Green Decorative Wheat


Have you ever heard of the debate between "nature" and "nurture"? The question it describes comes down to this: "how much of our behavior is due to who we are (nature) versus how we were raised (nurture)?" From the point of view of Behaviorism, there is a clear answer: nurture is the key.

Behaviorism is a well-established theory that comes from psychology, and the fundamental thinkers are B.F. Skinner and J.B. Watson. Their early to mid-20th century ideas were in stark contrast to much of what had come before them in psychology. For example, Sigmund Freud's theories focused on introspection and the individual, and many other nineteenth century and early twentieth century psychologists agreed that in order to understand an individual, investigators must understand their individual mind. 

But thinking of the mind as a fully individual thing seemed to undermine the idea that psychology and the related fields like education could ever truly be considered "science." After all, the individual mind is not repeatable or generalizable, and science needs to be those things.

Both Skinner and Watson focused on theories that could be repeated and generalized, and behaviorism is the result of that focus.

Behaviorism's influence on education has been profound since the mid-twentieth century. In fact, most or all learners in the modern college classroom likely were taught behaviorist techniques at least some of the time in K-12, whether the teachers knew that was their philosophy or not. Behaviorism in education teaches:

  • Learning is a behavior, and people learn through interaction with their environment
  • Information is transferred from the teacher to the learner
  • Learners are passive recipients of the information; teachers are active transmitters
  • Teaching should be repetitive with regular reminders from the teacher what they are looking for and how students should behave and respond
  • Students learn what behaviors are the correct ones through the receipt of positive reinforcements and negative reinforcements, with positive reinforcements being more common
  • Students' inner thoughts and motivations are not a component of behaviorist techniques

Behaviorism is still alive and well in the modern classroom, especially for certain kinds of learning (memorization in the early grades, for example). Classroom techniques that stem from a behaviorist point of view include:

  • Drills. For example, learners repeating multiplication tables or their catechism out loud alone or as part of the group.
  • Regular skill practice with teacher support. The key here is to have students practice something repeatedly with the instructor observing and guiding. This is a common way to teach a musical instrument, for example.
  • Question/answer. The instructor asks increasingly difficult objective questions of the learners. These questions must be "objective," that is, they have a correct response and are not intended to spur conversation or reflection. "What atom has 3 protons?" or "Who is the president of France?" are examples of objective questions.
  • Reinforcement. Nearly all behaviorist teaching includes some kind of reinforcement. For example: receiving gold stars, saying "great work!," would be an example of positive reinforcement.