All animals learn through the same basic mechanism. They sense and react to stimuli from the environment. If their action results in a pleasant response from the environment, that is called “Positive Reinforcement” (PR) and the likelihood the animal will repeat its response again in the future is increased. We all understand this intuitively and use this principle to influence those around us to behave in ways we like. We praise our kids for their accomplishments, thank our spouses for washing the dishes and pet our dogs for coming when called. PR is the first of the four “quadrants” of Operant Conditioning which is the heart of “Learning Theory.” There are three other quadrants and for a more thorough discussion of these you can go to this post earlier in the blog.
The short version is that the PR quadrant is the only one that makes our brains release rewarding neurotransmitters like dopamine. The other three tend mostly to cause release of stress hormones. This is where Learning Theory and Neuroscience start to become inseparable. I believe in building curriculum, lesson plans and a classroom atmosphere based on Positive Reinforcement as the most effective strategy. This promotes more eager students who are engaged because they are seeking a positive outcome rather than avoiding a painful consequence.