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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:

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?