Behaviorist Theory

Among educational researchers and theorists it's sometimes said that education is now guided by its "third metaphor", or overriding theory. The principal overriding theories that have been used as general models to guide educational practice, theory, and research are "Behaviorist theory", "Cognitive (or information processing) theory" and "Constructivist theory" (in historical order from first to most recent). These are all interesting concepts/models, and have certain implications for the teacher-to-be, but, in my humble opinion, once we really start translating these into implications for practicing teachers, the lines among them start to blur, and the differences in what they imply for the teacher to do are not so clear. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to introduce you to each of these theories briefly, since they are fundamental concepts within educational psychology circles. One other important editorial point is that, despite the tendency of educational researchers to discount historically old theories, such as behaviorism, it is my view that each of these general theories is applicable in at least some educational contexts.

The historical roots of "behaviorism" actually go back further in the history of psychology than your book addresses, to a charismatic character named John B. Watson, who you very possibly read about in general psychology. Watson's theories were, in many ways, a response to psychological theories popular near the beginning of the 20th century (e.g., Freud's Psychoanalysis), that relied heavily on non-observable (non-scientific) variables, such as the sub-conscious. It was Watson's view that, if psychology was to progress, it needed to deal with variables that could be defined empirically (i.e., those that could be experienced through the senses, and those on which observers could find consensus). This is the reason why operant conditioning, that you'll read about in the book, relies specifically on observable behaviors. Watson, and B.F. Skinner who came after, were strongly opposed to psychological theories that included speculation about "mental processes". So, the first basic characteristic of behaviorism is that behaviorists emphasize the importance of empirical, observable behaviors. It is your instructor's view that this is the point when psychology actually became a "science" as an extension of "harder" sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics. At this point in the history of psychology, psychological researchers began studying phenomena that could be experienced empirically and that could be agreed upon reliably by multiple observers.

A second fundamental characteristic of behaviorists, not unrelated to the first, is that they view the external environment as the principal (maybe the only) determinant factor in behavior. So, in the classic "nature vs nurture" debate, the behaviorists fall squarely on the "nurture" side. According to "radical behaviorists" like Watson, what determines the intelligence, temperament, and other personality characteristics of a child, is the environment in which the child is raised. Genetic predisposition is unimportant. One of Watson's most famous quotes goes as follows:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, 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 theif, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors."

As you'll find in your text, behaviorist models, such as operant conditioning can certainly be effective in explaining and changing behavior. However, behaviorism has certainly had, and continues to have, its critics, which is not surprising given how long its been around, and how much influence it has had on psychological theory and practice. One criticism is that the theories are overly simplistic to accurately explain the complexity of behavior (this we will address in more detail in the virtual lecture on Cognitive Theory). A second criticism is that reinforcement can actually act to "undermine intrinsic motivation". For example, if a student enjoys working math problems anyway, once he or she is rewarded for it, then this may act to actually decrease motivation to do the problems without reinforcement ("Turning play into work.). This is a classic problem that we will address further in the virtual lecture on motivation.