My best lesson - A psychology experiment that makes a big splash

Sixth-form students squirting each other with water pistols probably doesn't sound like your idea of a great lesson. But I have found that this is an excellent way to teach classical conditioning to A-level psychology students.

To begin, we talk about the ideas behind classical conditioning and learning through association. Then we consider the infamous and contentious case of "Little Albert", Watson and Rayner's 1920 study that set out to condition phobias into a normal, stable eight-month-old child. Their findings suggested that an infant could be conditioned to fear something simply through repeated association with a stimulus.

I tell my students that I can make one of them "learn" something, before making them "unlearn" it in a matter of seconds. They are always sceptical.

I ask for three volunteers and ensure that one is a student who is a little dramatic, or jumpy, or precious about their appearance (although I do always check that they are happy to get wet and keep their eyes closed). That student takes a seat facing the class; they begin to look rather apprehensive as I offer them a towel to cover their uniform. A second student stands with a water pistol aimed at the victim's face. The third volunteer simply reads from a list of words projected on to the board.

Whenever the reader says a particular word (highlighted in bold), our seated volunteer is squirted in the face, leading them to flinch, squirm and occasionally shriek. Within seconds they become conditioned to flinching whenever they hear that particular word - they associate hearing the word with being squirted.

To illustrate the conditioning, the word is repeated but without the squirting - the student cannot help but flinch. But as we continue to repeat the word without the squirting, the student's confidence begins to return and the association is quickly "unlearned". The other members of the class have been watching carefully, noting down their observations, and this leads to an interesting discussion about the key components of the theory.

This is a great practical demonstration that gets students talking, and helps them to really get to grips with the process of classical conditioning.

Mike Lamb is a biology and psychology teacher at Hurstpierpoint College, West Sussex

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