the beginning of the seventh film in this training series; this is almost the first time it's come up.

It's no accident that I saved it for last. We're going to take a close look at reinforcement and find out what you can buy with it and what it costs.

The first part of our Rule of Reinforcement says the best reinforcers are natural. Natural reinforcers are those that are found where you ultimately expect the behavior to occur.

If you're working with a person in a vocational setting and you assume the place where he's going to be working most of his life has a foreman who every few minutes is going to come along and say, "Very good I like what you're doing", and that's a natural reinforcer. Whatever will be where the person is ultimately going to do the thing that you're teaching him, that's natural.

If you're teaching people who you expect to live in an institutional setting with a strong token economy and that token economy is going to be there all of their lives then that's natural.

I say natural reinforcers are the best because when they're used there's no problem transferring. If the trainer uses what's going to be there when he walks away then at least for that part of the learning the learner is already there.

Another reason why I say natural reinforcers are the best is because they imply natural people. There's another to look at what natural means.

There are many times where well intentioned we try to give someone a boost by saying something nice about what they're doing. A lot of times what they're doing isn't much.

I wonder how many times the person is saying to himself or herself,

'If she thinks that's so good, then what must she think of me?'

When you reinforce a person for something they perceive as a low-status task you're reinforcing a low self-concept.

You see? There's more than one way to look at what a natural reinforcer is.

All right, let's go on.

The next part of the Rule of Reinforcement says, the more artificial reinforcement you add in the more you'll have to get out.

Artificial reinforcers are reinforcers that you don't expect in the criterion to condition. That is, where you ultimately expect the behavior to occur. Those are reinforcers that the trainer systematically utilizes to gain control.

Now artificial reinforcers are very useful. They're not bad if they are explicitly temporary; if they're used to establish a relationship or to get behavior going. But if you use artificial reinforcers for long periods of time, then they're debilitating.

Remember I said natural reinforcers imply natural people. Long term use of artificial reinforcers isn't something you'd use on your friends.

Take token economies as good examples of the use of organized artificial reinforcement systems.

There are three parts to a good token economy system.

First you establish it and make sure that everyone understands and operates within it. Secondly, having established control the system is used to teach people certain things. And three, you plan an absolutely explicit systematic set of operations for getting people out of the token economy.

Token economy that is open ended, where people are on it for long periods of time without a systematic way of getting them out, is a fascist plot. It's designed to solve staff problems not client or resident or student problems. 

A token economy that has in fact some very clear procedures for moving people through the token economy and into a natural reinforcement system can be a very useful and valuable thing.

Okay, let's get back to the third part of the Rule of Reinforcement which says, when the learner knows the trainer is attending, No news is good news. If I'm working with you and you know that I'm paying attention to what you're doing there's no question. I'm not off smoking or drinking coffee or answering telephone calls; I'm right here.

Occasionally I'm reaching in and putting your hand in a particular position, or touching your shoulder, or saying something to you. What are you saying to yourself while I'm sitting there silent and virtually motionless? I must be doing fine. That feels good, and that's reinforcement.

No news is good news is sort of the opposite of what I see so often, and that is where people make reinforcement junkies out of learners. Where a heavy emphasis is on reinforcement procedures, the trainer is making the learner very dependent. The trainer is saying, "I'll let you know when you're right".

No news is good news says, "I'll let you know when you're wrong and in a way that doesn't hurt".

If you're going to use No News is Good News; what are the conditions?

First of all, No News is Good News works very well when you're teaching someone something that they find valuable. When the task provides motivation you don't have to. It's also interesting that for most of those tasks once the person has learned them and moves into the real environment the task or the people around him provide all the reinforcement that's needed for him to keep right on going.

There's another whole set of tasks that I call zero-order tasks. Zero-order tasks are things that if a person doesn't do them, they bring negative attention. If they do do them, they bring nothing.

In the natural environment, they operate on No News is Good News. If you're teaching someone to get dressed, or brush their teeth, you can only really know you've taught them if they do all those things in the absence of anybody telling them anything about it. That's No News is Good News.

It's doing things so that in effect there won't be anybody saying anything instead of asking you, Why didn't you get dressed? Or Why didn't you brush your teeth, or congratulations that you did. For those same tasks however No News is Good News doesn't work very well when you're teaching them.

For many people there just isn't anything reinforcing or useful about learning how to brush their teeth, or learning how to get dressed. For those kinds of tasks the trainer usually has to come up with something external to the task; often in the form of some kind of artificial reinforcement to encourage or get the person to work at the task in order to learn it.

