The ideas of behaviourism have their roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. John B. Watson, an American working in the realm of the new psychology, is widely accepted as one of the earliest proponents of behaviourism. He is believed to have first used the term ‘behaviourism’. Watson came to the view that psychology could only ever become a true science if it became a process of detailed objective observation and scientific measurement. This notion of observation and measurement became central to the work of behaviourists. Any consideration of mental process, which is by definition unobservable, fell outside their self-imposed range of interest. So behaviourist approaches to, and explanations of, learning developed out of the study of what can actually be seen. As we will see, this approach to developing a psychological theory of learning ignores much of the hidden mental process which later workers in the field have come to explain and to hold as crucially important to our understanding of the complex activity that makes up different types of learning.

Behaviourism is based around the central notion of a reaction being made to a particular stimulus. This apparently simple relationship has been used to describe even the most complex learning situations. At its simplest, we can observe behaviour, which we can refer to as ‘learnt behaviour’, in a wide range of diverse situations. For example, a performing seal will respond to a particular stimulus – the sound of a hooter or the presentation of a fish – by raising itself up and slapping its flippers together as if clapping. A pet dog will respond to the stimulus of the spoken word, ‘Beg’, by doing just that, much to the delight of onlookers. This stimulus-response relationship can also be seen in humans. In situations where an immediate response is required, practice situations are repeated endlessly so that the soldier, fire fighter or airline pilot will make the correct, possibly life-saving response in a given situation. The importance of responsive practice has been underlined in more recent years and explained in terms of the reinforcement of particular neural pathways in the brain, which has the effect of faster and smoother implementation of certain actions and responses.

John B. Watson

Behaviourism: A Definition

Behaviourism is a theory of learning focusing on observable behaviours and discounting any mental activity. Learning is defined simply as the acquisition of new behaviour. Behaviourists call this method of learning ‘conditioning’. Two different types of conditioning are described and demonstrated as viable explanations of the way in which animals and humans alike can be ‘taught’ to do certain things. First there is classical conditioning.


This involves the reinforcement of a natural reflex or some other behaviour which occurs as a response to a particular stimulus. A well-known example of this type of conditioning, the first of its kind, is the work of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist at the start of the twentieth century, who conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. He noticed that dogs salivated when they ate, or even saw, food. In his initial experiments he sounded a bell at the time when food was presented to the dogs. The sound of the bell became, for the dogs, an indication that food was about to be presented and eventually the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell irrespective of the presence of food. The dogs had been conditioned to respond to the sound of the bell by producing saliva. Their behaviour had been successfully modified. We talk about conditioning and conditioned responses in a general way. Feelings of fear at the sound of the dentist’s drill or at the sight of a syringe in preparation for an injection are examples of conditioned responses. Pavlov identified four stages in the process of his classical conditioning and what follows from the initial connection between stimulus and response: acquisition, extinction, generalisation and discrimination.


The acquisition phase is the initial learning of the conditioned response – for example, the dog salivating at the sound of the bell.


Once learnt, a conditioned response will not remain indefinitely. Extinction is used to describe the disappearance of the conditioned response brought about by repeatedly presenting the bell, for example, without then presenting food.


After a conditioned response to one stimulus has been learnt, it may also respond to similar stimuli without further training. If a child is bitten by a dog, the child may fear not only that particular dog, but all dogs.


Discrimination is the opposite of generalisation. An individual learns to produce a conditioned response to one stimulus but not to another similar stimulus. For example, a child may show a fear response to freely roaming dogs, but may show no fear when a dog is on a lead, or distrust Alsatians but not Jack Russell terriers (a breed of small white terrier).


The second type of conditioning is ‘operant conditioning’. Operant conditioning is the most important type of behaviourist learning. It is more flexible in its nature than classical conditioning and therefore seen as potentially more powerful. It involves reinforcing a behaviour by rewarding it. It can also work in a negative way, when an undesirable behaviour can be discouraged, by following it with punishment of some form. In some cases, simply not offering an expected reward for a particular behaviour is a sufficient punishment. For example, if a mother gives her child a chocolate bar every day that he tidies his bedroom, before long the child may spend some time each day tidying. In this example, the tidying behaviour increases because it is rewarded. This rewarding is known as ‘reinforcement’. It is likely that the tidying behaviour would decrease or stop completely if the rewards were suspended. Skinner, a psychologist working in America in the 1930s, is the most famous psychologist in the field of operant conditioning and probably the most famous behaviourist. Skinner studied the behaviour of rats and pigeons, and made generalisations of his discoveries to humans. He used a device now called a Skinner box. The Skinner box was a simple, empty box in which an animal could earn food by making simple responses, such as pressing a lever. A normal, almost random action by the animal, such as pressing a lever in the box, would result in a reward, such as a pellet of food. As the rewards continued for the repetition of the action, the animal ‘learnt’ that in order to be fed it must press the lever.

Skinner maintained that rewards and punishments control the majority of human behaviours, and that the principles of operant conditioning can explain all human learning. The key aspects of operant conditioning are as follows.


This refers to anything that has the effect of strengthening a particular behaviour and makes it likely that the behaviour will happen again. There are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative.


Positive reinforcement is a powerful method for controlling the behaviour of both animals and people. For people, positive reinforcers include basic items such as food, drink, approval or even something as apparently simple as attention. In the context of classrooms, praise, house points or the freedom to choose an activity are all used in different contexts as rewards for desirable behaviour.


