Friday, February 12, 2010


Ok, let me preface this by expressing that I have worked with children with special needs. It was my job for many a moon. I implemented behaviorist practices on a regular basis.

Behaviorism should not be thought of as an educational idea. Here is a succinct expression of behaviorism:

"Skinner’s(1954,1965) view of operant conditioning gave behaviorism new life in the middle of the 20 th century, especially as it pertained to school reading instruction. With this view of learning, a content area such as reading could be broken into steps, each of which could bet he basis for exercises in text or on a machine. Each element of an exercise required an overt response, which was followed by immediate feedback. When a student’s response was correct, the feedback was reinforcing. When the student responded incorrectly, the student was told to give another response until he or she got it right. Learning to read became the center of the activity, as researchers devised hierarchies of seemingly endless skills that were made up of subskills that themselves had subskills and so forth." (Lenses on Reading, Tracey, Diane H and Morrow, Lesley Mandel, 2006).

Because behaviorism does not have a capacity to evaluate or monitor intentions, it does not cause learning. One child I worked with was able to identify words and associate meaning with those words. He went through the motions of reading simple sentences, but was never able to progress. He could easily go through the motions of reading, but was unable to actually read in a meaningful way. Behaviorism would say that he should just practice more, that the act of going through it again and again would condition him to be able to read.

Obviously there is something more. Behaviorism is a great tool for managing behavior, but it should not be thought of as an instructional tool. You can create a circumstance where certain actions are completed by students, but this behavioral approach does not mean that any learning has taken place. You can force a child to do an assignment, but you cannot force a child to gain meaning from that assignment.

Behaviorism produces a behavioral result, not a cognitive one. BF Skinner was wrong, it's ok, let us move on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Annie Dillard

I'm reading "The Writing Life" by Annie Dillard for a class on literacy. On one hand I think that this woman is crazy. She talks about some of the things which involved her during her times writing. The book is filled with anecdotes about her writing process. Essentially she establishes that writing is a process of goofing off interspersed with times of productivity. Maybe this is why authors always seem to be bi-polar to me. I spent a lot of time distancing myself from this author. Reading the stories of the bizarre things that happened to her while she was writing, I wanted to be away from that mentality. I wanted to be the voice of reason calling in the wilderness... Instead I find that I am more like the voice of wilderness calling from the land of reason.

I realize this because I am a graduate student. I am compelled to do what I need to do. Compelled might not be a strong enough word. There is always a gnawing agony in the back of my mind forcing me to push forward in my studies. I'm not usually this determined about things. I usually following things strongly for a week or two, then put them aside and relax my vigor. This is why I am mediocre at chess and computer programming. (Oddly enough, all my long-term obsessions rely on caffeine: Coffee and Tea.)

I have a ritual of avoidance that I follow before I do any real work on things that I need to accomplish. I play with my son, chase the cat and stare at the coffee pot for at least an hour or two before sitting down at my computer do do anything meaningful. The slightest gesture from my wife, be it a cough or a blink, can completely break my concentration and pull me from the world of academia.

On the other hand, when I start writing, my life becomes closed off. I wrote 2000 words of my intellectual autobiography in a half and hour. (I was supposed to be doing statistics.)

I am supposed to be doing statistics now.