Behaviorists define learning as a change in behavior brought about by the environment; some deny the existence of mental events altogether, while others concede that mental events might exist, but that they cannot and should not be studied. Behaviorism spans decades, and many individuals have made significant contributions to its development. Two key individuals in the field, Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner, developed classical and operant conditioning theories which can be applied to education. While behaviorism contributed greatly to our understanding of human learning, most now believe it is insufficient for explaining more complex behavior. Thus, behaviorism has largely been supplanted by cognitive theories of learning which focus on the very thing behaviorists were accused of ignoring – the mind.
Keywords Classical conditioning; Extinction; Operant conditioning; Pavlov, Ivan; Punishment; Reinforcement; Response; Shaping; Skinner, B.F.; Stimulus; Watson, John
Educational Theory: Behaviorism
Although many people associate behaviorism with the work of B.F. Skinner, it was John B. Watson who coined the term, and who first introduced behaviorist principles into mainstream American psychology. Around the turn of the twentieth century, people began putting their faith in science as the way forward to a better future (Harzem, 2004). Watson shared in this optimism, and suggested that psychology – like the natural sciences such as physics and biology – should become a science as well. In order to do so, he argued, psychologists should study only that which is observable, and turn away from the study of consciousness and methodologies like introspection. In a paper published in 1913 called "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," Watson wrote:
Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods…The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute (as cited in Harzem, p. 6, 2004).
The end of the story is well-known. By denying the existence of mental events – Watson even denied the existence of the mind itself – behaviorists left themselves exposed to attack. And inevitably, the 1970s ushered in a new era of psychology – often called the cognitive revolution – whose subject of study was exactly that which the behaviorists had ignored – unobservable mental events, or what behaviorists refer to as 'the black box.' Behaviorism wasn't necessarily 'wrong' in any fundamental sense, cognitive psychologists argued, but it was incapable of explaining complex human behavior. Thus, behaviorism was edged out of the spotlight, but its principles still hold sway, and its impact continues to be far-reaching. As Harzem (2004) writes, "now behaviorism is like a cube of sugar dissolved in tea; it has no major, distinct existence but it is everywhere. It is an essential ingredient of scientific-psychological thought, whether psychologists wish it to be or not" (p. 12).
But any good story has more than a beginning and end. Behaviorism's contribution to human learning and development is immense, and so it is to the 'stuff in the middle' that we now turn – to the insights of behaviorists and to the theorists themselves. Before doing so, however, we need to take one small step backwards, for although behaviorism became largely an American venture, it began not with Watson in America but in what might seem an unlikely place – in the laboratory of a Russian scientist studying salivation reflexes in dogs.
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, stumbled across one of the two major principles of learning that now characterize behaviorism. His research was designed to uncover the neural mechanisms associated with digestion; while conducting his experiments, however, he noticed that his subjects, the dogs, began salivating not just in response to the food, but also in response to other environmental cues, such as the lab attendants who brought the food. As Mazur (1994) writes, "Pavlov recognized the significance of this unexpected result, and he spent the rest of his life studying this phenomenon, which is now known as classical conditioning" (p. 58).
Let's look at the components of classical conditioning by dissecting one of Pavlov's first attempts to study the phenomenon. Pavlov began with what he called a neutral stimulus (NS) – in this particular case, a bell. When presented with the ringing of the bell, the dogs did, virtually, nothing. Pavlov then paired the ringing of the bell with the presentation of the food; he referred to the food as the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) because it elicited an unconditioned response (UCR), salivation. After several pairings of the bell and food, Pavlov then presented the ringing of the bell alone, at which time the dogs began salivating. The bell became a conditioned stimulus (CS), the salivation in response to the bell, a conditioned response (CR). This type of learning is also referred to as signal learning, because it is most effective when the conditioned stimulus is presented just before the unconditioned stimulus (Ormrod, 1990). It has been replicated in humans and animals alike with a variety of reflexive responses, such as blinking, galvanic skin response, and taste-aversions (Mazur, 1994).
Although the formula for classical conditioning is relatively simple, a number of corollary explanations of behavior evolved from it. Psychologists began to investigate how a conditioned response could be extinguished, why certain conditioned responses occurred in the presence of some stimuli and not others, and how classical conditioning could be applied in real-world settings.
Psychologists discovered that the passage of time has little effect on the strength of a conditioned response. That is, if a day, or week, or year passed before a dog were presented with the conditioned stimulus (the bell) again, the dog would still salivate at its sound (Mazur, 1994). What then, they wondered, would cause a subject to 'unlearn' such a response? Through a process called extinction – the presentation of the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus, or in this case, the bell without the food – the conditioned response gradually disappears.
The question then arises, is the dog whose conditioned response has been extinguished the same as a dog who was never conditioned in the first place? That is, is the association between the conditioned and unconditioned stimulus permanently erased through extinction? A phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery suggests the association remains intact, although weakened. Dogs who were conditioned on Day 1, for example, and extinguished on Day 2, displayed the conditioned response again on Day 3 even though the conditioned response had been fully extinguished on the previous day. Psychologists disagree about what causes spontaneous recovery, but the phenomenon itself has been well documented (Mazur, 1994).
Rapid reacquisition also suggests that the process of extinction does not return an organism to its pre-conditioned state. Dogs who learn to associate the ringing of the bell with the presentation of food, and whose conditioned response is then extinguished, will re-learn the pairing of the two stimuli during a second phase of acquisition much more quickly than they learned it during the first phase.
Organisms will sometimes display a conditioned response when presented with a stimulus that is similar to, but not exactly the same as, the original conditioned stimulus. Such a phenomenon is known as stimulus generalization. Pavlov's dogs, for example, might salivate at the sound of a second bell that rings at a different but similar frequency as the first bell.
On the other hand, organisms can be explicitly 'taught' to discriminate between two stimuli. If Pavlov repeatedly paired a low-pitched bell with the presentation of the food, but did not pair a high-pitched bell with the presentation of the food, the dogs would learn to salivate at the sound of the first, but not the second.
In some cases, a stimulus that is never directly paired with the unconditioned stimulus can elicit the unconditioned response. For example, after dogs learned the association between the bell and food, Pavlov then began pairing the bell with a light flash, in the absence of the food. Dogs soon began salivating in response to the light flash alone, which they learned to associate with the bell, which they had previously learned to associate with food.
Extinction is sometimes not a reliable way to extinguish conditioned responses (Ormrod, 1990). The rate at which extinction occurs is often unpredictable, and finding opportunities to present the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus is often difficult. As a result, psychologists suggest that counterconditioning may be a more effective may to change behavior. In the classic case of "Little Peter" (Ormrod, 1990), a young boy somehow learned to be afraid of rabbits. By giving Peter candy at the same time he was in the presence of a rabbit, the conditioned response elicited by the candy – pleasure – began to replace the conditioned response elicited by the rabbit – fear. Since pleasure and fear are incompatible responses, Peter couldn't experience both at once; gradually, his fear of rabbits disappeared.
Classical conditioning is just one of two theories of learning that characterize behaviorism. The second, known as operant conditioning, was developed by B.F. Skinner in the 1940s. Although both Pavlov and Skinner are considered behaviorists, they disagreed with one another. An editorial review of a talk given by Skinner at the dinner of the Pavlovian Society in 1966, for example, states that "Although very gracious, polite and deferential, Skinner implied that Pavlov was actually riding the wrong horse when he suggested that conditional reflexes could serve as a window to learned behavior. Skinner, of course, held to the unique power of the operant theory" (Skinner, 1996, p. 1).
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