Seal Training or Learning?

A seal at the New England Aquarium. (Photo: Charles Hoffman)

Yesterday I got a short and sweet insight into learning, courtesy of the New England Aquarium, where I took our daughters for our weekly visit. One of our favorite exhibits is the training session for the sea lions and fur seals. In the audience this time were about 100 school children with parents and teachers. To introduce the session, the lead trainer conducted the following discussion:

  • How many of you do chores? (Many hands go up.)
  • How many of you get an allowance for doing chores? (Most hands remain in the air.)
  • How many of do homework?
  • How many you have to finish your homework before you can go outside to play? (Lots of hands still in the air.)
  • I see lots of hands! It makes homework not so bad because you get a reward at the end.

Then the trainer made her point:

So, from your own life you already understand how we train animals, including the fur seals, by using positive reinforcement.

In other words, it’s assumed that our children are trained like pigeons in a Skinner box. Our teachers fare no better, with rewards and punishment tied to student scores on absurd tests that measure mostly average parental income. What does the future hold for a society that treats its next generation like seals or pigeons?


What does the future hold for a society that actually teaches it's children rather than leaving a good education up to who has the most money? Pretty good I think.


Let's all go Finnish! (No tests, and teaching is actually an esteemed profession)


Teaching is an esteemed profession here in America too. Is there anyone her who doesn't think teaching is a good job? Ten months of work with several breaks, good pay, great benefits...


Me. My wife's starting salary as a teacher 7 years ago was substantially lower than the amount she made as a newspaper saleswoman, a part-time job she used to put herself through college. In some states it's better, but in general the pay is not good. She's no longer teaching, even though she loved doing it.

Also, if you're a dedicated teacher it's not 10 months of work. It's 12, as you prepare for the upcoming year.

Kimberly Unger

The trainer is using a gross oversimplification to be sure, but on the other hand, in order to connect to your audience, you need to build a metaphor, some sort of common ground that both sides can work with. Tying the way they train the seals to the way many children perceive their chores/homework sets up a clear common ground.

SO the real question is, does the trainer genuinely believe training kids is just like training seals, or is she just pulling a commonly used metaphor into play to engage the audience.


As a parent, I often think of rewards and punishments as a way to speed up long-term consequences--to help ease discount rate issues, if you will. People in general, and kids in particular, are pretty bad at doing difficult things now even if it is best for us in the long run. Homework is one example, but there are many others. Since I can't really change my child's discount rate, instead I set a reward or consequence that is going to happen now. In time, I hope he'll learn to do that for himself. That is, set his own rewards and consequence to help him overcome his own present-biased preferences.

Is that training like seals and pigeons? Kind of. The main difference, I think, is that we're training seals and pigeons to do arbitrary things. It has nothing to do with self-control problems, but with kids that's the real issue. Same mechanism, but different problems. What alternative is there to rewards and consequences?


Shane L

I don't understand the problem. Does it not work?

Surely showing children that short-term discipline has long-term benefits is good?


I'm intrigued that Sanjoy plans a life of volunteering work to his would-be employers, but as for me, I'll continue to expect compensation. Bark bark!

Guinevere Locke

I was both saddened and disgusted by your article, sir. I, like LBJ, firmly believe that children are far more perspicacious than we give them credit for.

I have a friend who works in CPS in Little Village with only low income students, some of them undocumented children. He teaches Honors Philosophy and makes sure to include both Foucault and Derrida into his curriculum because he firmly believes that when challenged with a topic as abstract and difficult as post-structualism, children will succeed if only we believe in them.

Contrast this liberal model of education with that of a conservative Asian model which treats children like pets too dumb to think for themselves....

The Asian American model minority model may push their children to "success," but how many developmental and mental health issues come up? What about a quality of life issue-is life really just about getting a job at some corporation, buying a house, and having 2.5 kids?

Also, many employers view Asian Americans as ideal employees because they are often not aggressive enough to want to move up the ladder and disciplined enough to get the job done.