When that's the case the biggest problem is getting rid of all that artificial reinforcement so that the person ends up doing the task on his own without anybody having to tell him.

Another important condition for using No News is Good News is that learners shouldn't be allowed to work at tasks that they're still making errors on in the absence of a trainer.

If the learner hasn't reached criterion yet if he hasn't shown you that he knows the task, and you walk away and he makes an error and your not there to provide him with some correction, then No News is Bad News. If you have to get up and walk away while a person is still making errors on a task, either take the task or the learner with you. It's only fair.

The last condition that I'd to mention for using No News is Good News is that if you're relying on silence on a very quiet interaction between the trainer and the learner, when you have to correct an error do it in a way that doesn't hurt.

Now let's take a look at something that in some respects is very much different and in some ways very much like what we've been talking about so far.

I'd like to talk about influence. The word influence describes very nicely just about everything that a trainer does to a learner. Influence can take place before the learner acts; while the learner is acting, or after he has acted.

But I'd like to center in here on a different aspect of influence. On two kinds. One kind of influence is where the trainer intends to focus on the knowledge of the task, and I'd like to call that Content Influence. The other is where the trainer intends to focus on feelings that the learner has about the task or about doing the task and I call that Process Influence.

When you focus on Process Influence you support the long standing tradition in our society that there must be a superior/inferior relationship between trainers and learners.

Process Influence is manipulation. It's buying and selling behaviors and feelings. One of the two parties in the transaction always has the control. That obviously means you've got something that he needs you're on top, and he's on the bottom. Somebody's got to win and somebody's got to lose.

How can we expect people to take their place beside us in society when most of the ways we have for supposedly helping to get them there; force them to recognize in one way or another their subservient position?

How can you have a balanced relationship with someone when all the transactions are purchased or sold?

Another practical consideration about process influence is that it's very distracting. If the trainer is constantly rewarding or punishing or trying to tell somebody how happy they are or what they want; it's pretty hard to focus on the task. And all of those attempts to get a person to do it cost credibility. If you're handing that stuff out so easily; it must be pretty cheap.

One other thing, it's exhausting. Exhausting for the trainer it's exhausting for the learner to be constantly trying to play on someone's emotions and motivations or to have them played upon.

Now let's look at the other side of the coin. When your focus of attention; when the intent of your focus is on Content Influence, and that is providing the person with knowledge about the task the training is so much less cluttered. All that stuff gets out of the way, and the task can be dealt with. It's a shorter distance to independence. The person comes through the learning process without having to rely very much on outside motivation. He can confidently move into the doing part of the task where the trainer isn't around without having to give all that stuff up. 

Another thing that happens when you focus on content influence is that much more useful information will be communicated. Now comes the punchline. When you focus on content influence it provides an environment and an opportunity for the trainer and the learner to develop a balanced relationship.



In both directions.

The learner has the opportunity to appreciate the task instead of being barraged with why he should appreciate the task. The learner comes to perceive the trainer as someone who is there to work with him, and provide him with information not to act as an overlord.

The trainer gets at least as much out of it as the learner. With the focus on content influence the trainer can discover that the learner is a genuine receiver of knowledge not something that information is stuffed into like dressing in a turkey. When the trainer focuses on Content Influence a much higher level of real, natural, deep, valued reinforcement comes into play. You try it, and you'll experience it for yourself. 

Now is a good time to ask ourselves where we've been, and how far we've come.

We started out with Try Another Way. A philosophy statement that said there are people out there that are capable of learning so much more than anybody ever thought. It also said really what this last few minutes have said and that is that the relationship between the trainer and the learner can be balanced, and can be lovely.

Then as we moved into the training series you were given an organizational structure; that bag of tricks, for organizing the different pieces of the system. Then we spent the rest of the films talking about those pieces about the operations within the systems; the format; the feedback, and the rules. We saw wonderful people doing some very inspiring things. And here we are back at philosophy again, tying all of that stuff to value structures. To the relationships between people and the feelings of people. 

You can't have a technology outside of a set of values, outside a set of beliefs about who people are, about what the good life is.

If this training series has been successful than it's been able to define and emphasize the crucial relationship between what we know as trainers and what we feel as individuals, and how those two things combine and interact to result in important things happening to important people.

Thank you.

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This project was supported, in part by grant number 2001MNSCDD-03, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.

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