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Behaviourism - ring any bells?!

by Dr Chris Haughton

In the last blog I introduced the three fundamental schools of psychology that have informed learning theory: behaviourist, cognitive and humanist. They’ve been around a long time yet still they form the building blocks of many theories concerned with teaching and learning. Of course, research is constantly presenting new ideas - and a future blog will review some of the latest work in this field – but, for now, this piece will start with the briefest of introductions to the behaviourist school and ask whether it still has relevance in teaching today.

In its starkest form, behaviourism describes a mechanistic, measureable and objective world of learning where behaviours can be explained, predicted and controlled by purely observable phenomena. There is little room for subjective consciousness in behavioural thinking. Probably the most famous exponent was Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) who wasn’t a psychologist at all - despite his work being required reading on any entry-level psychology course - but rather a physiologist. His work on the digestive system of dogs led to experiments where the animals’ saliva glands could be made to react by stimuli other than food – in this case the sounds made by bells and other devices.

It was argued that all animal behaviour (including learning) could be explained by reference to stimulus and response (S-R). These were further sub-divided into conditioned and unconditioned components. So, with the dogs, the food provides an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) and any resultant salivation would be an unconditioned response (UCR).  The bell is a conditioned stimulus (CS) and any induced response (after effective training) would be conditioned (CR). This diagram shows the basic model:

1.    Food (UCS)                                                                  Salivation (UCR)        an ‘unlearned’ association

2.    Bell (CS) +  food
     (after a time interval of 0.2 to 0.5 secs)                            Salivation (CR)            training period

3.    Bell (CS)                                                                      Salivation (CR)            a ‘learned’ association

 [Source: Curzon, 2004: 38]

This experiment demonstrates that we can engineer a result (salivation) without the use of food at all. Once the animal is conditioned the process can be repeated over and over again. Pavlov argued that these reflexes originated in the cerebral cortex of the brain. He made this assertion having observed behaviours alone (as opposed to any measurement within the brain) so it was received with some scepticism by other researchers and academics.

He was also working long before modern neuroscience started to afford us at least a scintilla of understanding. More on that in a later blog.
Back to the dogs: carrying over research findings (in any field) from animals to humans is always problematic. Apart from anything else, humans possess a ‘rich treasure house of language’ so we are able to respond in far more nuanced ways (through speech and writing) than our animal friends. Indeed, nowhere in his work does Pavlov suggest otherwise: to the contrary he wrote that humans are ‘unique’ and possess a ‘status superior to that of the animals’…and that’s before we get started on any philosophical discussion concerning consciousness, or the soul. The basic proposition underpinning behaviourism is felt, by many, to be overly reductionist. In other words, it seeks to explain high complexity by using over-simplified processes.

The debate and research became ever more complicated and famous psychologists including Watson (1878-1958) and Thorndike (1874-1949) extended the theories into many new areas. Psychologists tend to use the word ‘association’ rather than ‘conditioning’ but the basic precepts of stimulus and response can still be detected in some cognitive behavioural therapies in use today. They also spawned neo-behaviourism championed by significant psychologists such as Tolman (1886-1959) and Skinner (1904-1990) whose significance in learning cannot be overlooked. We will come to them in a future blog.

But for now, what can we take from behaviourism in our world of teaching and learning? Well, most teachers would probably argue that motivation, reward and performance are linked. Positive reinforcement – as soon as possible after the desired behaviour – is usually perceived to be the best strategy. So the student who gets his or her work assessed, marked and returned promptly will benefit more than if there are long delays in this process. Delivering material in appropriately-sized chunks which is planned and timed effectively is important as is ensuring the level of work is commensurate with students’ ability. Those given work that is too hard may never taste success, receive little praise and therefore receive no reinforcement. Some of the strategies used in the design of e-learning programmes by the experts in Videotel, my client, to engage, motivate, reward and acknowledge success can be traced back to behaviourism and conditioning.

Another strategy which has its foundation in behaviourism is where learning is reinforced by repetition. This can be effective under certain circumstances (though we must always be aware of the differences between recitation and deep learning). And finally, Pavlov was always keen to stress that learning was about association¬ about the ‘whole’. This holistic approach will be appreciated by teaching professionals for whom planning, organisation and reflection is an ineluctable component of pedagogy.

The next blog will describe the work of Skinner and others, who have had such an influence on the psychology of modern teaching and learning.


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