Activity 1

Behaviourist Family of Learning Theory

When you praise a pupil's activity in your classroom or offer positive feedback as a way of reinforcing success, you are using behaviourist theory.

If you apply sanctions for inappropriate behaviour or if you teach and re-teach pupils how to enter and leave your classroom, you are also using the basic principles of behaviourist theory.

One of the most famous behaviourists was the American professor of psychology, B.F. Skinner (1904-1990).

Skinner believed that the purpose of psychology lay in predicting and controlling the behaviour of individual organisms. Psychology for Skinner is a science of overt behaviour.

"A human being begins as an organism and becomes a person or self as he acquires a repertoire of behaviour... There is no place in the scientific position for the self as a true originator or initiator of action" (Skinner 1974, page 225).

REFLECT: Do you think that it is helpful to ignore the ‘self' as an initiator of classroom behaviour or not?

As well as dismissing the role of the ‘self', behaviourism only focuses on objectively observable behaviours and discounts ‘mental activities'.

Skinner is famous for having taught rats to press levers and pigeons to play table tennis for rewards such as food. By comparing animal behaviour with the behaviour of human beings, he drew the conclusion that learning is achieved by association between stimulus and response (S-R).

For example, giving a reward such as food or praise to reinforce a desired response would be an example of what he called ‘operant conditioning'. This is a term which signifies that part of the learning process which makes a learner's response more probable or frequent. (An ‘operant' is a set of acts that needs to be strengthened or reinforced).

Skinner argued that a learner's actual response can be brought closer and closer to desired response through the controlled use of stimulus-response associations.

He also developed a ‘law of positive reinforcement' which maintains that a stimulus-response sequence which leads to pleasing consequences for the learner is more likely to be repeated.

REFLECT: How far does your classroom experience lead you to agree with this law? Are there elements of your own subject area which need to become automatic responses? Could they be coded in the form of simple rules, as recommended by Skinner?

EXPLORE: Explore the following Powerpoint display which is based on Skinner's life and work. Write down any questions which the Powerpoint display stimulates. Then see if you can find out some of the answers on the B.F.Skinner website. Read this document on the principles of ‘assertive discipline'.

WRITE: Write about the ways in which you think that the principles of ‘assertive discipline' might be linked to the principles of Skinner's theory. How effective might an ‘assertive discipline' approach be in your own school?

(Allow 50 minutes)