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Behavioral theory in psychology is a very substantial field: follow the links to the left for introductions to some of its more detailed contributions impinging on how people learn in the real world. How I have the effrontery to produce a single page on it amazes even me, whatever my reservations about it!

Behaviorism is primarily associated with Pavlov (classical conditioning) in Russia and with Thorndike, Watson and particularly Skinner in the United States (operant conditioning)

  • Behaviorism is dominated by the constraints of its (naïve) attempts to emulate the physical sciences, which involves a refusal to speculate about what happens inside the organism. Anything which relaxes this requirement slips into the cognitive realm. 
  • Much behaviorist experimentation is undertaken with animals and generalized. 
  • In educational settings, behaviorism implies the dominance of the teacher, as in behavior modification programs. It can, however, be applied to an understanding of unintended learning.

    For our purposes, behaviorism is relevant mainly to: 

    •  Skill development, and
    • The "substrate" of learning

    Classical conditioning:

    is the process of reflex learning—investigated by Pavlov—through which an unconditioned stimulus (e.g. food) which produces an unconditioned response (salivation) is presented together with a conditioned stimulus (a bell), such that the salivation is eventually produced on the presentation of the conditioned stimulus alone, thus becoming a conditioned response.   

    This is a disciplined account of our common-sense experience of learning by association (or "contiguity", in the jargon), although that is often much more complex than a reflex process, and is much exploited in advertising. Note that it does not depend on us doing anything.

    Such associations can be chained and generalised (for better of for worse): thus smell of baking associates with kitchen at home as a child associates with love and care. (Smell creates potent conditioning because of the way it is perceived by the brain.) But sitting at a desk associates with classroom at school and humiliation and failure...More on Pavlov


Operant Conditioning

If, when an organism emits a behaviour (does something), the consequences of that behaviour are reinforcing, it is more likely to emit (do) it again. What counts as reinforcement, of course, is based on the evidence of the repeated behaviour, which makes the whole argument rather circular. 

ummary of Skinner's ideas On operant conditioning Hypertext lesson on operant conditioningS

Learning is really about the increased probability of a behaviour based on reinforcement which has taken place in the past, so that the antecedents of the new behaviour include the consequences of previous behaviour. 

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The schedule of reinforcement of behaviour is central to the management of effective learning on this basis, and working it out is a very skilled procedure: simply reinforcing every instance of desired behaviour is just bribery, not the promotion of learning. 

Withdrawal of reinforcement eventually leads to the extinction of the behaviour. 

More on operant conditioning


Two points are often misunderstood in relation to behaviourism and human learning:

  • The scale: Although later modifications of behaviourism are known as S-O-R theories (Stimulus-Organism-Response), recognising that the organism's (in this case, person's) abilities and motivations need to be taken into account, undiluted behaviourism is concerned with conditioning and mainly with reflex behaviour. This operates on a very short time-scale — from second to second, or at most minute to minute — on very specific micro-behaviour. To say that a course is behaviourally-based because there is the reward of a qualification at the end is stretching the idea too far.
  • Its descriptive intention: Perhaps because behaviourists describe experiments in which they structure learning for their subjects, attention tends to fall on ideas such as behaviour modification and the technology of behaviourism. However, behaviourism itself is more about a description of how [some forms of] learning  occur in the wild, as it were, than about how to make it happen, and it is when it is approached from this perspective that it gets most interesting. It accounts elegantly, for example, for ways in which attempts to discipline unruly students actually make the situation worse rather than better.


Applied to the theory of teaching, behaviourism's main manifestation is "instructional technology" and its associated approaches: click on the right for useful guides.

Instructional Design & Learning Theory (Mergel 1998)

Gagne's model

As a body of theory, behaviourism has really suffered from the "cognitive revolution" of recent years. However, it has the distinction of being the first truly psychological account of learning, and some of its byways still provide good accounts of otherwise inexplicable behaviour.

For some reason, some of the textbooks refer to Skinner as a "neo-behaviourist". He would have been grossly insulted: he was the real thing! 

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