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
- 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:
- The "substrate" of
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
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.
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.
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.
Design & Learning Theory (Mergel 1998)
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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