Why we don’t always prompt: Behavior Analysis meets Vygotsky.

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In the early 20th century, there was a developmental psychologist named Lev Vygotsky working on theories of learning and development in parallel to many of the behaviorist traditions. If you were to ask a graduate student taking behavior analytic courses who Vygotsky was, they would most likely shrug their shoulders and wonder why that was important. He isn’t Watson. He isn’t Pavlov. He isn’t Thorndike. He isn’t Skinner. He isn’t Lindsley. So, why would a behaviorist ever want to care? Well, it’s because his work ties in so closely to the behaviorist tradition, that you could in some cases use his terminology and frameworks interchangeably and still see the same results. His work can help clarify why we, as behavior analysts, trainers, educators, and even parents, should not prompt every single time we see a child begin to struggle with an endeavor or task.

To an educator or professional following the behaviorist tradition, it’s not all that hard to describe. Prompts help the learner reach a reinforcement threshold that that their response likely could not have reached on its own. Shaping- describes a process by which an emergent behavior which is similar in some way to a target behavior, is reinforced by successive approximations to become the terminal target behavior. Basically, it’s taking an “okay” behavior attempt, and rewarding the behaviors that look closer to improvement until it’s “perfected” enough to reach more naturalistic reinforcement in the broader environment. To a behaviorist, that means looking at what the learner has in their repertroire, what they can do right now, and plan to reward the responses that improve that towards some end goal response. But wait, how exactly do we know when to intervene? And why don’t we intervene every time we see the learner encounter difficulty?

The trouble with that is that sometimes a learner does not actually learn from being prompted too much. Sometimes that reinforcement only contacts the amount of effort the learner expends to receive prompting. Sometimes they become dependent on those prompts, and then it is the educator doing the behavior, and the learner receiving reinforcement. They don’t improve because they have no need to improve. They get the prize every time their educator does it for them. That behavior that the educator prompts, might never transfer through modeling. Why should it, if the reinforcer comes anyway? This is where Vygotsky comes in. Vygotsky believed that there is a Zone of Proximal Development.

Lev Vygotsky was not a behaviorist. In many ways, he was against the methodological behaviorism that was popular at the time which focused on purely observable stimulus-response relationships. Vygotsky also believed that learning was not just a process that drew from a present environment of contingencies, but a broader wealth of cultural and societal forces that accumulate through generations and have impacts that were not directly related to the behaviors at hand. However, when it comes to the Zone of Proximal Development, his theories coincide with what behaviorists would conceptualize as both repertoires and the necessary thresholds for prompting. Vygotsky believed that there was a level at which a learner could successfully accomplish tasks without assistance, and a level at the other end of their developmental range that they could not accomplish without considerable help in the form of prompting. Between that, however, was a zone where a learner could accomplish them with some collaboration and prompting and eventually surpass it to a level of independence. It’s a zone that is in many ways different from individual to individual, but within that zone of proximal development; prompting (or collaboration as he called it) was at its most effective.

Think of it like this:

Zone of the learners “actual” development Zone of Proximal Development The limit of their current developmental ability
These are responses that the learner can perform, and tasks that the learner can complete without any assistance from others. These are tasks and responses that the learner can accomplish with the assistance and prompting of others.

These are tasks and responses that are beyond the learner’s ability to accomplish and can only be produced with considerable support and assistance.

*Behaviorist Footnote:
Think of this as the responses already in the learner’s repertoire. These are “easy”.
*Behaviorist Footnote:

Think of this as the area of “shapable” responses that are likely to lead to independent future responses. Vygotsky called this “scaffolding” but the process of “shaping” is synonymous.

*Behaviorist Footnote:

The client can be prompted through these tasks, but are unlikely to be able to reproduce them even with shaping procedures at this time.

This framework delineates an interesting range where a learner needs and could use the help of an educator or teacher to help prompt them, and when not. In the initial range, prompting is unnecessary and might actually hinder the learner from engaging in those responses in their most independent forms. The learners who can engage in the “easy” responses and find that reinforcement in the broader environment would be more likely to occur in the future. Prompting too much here could stifle that. In the next range, the Zone of Proximal Development, as Vygotsky calls it; prompting could actually be of the most use! These are responses that are viable for occurring and reaching natural reinforcement, but they just need a little help at first to get there. Here, prompting in the form of modeling or shaping could help the learner take their initial responses and bring them to their terminal and most effective independent forms. This is the exciting part. This zone is where the work put in by the educator and teacher could meet maximum return on what the learner can benefit from. Now, we have to be careful not to reach for the moon here. The final zone is where, even with prompting, the learner is unlikely to be able to shape their responses successfully. This, for example, is trying to teach a learner to run before they can walk. They need those foundational responses before they can even be prompted to a more advanced terminal response. An educator who comes across this scenario might be wise to dial the expectations back.

Between those two ranges of “easy” and “unlikely”, we find the responses that can be prompted for the most good. We would not prompt too much, and stifle the learner’s ability to contact reinforcement on their own, but nor would we fail to prompt at all, and miss those responses or behaviors that just need a little push. This is where a behaviorist, teacher, educator, or even parent, can take a thing or two from Vygotsky’s work. And if you’re a tried and true behaviorist who can’t believe that a cognitivist would be mentioned here, I’d suggest an open mind. You might even be surprised about the similarities between Vygotsky and Skinner on private events and “inner speech”. We can touch on that later, but for now, think about the zone of proximal development in your life and practice; what could use a little help?

Likes? Comments? Questions? Leave them all below!

References:

Burkholder, E. O., & Peláez, M. (2000). A behavioral interpretation of Vygotsky’s theory of thought, language, and culture. Behavioral Development Bulletin,9(1), 7-9.
COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.
ORMROD, J. E. (2019). HUMAN LEARNING. S.l.: PEARSON.
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