A tribute to psychologist Mark Reichel

platform. At the beginning of January, the Belgian psychologist Marc Reichel, a great specialist in the sciences of learning, passed away. Trained in Liège (Belgium), Geneva (Switzerland) and Harvard (USA), he won the Solvay Prize, the Belgian highest scientific honor, and a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium. Richelle became famous in the educational world in France because he wrote extensively about the contested work of American psychologist Burrhus Frederick Skinner, the father of “operant conditioning,” a mechanism for controlling behavior. But, also, a student of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Richelle saw in the cognitive procedures and processes of children a tremendous leverage for education, between external control and freedom of action.

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In the history of psychology in the last century, Skinner discovered so-called “active” conditioning, which occurs when a cage rat is forced to do a certain action such as pressing a lever to get food. This reward has been called by Skinner “positive reinforcement,” as opposed to the process of reverse punishment. Rewards and punishments have been known, of course, since the dawn of time, but what is new here is experimental and scientific manipulation. Thus, in what was then called the “Skinner’s Box”, the little animal was adapted very quickly to repeat certain actions but not others.

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Conditioning learning

What Richelle understood from Skinner is that aside from the simple initiation mechanism in which action, which can be the result of chance, produces a reward, the main thing is what happens significantly, as a result of this conjunction of events: an increased flow of responses if followed by positive reinforcements, such as progress ; In short, the desire to learn! When applied to normal situations of family life or in school, we understand that this principle is very powerful in creating the conditions that shape the development of the individual.

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The discovery of this basic law of animal learning – we have known since Darwin that man is an animal, and Richelle liked to remind us – contributed to the formation of the current so-called “behavioral” in psychology, based on the study of objective behavior. Behaviorism, which has often been falsely denounced in the recent history of psychology, has put its finger on the basic mechanisms of learning conditioning, which remain relevant today. This is especially true in neuroscience, with the reward circuitry discovered in the brain. This also applies to learning in neuroscience.

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