Behaviorism, in it its purest form, is essentially a psychological theory that says all actions in human life (thinking, acting, feeling) are reactions to the environment. Under behaviorist theories these reactions, or behaviors, are biologically based. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, behaviorist theory is commited to the following tenets:

  1. Psychology is the science of behavior (observable action). Psychology is not the science of mind.
  2. Behavior can be described and explained without making reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. The sources of behavior are external (in the environment), not internal (in the mind). (1)

Applied to the realm of education, behaviorist theory sees learning as simply the "acquisition of new behavior."(2)
A common cultural example for this type of learning is the conditioning made famous by physiologist Ivan Pavlov and his dogs (3). So the story goes, Pavlov would ring a bell every time he fed his dogs dinner. Eventually his dogs would begin to salivate when he rang the bell, even if no food was around. This is a very basic example (perhaps slightly mythicized) of behaviorist learning. Through the reaction to stimuli (bells and food), dogs were taught to associate bells with dinner.

Ultimately,behaviorist learning theory has three basic tenets (4):

  1. Learning is manifested by a change in behavior
  2. The environment shapes behavior
  3. Contiguity (the time between two events) and reinforcement are central to explaining the learning process

Origins and History

In the early 20th century, psychology changed dramatically, as another school of though known as behaviorism surfaced. Behaviorism rejected emphasis on both the conscious and unconscious mind, which was drastically different from previous thought. Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner and John Watson each played an influential role in forming an entire branch of psychology: behaviorism.

Behaviorism traces its roots back to the work of a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov. While Pavlov was researching the gastric function of dogs in the 1890s, he noticed that dogs would salivate before food was actually delivered to their mouths. He became extremely interested in this discovery and changed the course of his research. By using sound, visual and other stimuli, he was able to make the animal salivate whether they were in the presence of food or not. His research on the digestive systems of dogs ultimately led to his belief that behaviors could be learned through conditioned associations, a finding known as classical conditioning. (3)

Following Pavlov’s experiment, John B. Watson also rejected introspective methods and sought to restrict psychology to experimental methods. He concluded that humans were more complicated than animals, but operated on the same principles. Watson believed that all animals responded to situations according to their innate “wiring”, which were conditioned by experience (11). John Watson’s famous experiment, the Little Albert Experiment, observed a nine-month-old child named Albert. Watson exposed Little Albert briefly, and for the first time, to a variety of different stimuli, including a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, and masks with and without hair. Albert showed no fear towards any of these items. At 11 months old, Watson exposed Little Albert to a white rat and Little Albert again showed no fear of the rat. Later, Watson exposed Little Albert to the white rat, but would make a loud noise behind Little Albert when he tried to touch the rat. Little Albert cried and showed fear when he heard the noise. After doing this several times, Watson presented Little Albert again with the rat and he became very distressed when the rat was in the room. According to Watson, this experiment reiterated his belief of classical conditioning in humans (12).

Heavily influenced by the work of Pavlov and Watson, B.F. Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning, an idea that behavior is determined by its consequences (i.e. reinforcements or punishments), which make it more or less likely that the behavior will happen again. A radical behaviorist, Skinner believed that only behaviors should be studied, instead of internal mental processes. While he denied the existence of the mind as a separate thing from the body, he did not deny the existence of thoughts, which he saw as private behaviors that are to be analyzed the same as publicly observed behaviors (13).

Pavlov, Watson and Skinner each contributed an important piece to what is regarded today as Behaviorism.

Major Proponents and Theorists:

Already discussed above, physiologist Ivan Pavlov was one of the fathers of behaviorist theory. His conditioning experiments were very influential and led to a deeper exploration of the idea.

Perhaps the most famous of later behaviorists, and the theorist who really brought the concept into the public realm, was B.F. Skinner. Skinner, who worked at Harvard, both developed and popularized the idea of operant conditioning - the idea that behavior could be reinforced or discourage by positive and negative stimuli (5). Operant conditioning builds on classic conditioning by proposing that an external stimulant doesn't have to be present to induce a behavior but can be used to influence its occurence. This theory can easily be applied to education, and has in many ways that are most likely familiar to anyone who has ever stepped foot into a classroom (grades, detention, etc.).

Another proponent of Behaviorism was American Psychologist John Watson (January 9, 1878 - September 25, 1958). He conducted the "Little Albert Experiment" 1920, while working at John Hopkins University (6). Watson heavily sided with nurture in nature vs. nurture debate; in 1930 he wrote "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-informed, 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 - regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors". Many educational and psychology journals use the above quote to highlight the radical views of behaviorism proponents. The quote however is incomplete, as Watson in the second part of the quote also wrote ""I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing so for many thousands of years". This second part is rarely quoted by researchers there by indicating that Watson had extreme views towards the importance of environment (15).

What Behaviorist Teachers Do:

As a behaviorist, you believe that learning takes place when knowledge is separated into smaller bits. Students are rewarded for successful answers. Instruction focuses on conditioning the learner's behavior. Learning involves repetition and association and is highly mechanical. Behaviorist leaning teachers focus on a new behavioral pattern being repeated until it becomes automatic. (Schuman).

