Science of Learning: Behaviorism

Classic behaviorism is all about learning. How biological entities learn to cope with their environment. How stimuli can be paired with responses. How reinforcers can change behavior, and how those changes can become a permanent part of a behavioral repertoire. Learning – in a classical sense.

So, how does behaviorism impact education? Behaviorist principles lie at the heart of education – as well as many of our everyday interactions. In order to understand behaviorism, at least in a superficial way (you can get a Ph.D. in any of these principles), we need to define a couple of terms: reinforcers and punishments, as well as positive and negative aspects of each.

Reinforcers are simply defined as any external stimuli that increases a behavior. This is in contrast to a punishment, which is any external stimuli that decreases a behavior. Simple, a reinforcer increases some behavior, while a punisher decreases a behavior.

The positive and negative dimensions tell you whether you are adding something or taking something away. A positive reinforcer is where you are adding something to the environment that will increase a behavior, whereas a positive punishment is where you are adding something to the environment in order to decrease a behavior.

Behaviourism in Education

In an educational environment, we can think of many examples of all four possibilities. Positive reinforcers would include positive feedback on work, bonus marks on assessments, gold stars, longer break times etc. etc. Anything that you give to the learner that is designed to increase the desired behavior. A positive punishment would be anything that you give to a learner that is designed to decrease a behavior. This would include negative feedback, detentions (although a detention might be seen as a negative punishment if you looked at it as taking away free time). Negative reinforcers are where you are taking something away in an effort to increase the behavior, so you might want to exempt a learner from an assessment if they do well on something.

You get the picture, the details of the terms and how they work are irrelevant. Behavioral principles work, and they result in massive changes in behavior. These principles are what are used to get a bear to ride a bicycle. They work. They are easy to apply. They result in a change in behavior. Everyone uses them. They work!

So what is wrong with relying on behaviorism exclusively in education (we almost do)? The primary reason is that behaviorist principles rely almost exclusively on extrinsic rewards. Whether they are grades, sweets, clicks or whatever, the reinforcers (which work better than punishers) are virtually always extrinsic. The punishers are as well. Extrinsic motivators are a distant second to intrinsic motivators when it comes to learning (or anything else, for that matter).

Learners begin to shift their intrinsic drive to seek after the reinforcer rather than the activity itself. They are working to get grades or a qualification rather than working to learn. The learning becomes secondary and is used as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself. Learning in this manner leads to shallow learning that is discarded after the reinforcer has been obtained. This is where we see the students learning what they need to in order to obtain the grade that they are satisfied with, and then forgetting it as soon as the learning has been assessed. In my article on memory, I discussed the goals of formal learning and nowhere is there a goal to pass an assessment at a certain level mentioned.

Current thinking in education has an obsession with measurement. Standardized tests are all the rage. Behaviorist principles mean that the instructors are also caught up in the reinforcer game, and their behaviors are changed in order to maximize their reinforcers (praise, recognition, status, monetary rewards), with the end goal to increase their students’ performance on standardized tests. Teaching students how to pass tests, or to put it more kindly, teaching students what they need to know in order to maximize their test performance, is not real learning. It is teaching tests. This is where we have ended up with behaviorism as the basis of our education system.

To be fair, behaviorism is not entirely to blame. There has been a massive drive for accountability and efficiency in education over the last 30 years. Accountability has led to an exponential increase in measurement (testing). While efficiency has led to larger and larger class sizes, with less and less time available for individuals. I remember in the 1970s and 80s, the public were demanding both accountability and efficiency from services paid for by the public purse. Now we have it, and we have to ask ourselves, is this what we really want? Do we want our five and six-year-old children taught as efficiently as possible, with constant measurement to satisfy our demands for accountability?

Behaviourism can be used in positive ways. If behaviorist principles were applied to internalizing motivators rather than memorizing a narrow content domain, then the principles would be working in a positive way. Rather than memorization of content, reinforcing creativity, critical thinking, cognitive flexibility etc., etc. would make the use of behaviorist principles great. It is not the principles themselves that are to blame, but what the principles are used for that is the problem. The system of education today is based on the following cycle:

A vicious cycle that eats away at the heart of learning. Memorization of material to be evaluated and rewarded has become the ‘be all’ and ‘end all’ in learning today. We can do better than that.

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