I got the call early, had to cover for a 1st grade class, the teacher was sick. I pulled myself together and got to the school and into the classroom. The teacher had, (thankfully) come in early and created an entire lesson plan and gotten copies of all student activities made and sorted into piles (love him.) What stopped me short was the white board.

A large section of the board was divided into two rows; Happy Face and Unhappy Face. The Happy board had a number of names and apparently there was going to be a pizza party of some sort to celebrate. The Unhappy board had three names, all boys. Ominously there were points next to each name. 5 for the first, 10 for the second and 15 for the third! This was not looking good. How to get this ship turned around?

I stared at the board and then remembered my B.F.Skinner (1948) behaviorist training. When the students got into class we did role and I called the three Musketeers up to the front and pointed out the board.  I advised the students that if they did what I asked them to do, each time, they could come up to the board and erase one mark. Any marks left at recess meant they owed me one minute per mark. They nodded their heads.

I had them each erase one mark for coming up when I asked them to. I was using Skinner’s methods of reinforcement to control classroom behavior so that learning could occur. Skinner is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning, but his work was based on Thorndike’s law of effect. Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect – Reinforcement. Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened). (McLeod, 2007.)

Later we did ‘morning work’ and there were three pages of Math Facts. I gave students points for everything; correct answers, asking to use the bathroom, asking for a tissue, helping another student, and passing out papers. Anything and everything. Of course, the entire class got to participate and put “Happy Points” up on the Happy side of the board. By recess, all of the ‘bad’ points were gone and students were engaged in learning. Whew! Plus, they just loved earning points.

After recess, we read a book about a boy and the circus. From the circus we were able to leapfrog into talking about lions, and tigers and bears and where they come from. We talked about the park preserves in Africa and the shooting of Cecil the Lion and how the rangers found the body via the use of a GPS tracking device they had put in his ear. One 1st grader knew it was an American dentist who shot the lion. Then we talked about Yosemite Park and how many students had been there. Quite a few.

We talked about the US Forest Rangers in the park and how they put GPS trackers in the bear’s ears to track them and why. We discussed whether or not bears eat people (no) but that they come to the camps searching for food and that, yes, they are dangerous when frightened or threatened. We talked about endangered species and what the rangers are doing to protect them. In the end, I had to tell them about a master hunter at the local gun shop who was commissioned by the park to shoot bears that chronically come back to camp and threaten people. Unfortunately, this man had to shoot four bears last year; too bad.

Activating the student’s own schema we were able to talk about National Parks, wild animals, endangered species, GPS trackers, hunting practices and keeping safe while visiting the mountain parks. Students were actively engaged in the discussion and hopefully learned about something more than circuses (which are fun.)

Piaget first developed the concept of schema theory in 1926.  Later, R.C.Anderson further developed the idea that schemas are the storage system that we use to store experiences and knowledge that we have. (Little, Box, 2001.)

By activating prior knowledge and experiences (Who has been to Yosemite Park?) we are bringing students into the discussion. We are ‘scaffolding’ new learning onto older learning. Students who lack prior schematic knowledge can have more problems understanding and making sense of the text they are currently reading. This is especially true in cross-cultural settings and for many at-risk students. (Little, Box, 2001.)

By developing general knowledge (Who knows about lions and bears?) we are helping students to build schemata and make connections between ideas, using subject material they are interested in. The Schemata development in young children forms the basis for later learning. (Savage, 1998.)

Abstract concepts (endangered species, GPS tracking systems,) are best understood on a foundation of concrete relevant information (Who has seen a bear?) (Schallert, 1984.)

Schema development is an aid to reading, vocabulary development and comprehension. (Pearson and Anderson, 1979.)  Theorists are telling us that comprehension in reading is closely linked to prior knowledge and experiences. Concept mapping was a term used by Cassidy, 2011 to discuss the linking of sets of ideas and explaining their connections as a way to develop reading, thinking and brainstorming.


Little, D. C. and Box, J. A. Spring 2011, Reading Improvement, Vol. 48, Issue 1, p. 24-31. 8p.

McLeod, Saul, 2007, updated 2015.  Skinner – Operant Conditioning, Simply Psychology,, Retrieved Internet 2016.