Behaviourism: The modern past

‘Behaviourism’ is a school of thought within the discipline of psychology that was founded in the first half of the 20th century. Most famous amongst its initiators were John B. Watson, Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner. They argued that the only thing we can know with any degree of certainty in the science of psychology is what we can see in the form of observable behaviours. There is no point in thinking about thinking, or using the mind to figure out the nature of consciousness. Such ‘introspective’ endeavours, using the mind to reflect upon the mind, the behaviourists thought, were too vague and unreliable to be scientific (Watson 1914).

See Watson on the Science of Psychology.

These are the dimensions of behaviourism as an approach to the study of learning and the science of education:

Dimension 1: The processes of learning

Once we set aside the question of consciousness, behaviourists argue, there is no real difference between the learning processes of animals and humans. We might as well study animal learning to find out some of the key aspects of how humans learn. In fact, it is better to use animals to study the processes of learning because there are things you can do to animals in a laboratory situation that you cannot ethically do to humans.

In an attempt to understand the basics of learning, the behaviourists set about studying rats, chickens, pigeons, dogs and cats. The founder of this kind of experimentation was the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. In one of his most famous laboratory experiments, dogs were fed each time a buzzer sounded. After a while, they started to salivate – a sign that they were anticipating food – as soon as the buzzer was rung, and even before they had been given the food. They had learned to associate the buzzer with food. This learned association Pavlov called a ‘conditioned response’ (Pavlov 1941).

See Pavlov’s Dog.

Dimension 2: The sources of ability

Having dismissed the question of consciousness and simplified learning to observable behaviours, the behaviourists believed they could prove through their research that both humans and animals learned in this way: an observable stimulus produces an observable response. Learning is ‘conditioned’ by external stimuli. These stimuli may take the form of negative reinforcement (pain, punishment) or positive reinforcement (pleasure, reward). For any individual creature – animal or human – these processes of stimulus and reinforcement are the primary sources of learning.

To prove his point, Skinner put animals in his laboratory into ‘operant conditioning chambers’, which also became known as ‘Skinner boxes’. The animal receives a stimulus – a sound from a loudspeaker or a signal from a light – and then is either rewarded for the right response (by being given food, for instance) or punished for the wrong response (with an electric shock, for example). With this behavioural training, animals learn which are the right and wrong responses to stimulate.

Figure 6.1: A Skinner box

Skinner believed that humans’ patterns of learning are essentially the same, both in formal and informal learning contexts. The difference between informal learning, which occurs in response to the stimuli of everyday life, and formal education is the conscious work a teacher does to create an environment of optimal conditioning. Stimulus takes the form of teacher and textbook exegesis of curriculum content. This is followed by response in the form of teacher comments or more formal evaluative processes, such as tests.

See Skinner’s Behaviourism.

Dimension 3: Infrastructure for learning

Once the laws of behaviour are established, we can design systems for controlling behaviour. The lesson in the classroom is one such system. In learning based on behaviourist principles, appropriate stimuli produce learning responses. These should be followed up with positive reinforcement in the form of rewards (‘correct’, ‘A+’, ‘well done’) or negative reinforcement in the form of punishments (‘error’, ‘F’, ‘bad girl’).

Education is conceived as a process of behaviour modification. Pedagogy, in this conception, is a process of stimulus (for instance, introduce new content), followed by response (the student is asked a question in class or takes a test), followed by reinforcement (confirmation by the teacher of a right or wrong answer, or getting good or bad marks).

Rather like the Fordist production line, learning according to the behavourist model can be broken up into little bits, with a stimulus–response–reinforcement sequence driving each step in the production of learned behaviours. The approach to education implied by this kind of behaviourism tends to be what in Chapter 2 we called ‘didactic teaching’ – a stimulus initiated by the teacher leads to a response on the part of the student, which in turn prompts positive or negative reinforcement according to right or wrong answers.

See Behaviourism Goes to School.

Dimension 4: Measuring learning

In the behaviourists’ view, not everybody’s capacities for behaviour modification are the same. Some people, they argue, are naturally more intelligent than others. They are able to learn more from their experiences – to pick up on the stimuli, respond more intelligently and learn better from positive and negative reinforcement. Such differences in intelligence they attribute to differences in innate mental capacity between one individual and the next. Some people will never be very smart, no matter how much knowledge we try to give them, because their natural stimulus-response mechanisms don’t work so well.

Within this frame of reference, psychologists in the 20th century set out to measure intelligence, or people’s mental capacities. They began to devise intelligence tests in which a person’s mental behaviours could be systematically observed and measured against peers of the same age. The assumption underlying such tests is that intelligence can be measured separately from what a person has been taught and what they had learned or their particular life experiences. Facts and concepts are mere knowledge. But you can have a lot of knowledge without being intelligent.

Intelligence is the underlying capacity to think, learn and thus acquire knowledge. Intelligence can and should be measured, the proponents of the tests argue, because there are natural differences between people. Some people are innately more intelligent than others, and nobody can ever improve upon or exceed their inherited intelligence.

See Binet’s Intelligence Test and Goddard on IQ.

In reality, it is difficult – some would even say impossible – to separate natural or innate intelligence from what you have learned: the language you speak, your cultural context and the social and educational experiences you happen to have had. Many of the behaviourists who founded the discipline of psychology spent much of their energy analysing how learning occurs in conditions where the appropriate educational stimulae produce an intended educational response. At the same time, others in this same new discipline also studied behaviours in order to discern what were considered to be innate differences in mental capacity between individuals, regard- less of their conditions.

However, these strands in educational psychology have come in for criticism. In fact, they have fallen out of favour in the mainstream of the profession in the 21st century. Critics of behaviourism have argued that human learning and animal learning are different in some important ways – in fact, in the ways that make us human, including factors such as self-consciousness and responsibility. As an educational philosophy, stimulus and response seems mechanical and manipulative. Meanwhile, the idea of innate intelligence has been thoroughly discredited, and particularly the idea that whole groups of people – races, or cultures or the poor – are naturally less intelligent than others. Also, it is now widely agreed that it is hard to make a distinction in practice between knowledge of things you have learned and intelligence that might be considered innate (Shenk 2010).

See Yerkes’ Army Intelligence Tests.