As for the question Mr. Mahajan posed at the very end...well, what other educational system on earth does it better? Many countries fare far worse in their primary, secondary, and tertiary educational systems than we do. If we don't move away from this animalistic model of education, we're going to end up with a populace easily influenced by propaganda, especially the rhetoric of fear. We're going to have a population ripe to be controlled by a demagogue, especially in these recessionary times. See Milgram's psychological experiments.....the Germans weren't unique or more evil. They had just been socialized the same way everyone else not think, but to jump and do whatever your authority figures say.

Until we move on to a marketplace of ideas based model of critical thinking in education, our children will always be susceptible to the next fad...they'll be model employees, but lack the courage to be true entrepreneurs. That being said, the American educational system has a higher chance of fostering creativity than almost any other educational system on earth. For that, we have our Founding Fathers to thank....their historical examples and the examples of all of those who have fought and died for this country since are what inspires courage to innovate and move capitalism forward to a world in which we can all have a bigger slice of the pie.



"What does the future hold for a society that treats its next generation like seals or pigeons?"

Herring and eusociality.


Teachers (and seal trainers) use whatever methods work to accomplish their goals. Reinforcing a behavior with a reward makes it more likely to occur in the future. The learning goals that teachers hold for their students (math, reading, critical thinking) are very different than the learning goals a seal trainer holds for seals (hoop jumping, etc), but the mechanism is the same. By using positive reinforcement, we train a behavior (doing homework). The student repeating that behavior causes learning. The fact that the most effective way to teach is consistent across mammals is not especially surprising. This article is effectively saying we expect students to act just like seals because we feed both of them fish.


If only it were that easy. Unfortunately children are not always in an isolated environment that allows for such easy learning. There are many layers of influence in the environment teaching then different things at different times. And due to our verbal abilities language makes things confusing when words don't align with actions. If your question is what would life be like if learning was that easy? We'd all be geniuses and work toward a greater good for all humanity. But we don't. Yes the mechanism is the same, but the context is not.


You're forgetting a crucial difference here! Sure, in both seals and children we use reward system to encourage them to do stuff. However, when the seal gets paid a piece of fish to hold a ball on his nose, all it does is to hold the ball. But when you "pay" your kid with free time, TV time, computer time, watching-trained-seals time for learning, the kid LEARNS! It learns grammar, it learns math, science ad so forth. While for the seal the ball-balancing is the end, for the kid it's only a means to an end. The end is an educated person! Rewarding it for studying is only the means to this end, since learning tends to be a joylles activity. You don't "train" your kid to be able to show her to your friends "Look, I give her 30 minutes of Nintendo time and she studies for an hour"; you do it to have educated offspring! The learning for which you reward the child is a means, not an end, as opposed to the seal training...



You make quite a stretch likening a kid having to finish homework before play, and training a rat in a skinner box. How many of you do a job and get paid for your work? Following your logic, performing your job for money in order to buy things, survive and have some relaxation time, is the same a being trained in a skinner box.


Good habits are just that, habits; and habits are developed the same way, human or seal. That doesn't mean children are trained like seals. Developing good habits is only one part of the human education, but an important part. The methods associated with it should not be dismissed so lightly.

David Poul

Such interesting ways to train a seal!! I visited New England Aquarium couple time and enjoyed the way trainers are training animals. It's good for knowledge to visit there. Thanks :)

James Marcus Bach

Fortunately, at least in the United States, it is legal in most states to opt out of that absurd system. I live as a self-educated intellectual.

It's sadly fascinating how hard it is to convince otherwise intelligent people that you don't need to accept institutional education in your life in order to make a good living as a creative or technical person. The propagandists of public and private schooling are effective.

It's worth noting, however, that operant conditioning does work pretty well for controlling behavior in humans... Just not always on purpose (you can't turn off the learning circuits. Your "students" are always watching you and responding to ongoing subtle and completely unconscious reward systems)... and not always without terrible side effects for a free society that absolutely depends on innovation to get itself out of the terrible mess it's in.


We would have many more educated children who are interested in school if we treated them more like seals or pigeons.