The role of the behaviorist teacher is providing stimulus material and prompting the correct response, while the learner's role is to be the receiver of the information response until the behavioral change is permanent. (Applications of Learning Theories) Teachers with a behaviorist leaning view errors as not enough conditioning. Without repetition and proper conditioning, students will make mistakes. Therefore, a behaviorist teacher takes plenty of time to do positive and negative reinforcers so as to help students adopt new behaiors in the classroom. While it may take great amounts of time and patience, the behaviorist teacher completely understands the process and is willing to invest whatever it takes to be successful with the students (8).

The behaviorist teacher generally:
Ø Relies on lecture and textbooks as staples of teaching and learning.
Ø Is in control of the learning environment.
Ø Takes the role of "sage on the stage."
Ø Understands the ideas of goals and objectives, careful formulation of activities to achieve the objectives, and testing to match the objectives.
Ø Is concerned with delivering a prescribed amount of content to students and expecting them to master it.
Ø Uses testing to determine mastery or lack thereof and grades based on expected mastery.

As the pressure to make students achieve increases, the behaviorist teacher tends to exert more and more control and may increase expectations, raise the amount of homework expected, and seek to increase the amount of content given per time unit. The teacher may also use drill and practice plus repeatable exercises, seeking to maximize the memorization of material connected to a particular discipline. Behaviorist teaching is the oldest and most widespread technique and has some definite advantages plus a track record of success. It is dependable, direct, and can achieve the needed outcomes through correct uses of this technique. While it can be very regid and predictable at times, it can still be used effectively.

A semi-popularized and institutionalized form of behaviorist teaching is known as Direct Instruction - capital "D" and capital "I" (14). Originally developed by Englemann and Becker from the University of Oregon, DI is based on a behavioralist script for all classes. Teachers script every statement and desired student responses, and use keys like snapping, clapping and firm reinforcement to "condition" student learning. [[ |St. Anthony's]]school is one of the few schools in the Milwaukee area that use DI instruction.

What Students Do:

Students who perform well for a behaviorist teacher are "sponges" who consume huge amounts of information and details. They are able to reproduce facts and information precisely on a test. These students do well in mastering factual information and on true/false tests or multiple choice items. They can reproduce the ideas of the teacher in an essay as well as the ideas they have read in texts or other prescribed reading materials. They do well on the SATs and go on to college, where they encounter more of the same teaching style (9). They deveop great recollection of facts and figures based on listening in class to the teacher, taking good notes, and asking important and relevant questions.

An active role of a student can be accomplished by asking questions, presenting to the class, answering direct questions, and helping out fellow students are just a few of the ways. B.F. Skinner said, “A behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future.”(Boerre, p.3) When students are successful they feel good about themselves and then become more active participants in their own education. (10)

Lesson Ideas

There are only two types of conditioning with Behaviorism, Classical conditioning in which the behavior is response to a stimulus and Operant conditioning where behavior is reinforced by reward or punishment. Due to this very nature the theory is mostly applied in various forms of classroom management and when dealing with students with special needs.
Here are some examples of classical and operant conditioning that are used by teachers to get a desired behavioral response from their students as a part of their classroom management:

Classical Conditioning: Behavioral response to a stimulus

Place: Middle School setting, grades 5/6.
Situation: Some students are talking and misbehaving resulting into disruption for other students who are paying attention.
Desired situation: well behaved quite classroom
Teacher stimulus: The teacher instead of scolding or raising their voice, either stop talking at all or starts giving instruction in whispers.
Student response: The students who are paying attention to the teacher get annoyed because they are not able to hear the teacher properly. The annoyance is then directed towards their disruptive class peers who are asked to keep quite.
Response time: It usually takes about a minute of the classroom time but the silent stimulus used by the teacher results into class members taking up the responsibility of maintaining decorum in the classroom.

Place: Elementary School
Situation: Students engrossed in one particular activity
Desired situation: Transition students from one activity to another without breaking their learning tempo.
Teacher stimulus: The teacher gives a time limit to finish up the task, once the time limit is over the teacher either claps in various rhythms or play a short clip of some famous song.
Student response: After the first series of claps the students stops doing whatever they are doing and tries to concentrate and pay more attention to the rhythms in which everybody is clapping or if its a song then students stops whatever they are doing and tries to follow the lyrics of the song.
Response time: In a minute or minute and a half the students have been diverted from their previous tasks and are ready to transition into the new one without loosing the interest.

Operant conditioning: Behavior response towards reward or punishment

In this type of conditioning one usually gets to see positive or negative behavior reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement:
Condition: The teacher is continuously on lookout for good behaviors from students and other staff members.
Reward stimulus: A student's individual good behavior or good classroom behavior is well noted and praised at individual and or classroom level. Other students are encouraged to look out for similar good behavior. Students good behavior stories are shared at class and school level.
Response: The student/students feel good about their behavior and are encouraged and motivated to either continue to display good behavior or make attempt towards it (7).

Negative reinforcement:
Students misbehavior is noted
Primary stimulus: The students are warned about their inappropriate behavior through various ways, like: note in their daily diary, a red sticker for poor behavior, their name on the tardy list, etc. If it is a middle or high school setting then students are repeatedly warned.
Secondary stimulus: If the inappropriate behavior continues then students are give punishment which can range from office visit, detention, suspension, extra work.
Response: The negative stimulus is kept in effect until the student apologies / display the desired behavior or stops inappropriate behavior (7). While carrying out negative reinforcement there are several other conditions and circumstances that needs to kept in mind to get an overall positive result.


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