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.