You are on page 1of 6

Behaviourism

Behavioural (or "behavioral") theory in psychology is a very substantial field: follow the links to the left or right 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! Behaviourism is primarily associated with Pavlov (classical conditioning) in Russia and with Thorndike, Watson and particularly Skinner in the United States (operant conditioning). Behaviourism is dominated by the constraints of its (nave) attempts to emulate the physical sciences, which entails a refusal to speculate about what happens inside the organism. Anything which relaxes this requirement slips into the cognitive realm. Much behaviourist experimentation is undertaken with animals and generalised. In educational settings, behaviourism implies the dominance of the teacher, as in behaviour modification programmes. It can, however, be applied to an understanding of unintended learning. For our purposes, behaviourism is relevant mainly to: Skill development, and

Behaviorism
If you want to follow your own links, use "behaviorism" (sic.) Most of the material is US-based and "behaviorism" and "behaviorist" is how they spell it, and I freely admit that this side-bar is purely to get the stupid search engine "bots" to register "behavior"

The "substrate" (or "conditions", as Gagn puts it) of learning


More on Pavlov

Classical conditioning:
is the process of reflex learninginvestigated by Pavlovthrough 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 in childhood" 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 hence perhaps with "humiliation and failure"...

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. 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.

Summary of Skinner's ideas On operant conditioning Skinner's own account

Wikipedia on operant conditioning

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, except in some special cases such as anticipatory-avoidance learning.
More on operant conditioning For practical illustration of reinforcement as feedback, look here. Instructional Design & Learning Theory (Mergel 1998) Gagn's model

Notes
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 (StimulusOrganism-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. (This point is heretical!) For human beings, reinforcement has two components, because the information may be cognitively processed: in many cases the "reward" element is less significant than the "feedback" information carried by the reinforcement. Applied to the theory of teaching, behaviourism's main manifestation is "instructional technology" and its associated approaches: click on the right for useful guides.

Behaviour Modification
is the approach used by behavioural psychologists (watered-down behaviourists) to modify behaviour (Surprise!). It is usually based on the reinforcement of desired behaviours and ignoring (as far as possible) undesired ones. This is not as simple as it sounds always reinforcing desired behaviour, for example, is basically bribery. The "schedule" of reinforcement is critical. Behaviour modification is much used in clinical and educational psychology, particularly with people with learning difficulties. In the conventional learning situation it applies largely to issues of class- and student management, rather than to learning content. It is very relevant to shaping skill performance, however. It applies at the micro-level: student feedback of high marks for good work is only behaviour modification in the broadest and weakest sense, whereas attention and praise at the second-by-second level are much more likely to follow its principles. If you are consciously practising it, then: Reinforce the desired behaviour: praise is much more potent than criticism or even punishment. Immediacy matters: feedback after the event is useful at a cognitive level, but from a behavioural point of view, the feedback (praise) has to be so close to the specific bit of behaviour that there is no doubt as to what it applies to. The principles are exactly the same for humans and dogs. (Most of the material from a net search on this related to dog and parrot training) Behaviour modification as a formal technique is beyond the scope of this site, but teachers practise it willy-nilly. The important question is whether we are always reinforcing (rewarding, encouraging) the behaviour we wish to engender, or whether we are all unawares

creating more problems. Most of the time, of course, a good teacher's nod of approval, supporting comment on a student's contribution, or simple "well done" is an appropriate reinforcer. A couple of points are worth making: What counts as reinforcement for this student? If she does not respect you, then your approval will mean nothing. If the "well done" referred to above is experience as patronising, for example, it may well have the opposite effect to that intended. As the idea of "strokes" below emphasises, attention (approving or disapproving) is a potent reinforcer. "Strokes" The popular approach to studying relationships and communication known as Transactional Analysis (TA), refers, in its deliberately informal jargon, to "strokes" as "units of human recognition". Strokes may be positive (such as compliments) otherwise known as "warm fuzzies", or negative (such as criticism or telling-off) or "cold pricklies". However, the distinctive TA point is that: Negative strokes are better than no strokes which means that criticism, and nagging, and anger are all forms of attention. The general rule is that all attention is reinforcing, and if people can't get or accept positive attention, they will provoke negative attention. (It's a bit like the show-business dictum that there is no such thing as "bad" publicity.) So ignoring undesired behaviour is a more effective way of dealing with it than reacting to it, although practicalities set limits on this. True to the principles of behaviour modification, the best strategy is to reinforce behaviour incompatible with the undesirable behaviour (technically known as "reciprocal inhibition" in behavioural learning theory [Wolpe, 1958]). However, it is a little unfair to list TA under the heading of behaviourism, since overall it is an eclectic approach to communication and psychotherapy. Figures in the history of Behaviourism Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936): Russian physiologist (Nobel prize for work on digestion, 1904). Pioneer of the theory of "classical conditioning". Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-90): Best known of all behaviourists, and explorer of operant conditioning: the process whereby the probability of behaviour being

repeated is increased if it is reinforced. Positive reinforcement (in sloppy language reward) is more effective in learning than negative reinforcement (punishment). Developed early "teaching machines", and even described a behaviourist utopia in Walden Two (1961). Various attempts were made to create Walden Two in practice. They all failed. Skinner did say some useful things, among them: "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." in New Scientist Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949) US animal and later educational psychologist, developed the theory of trial and error learning through experiments with animals having to escape from puzzle boxes. His law of effect describes the establishment of learned responses through "trial and success". The law of exercise describes how learning improves with practice. As an educational psychologist he published a paper in 1901 with Woodworth, undermining the idea of the (necessary) transferability of learning. John Broadus Watson (1878-1958): Apostle of Behaviourism, building on Pavlov's ideas to maintain that the reflex was the basic unit of behaviour. He famously claimed: "Give me a dozen healthy infants ... and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors." He later qualified this view.