As its name suggests, this is a method of decreasing the likelihood of a behaviour by pairing it with an unpleasant ‘follow-up’. There is controversy about whether punishment is an effective way of reducing or eliminating unwanted behaviours. Laboratory experiments have shown that punishment can be an effective method for reducing particular behaviour, but there are clear disadvantages, especially in classroom situations. Anger, frustration or aggression may follow punishment, or there may be other negative emotional responses.


The notion of shaping refers to a technique of reinforcement that is used to teach animals or humans behaviours that they have never performed before. When shaping, the trainer begins by reinforcing a simple response which the learner can easily perform. Gradually more and more complex responses are required for the same reward. For example, to teach a rat to press an overhead lever, the trainer can first reward any upward head movement, then an upward movement of at least three centimetres, then six and so on, until the lever is reached. Shaping has been used to teach children with severe mental difficulties to speak by first rewarding any sounds they make and then gradually only rewarding sounds that approximate to the words being taught. Animal trainers use shaping to teach animals. In classrooms, shaping can be used to teach progressively complex skills, and more obviously to ensure the desired behaviour from children at such times as the end of the day, lining up for assembly and so on. When a teacher says something like, ‘Let’s see which table is ready’, it would not be unusual in many classrooms to witness many if not all of the children sitting up straight with folded arms, having tidied away their belongings. There is a place for learning in classrooms that relies on the principles of behaviourism. However, since behaviourism gives little importance to mental activity, concept formation or understanding, there are difficult problems to overcome when setting out philosophies of teaching and learning that depend wholly upon behaviourist approaches.


As all parents will understand, there are certain situations where, for reasons of safety, it is important that young children do not do certain things – stepping off the kerb, poking electrical sockets, reaching towards a pan of cooking vegetables and so on. In a potentially dangerous situation, a parent is likely to respond swiftly and decisively. Often the action taken by a parent will involve a shouted ‘No!’ or the rapid removal of the child from the situation. The child will come to associate the poking of an electrical socket with an undesirable reaction from the parent and in this way learn to avoid the reaction by not poking sockets – at least, that is the expectation. The reason for no longer carrying out socket-poking is not dependent upon an understanding of the dangers of electrocution. The cessation of the poking behaviour can be described in terms of negative reinforcement. Had the parental response to the action been a smile and a hug, it is possible that the action would be positively reinforced and the chances of repetition increased significantly.

This is not to recommend shouting, smacking or any such extreme action, but it can be seen that for reasons of expediency and future safety, a behaviourist response serves well. Indeed, attempting to explain the nature of possible outcomes from particular actions becomes very difficult when such concepts as severe injury or death come into the equation. The eradication of the behaviour is the most important consideration; the concepts involved become far less important. Some might argue that knowing to do or not to do something is, initially at least, far more important than understanding; the understanding can follow along behind at a more appropriate time in the intellectual development of the child.



Pavlov developed the theory known now as ‘classical conditioning’ through the study of dogs. From his perspective, learning begins with a stimulus-response connection. In this theory, a certain stimulus leads to a particular response.


Thorndike introduced a theory of learning now called ‘connectionism’. Thorndike emphasised the role of experience in the strengthening and weakening of stimulus-response connections:‘ Responses to a situation that are followed by satisfaction are strengthened; responses that are followed by discomfort weakened.’ Thorndike proposed that practice also influences stimulus-response connections. His idea that rewards promote learning continues to be a key element of behaviourist theory.


Watson introduced the term ‘behaviourism’ and was an important advocate of the approach in the early part of the twentieth century. Watson called for the use of scientific objectivity and experiment in the psychology of learning. He devised the law of frequency that stressed the importance of repetition: ‘The more frequent a stimulus and response occur in association with each other, the stronger that habit will become.’ He also devised the law of recency: ‘The response that has most recently occurred after a particular stimulus is the response most likely to be associated with that stimulus.’ (The principle of recency states that things most recently learned are best remembered.)


Edwin Guthrie put forward a theory of what he called ‘contiguity’: ‘A stimulus that is followed by a particular response will, upon its recurrence, tend to be followed by the same response again. This stimulus-response connection gains in its full strength on one trial.’ Guthrie conducted very little practical research and as a result doubt has been cast upon his theories.


Skinner is probably the best known psychologist in the behaviourist tradition. He identified the theory of operant conditioning. Skinner spoke only about the strengthening of responses, not the strengthening of habits or actions. Skinner used the term ‘reinforcer’ instead of ‘reward’. He was keen to stress the importance of a positive approach to learning involving rewards, but also understood the value of punishment. His most fundamental principle is his law of conditioning: ‘A response followed by a reinforcing stimulus is strengthened and therefore more likely to occur again.’ A second principle was his law of extinction: ‘A response that is not followed by a reinforcing stimulus is weakened and therefore less likely to occur again.’ Skinner’s work was meticulous and methodical, based upon scrupulous scientific observation and measurement. He developed strict schedules of reinforcement in his attempt to codify learning and to establish a pattern of best practice. In his later work, he began to recognise the influence of mental process which had previously been acknowledged by behaviourists. 4


Behaviourists see learning as a relatively permanent, observable change in behaviour as a result of experience. This change is effected through a process of reward and reinforcement but has little regard, initially, for mental process or understanding.

In the classroom

Standard routines and expectations for behaviour can be made clear and reinforced in a behaviouristic way. The use of rewards in the form of team points, or such like, can be a great incentive to work hard and to behave well. Punishments, such as loss of privileges, or the withholding of rewards can be effective as well, although it is widely recognised that a positive approach is preferable to an approach to behaviour management predicated solely on punishments. Some ‘rote’ learning may be a useful way of helping some children to cope better with some of the aspects of their work which they find difficult. Where possible, initial rote learning should be followed by attempts to encourage understanding.

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