By Mary Hunter and Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz
Have you heard about PORTL?
The Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab (PORTL) is a tabletop shaping game that teaches individuals about behavior and shaping. Through playing the game, individuals get to see the principles of behavior in action and practice applying those principles to change behavior.
Where did PORTL come from?
PORTL had its beginnings in another tabletop shaping game, called GENABACAB, which was developed by English dog trainer Kay Laurence. Kay developed GENABACAB and a series of GENABACAB exercises as a way to teach her students about the basics of shaping and to improve their timing and observation skills.
Several years ago, Kay taught GENABACAB to Dr. Rosales-Ruiz and his graduate students at the University of North Texas. The students were hooked and started playing the game with each other. They also started developing PORTL, by making modifications to the game so that it could be used for both teaching and research.
How is PORTL played?
PORTL is played between two individuals, the teacher and the learner, using a collection of small objects, a clicker to mark behavior, and small tokens or blocks as reinforcers.
At the beginning of each exercise, the teacher presents the learner with a selection of objects. The learner is given only two instructions: “Your goal is to earn as many blocks as possible” and “Please interact with the objects.”
When the learner performs the correct behavior or an approximation toward the correct behavior, the teacher sounds the clicker and hands the learner a token. The learner drops the token into a dish and then resumes interacting with the objects. The teacher can rearrange the objects or add and remove objects to help guide the learner toward the goal behavior.
The teacher and learner take breaks periodically to fill out datasheets. The teacher records what just happened and what she plans to teach during the next training period. The learner records what he thinks he is learning and how he feels. Breaks can be taken after a certain number of tokens have been delivered (ex. 10 tokens) or after a certain amount of time (ex. 60 seconds). Breaks allow the teacher to continually assess the learner’s progress and to adjust the shaping plan as needed.
After each exercise, the teacher and learner compare datasheets. In addition, the learner can provide valuable feedback about what the teacher did well, as well as insight regarding which parts were confusing and why.
Why play PORTL?
PORTL teaches individuals how to shape behavior entirely through reinforcement and environmental arrangement. The person playing the role of the teacher may not use verbal instructions, models, gestures, or prompts to direct the learner during teaching.PORTL teaches individuals how to shape behavior entirely through reinforcement and environmental arrangement. Click To Tweet
However, learning is not left to chance or guessing. Through playing the game, participants learn how to divide behaviors into component skills and appropriate teaching steps, assess the learner’s progress during teaching, and adjust and revise their teaching plan as needed.
Introductory exercises help individuals practice the mechanics of training and the basics of shaping — delivering reinforcers, clicking the clicker at the right time, reinforcing simple behaviors, observation skills, data collection, and assessment.
As individuals continue playing the game they are introduced to additional concepts, including cues and stimulus control, concept formation, chaining, schedules of reinforcement, superstitious behavior, extinction and resurgence, and more.
Using PORTL for inquiry and research
In addition to teaching, PORTL is proving to be a simple, yet powerful tool for inquiry and research. As individuals become experienced with the game, they can begin using it to ask their own questions about learning and behavior.
PORTL can be used to model different training situations, ask questions about the interactions between variables, and explore the effects of certain contingencies. For example, individuals can use PORTL to test out different teaching techniques and strategies, before trying to teach a new behavior to their animal.
PORTL also provides a simple, convenient, and inexpensive way to conduct behavior research. This is noteworthy, as most laboratory equipment currently used for behavior research is expensive, complex, and requires the investigator to possess programming knowledge. One master’s thesis has been conducted at the University of North Texas using PORTL and a handful of other research projects are currently underway.
A PORTL story
At one of our first PORTL workshops, a participant was struggling to train an unusual behavior. The teacher’s goal was to train her learner to turn a little plastic toy polar bear upside down, then right side up, then upside down again and again. However, no matter what approximations she reinforced, the student kept trotting the bear across the table.
The teacher stared, perplexed and frustrated, as the student’s hand once again reached for the little plastic polar bear, picked it up, and trotted it across the table.
Reinforcement was infrequent and both the teacher and student were beginning to get frustrated. So, the teacher took a break and stepped away from the table to brainstorm with an instructor. As they discussed different ideas, the teacher suddenly hit on a solution that she thought might work, based on a concept that had been presented in one of the earlier lectures.
Returning to the table, the teacher found four pencils, arranged them in a square, and placed the bear inside. Now, the teacher only provided reinforcement to the student if the bear stayed inside its new “corral.”
Since the square was much too small for trotting the bear, the student soon started experimenting with other types of movements. After just a short amount of time, the teacher had the student performing the target behavior of continuously turning the bear.
Afterwards, during the discussion, the student said she was very hesitant at first to turn the bear and experiment with other movements. Polar bears, she said, are supposed to trot, not turn! Having to keep the bear in the corral encouraged her to explore different movements and helped lead her to the goal behavior.
One unique aspect of PORTL is that individuals get experience being both the teacher and the learner. Students often report that being the learner is one of their favorite parts about PORTL. This experience helps build understanding and empathy because the learner begins to relate to what his or her own students experience during the learning process.
PORTL is a simple behavior analytic tool that can be adapted to fit a variety of training and research situations. Individuals need very little training initially to start playing PORTL. However, as they gain more experience with the game, they can use it to ask and answer complex questions about behavior. PORTL gives individuals a sense of discovery, as the game allows them to experience the principles of behavior in action, while at the same time improving their teaching skills.
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