A photo of a grey and white pigeon perched on something

Over the past several decades, from the post-World War 2 era until now, three major theories or concepts have been applied to education. This week we’ll look at behaviorism, and we’ll look at the other theories in the coming weeks.

As applied to education, behaviorism hit its stride with famed psychologist B.F. Skinner. In the 1954 journal article “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching” he sets out his thoughts on applying behavioral psychology to educating students at lower grade levels.

To oversimplify it, behaviorism is concerned primarily with using positive reinforcements and getting rid of negative reinforcements. In his article, Dr. Skinner describes the primary teaching methods in schools at the time as using the “birch rod or cane” on the students if they answered incorrectly. His method intends to get rid of these forms of negative reinforcements and replace them with positive reinforcements, however it’s not exactly clear what he has in mind for these. Presumably good grades and praise from teachers and parents are considered some forms of positive reinforcements.

The first part of the article describes his work with pigeons and how using rewards (bits of food) helps them become trained to perform increasingly complex behaviors. In these experiments given some form of stimulus, which provokes a certain response from the pigeon. If the correct response is given, the pigeon is rewarded. He doesn’t describe what would happen if a pigeon gave an incorrect response, but presumably it is simply not given a reward, as opposed to being punished.

The Blues Brothers are being hit with a ruler by Sister Mary Stigmata
The Blues Brothers are punished by a nun.

In the second part of the particle, he describes many of the problems with the educational system of that time. It’s sort of interesting, but it seems very far removed from the classrooms I attended back in the 70s and 80s, so it’s hard to relate to some of the conditions he was railing against.

The third and final part of the article is somewhat more interesting. He describes a device “about the size of a small record player” that can be used to teach math and spelling. He describes some of the details, such as paper tapes and punched cards, which are precursors to today’s computers. It’s easy to imagine an app that does the same things on a smartphone or a tablet.

The question today is whether behaviorism is still relevant. That it’s still taught as a major theory in education technology is probably because the EdTech field got its start in the early 1960s, when behaviorism was still in vogue, and no other theories had been developed yet. So it’s certainly still influential, though how influential is a matter of debate.

In the 2001 journal article “Is Behaviorism Dead? Should HPT Care?” Rob Foshay writes “…on close examination, it’s quite possible to see many, if not all, behaviorist principles lurking inside may cognitive and constructivist theories – though with completely different jargon, of course. So if one takes the long view, it’s quite possible to argue that the newer theories have subsumed behaviorism, not replaced it.” This statement reminds me of the arguments surrounding ADDIE, since it can be argued that subsequent models haven’t replaced ADDIE so much as modified it or put it into different terms.

I think behaviorism is still important today, even if other theories have been developed since then. The concepts of positive and negative reinforcements should still be considered. It costs nothing to praise someone for giving a correct answer or doing something well, while denigration and insults can definitely affect their self-esteem.


  1. I love the Blues Brothers gif! 🙂
    I think you’re right that there are very useful things to be gained from behaviorism. Certainly Skinner’s insight that positive reinforcement works better than punishment is one that any instructor can take to heart.
    I also think that Forshay’s point about the sublimation of behaviorism by other approaches jives with other pieces we’ve read about the evolution of EdTech – that trajectory seems to be echoed other places.
    I do wonder what Skinner would think of educational programs designed for tablets and smartphones. It seems like such a perfect realization of what he was proposing in the article!
    Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful post!

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