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What kind of questions do the behaviorists ask? Why?

According to B.F. Skinner, there are essential questions that a behaviorist must ask in the study of organisms (1954, Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 24, No. 2). Three key concepts stand out among these questions. The first question, “what behavior is to be set up?” is of importance because there is a possibility that automatic reinforcement is present without aversive properties when looking at the material to be learned. What reinforcers are at hand? This is the next question asked. Behaviorists believe that an organism needs reinforcements to keep them interested and the use of such can be effective in controlling behavior. Taking into account these reinforcements, how are these reinforcements to be made contingent upon the desired behavior? Complex learning requires a series of small steps and reinforcements for success at achieving each step. In Skinner’s words, this is called “complex repertoire of behavior (pg. 4).” Therefore, small steps equal the greater instances of reinforcement and less aversive consequence.

Behaviorist’s View on Teaching

Skinner among other behaviorists note shortcomings of the 1950’s traditional classroom as the following:

  • Aversive stimulation
  • Lapse between response and reinforcement
  • Lack of a long series of contingencies for desired behaviors
  • Infrequency of reinforcement

(information from 1954, Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 24, No. 2)

To break these habits, a teacher needs to bring desired behavior under many sorts of stimulus control. To achieve this, teaching should be broken into progressive stages or steps with reinforcements following each stage. The reality is that the contingencies required for desired behavior in a class is far beyond what teachers/humans can realistically arrange. With that being said, the behaviorists support the idea of instrumental aid as a necessary means for effective control of human learning. In the mid 20th century, the idea of new technologies in the classroom were just being introduced. In 1954 a machine to teach arithmetic was developed. The device was made to be used by children without constant supervision of a teacher. It provided direct reinforcement by the ringing of a bell for the desired response. A combination spelling and math machine was later developed where new problems were only presented if a child (user) answered a question correctly. It is of interest that presently in the 21st century, technology has taken huge leaps in instruction design. The same arguments arise from the 1950’s to the present that a teacher’s relation cannot be duplicated by a mechanical device and “mechanized instruction will mean technological unemployment (pg. 6).” In response to such objection the behaviorist note that instrumental help improves teacher-student relations. Such technologies frees up time for teachers that will enable to focus more on the student.

Behaviorist’s View on Learning and the Learner

In the early 1900’s behaviorist (although the term was not employed at the time) John Watson launched the behaviorist revolution. Moving from mainstream thought that the “proper subject for psychology was not the operation of the mind but rather the examination of objective, observable behavior. (Gardner, H. 1985, The Mind’s New Science). According to him, humans and animals can be trained to do anything one wanted. This set the stage for others to investigate the idea of cognitive maps in guiding the behavior of animals in problem solving. By the arrangement of reinforcement, an learner’s behavior can be shaped. By progressively changing contingencies of reinforcement, the desired behavior will surface. In other words, the behavior of a learner can be controlled by manipulation of reinforcements. Furthermore, in order to maintain behavior, reinforcements need to continue pr maintaining it in strength. Skinner (1954, Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 24, No. 2) believed that students have been taught to learn through aversive stimulation. To summarize, the main principles that he and current behaviorists believe for learners is the following:
1. Behavior that is positively reinforced will reoccur; intermittent reinforcement is particularly effective.
2. Information should be presented in small amounts so that responses can be reinforced (“shaping”).
3. Reinforcement will generalize across similar stimuli (“stimulus generalization”) producing secondary conditioning.
(information from

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Last Updated - April 2004