Behaviourism defines learning as a change in the behaviour of the learner. It originated in the early part of the twentieth century from the work of Watson, Thorndike and Skinner (e.g. Skinner, 1974) and is based on the premise that learning can be broken down into discrete elements, which can be separated out, taught, practised and fitted together again.
This type of learning might be considered appropriate for learning certain types of knowledge, such as multiplication tables, or certain skills, such as threading a sewing machine. This is because the knowledge or skill can be demonstrated through the student’s observable behaviour – the multiplication tables can be recited or the sewing machine can be threaded.
The main principles underpinning a behaviourist perspective of learning are that:
- learning is best achieved through the teacher taking control of the learning process, breaking down tasks and actively reinforcing the correct response
- learning outcomes are standardised and measurable
- people learn not for the intrinsic value of learning but for extrinsic rewards, such as certificates, merits, gold stars or parental approval
- behaviour that is reinforced positively (for example, by praise or recognition) is likely to be repeated
- behaviour that is reinforced negatively (for example, by being ignored) is less likely to be repeated.
Although behaviourist theory is now considered outdated, and not consistent with Dewey’s conception of knowledge, it has proved extremely resilient and can be seen in many classrooms today. Much of the language in National Curriculum guidelines and other government documents can also be associated with behaviourism.
In the classroom, praising or acknowledging students for following the school’s ‘hands up’ policy to respond to questions, while ignoring those who shout out answers, is a way of attempting to modify behaviour. However, students who are told off for misbehaviour may see this as positive reinforcement (because it has brought attention) and may be encouraged to misbehave further in order to attract more attention. Alternatively, ignoring misbehaviour (providing it is low-level and not dangerous) may lead to the student changing their behaviour.
Can you think of an example of teaching you have seen or experienced that characterises the behaviourist approach?
How did the teacher act?
What did the students do?
What were the students expected to learn?
Behaviourism has been criticised for not giving consideration to changes that cannot be observed, such as changes in attitudes and thoughts, as well as for its view of the learner as passive in the learning process.