Edward Thorndike, Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner
Definition and Background
Behaviorist learning theories first emerged in the late 19th century from the work of Edward Thorndike and Ivan Pavlov. They were popularized during the first half of the 20th century through the work of John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, and others.
Behaviorism defines learning as observable behavioral change that occurs in response to environmental stimuli. Positive stimuli — or “rewards” — create positive associations between the reward and a given behavior; these associations prompt one to repeat that behavior. Meanwhile, negative stimuli — or “punishments” — discourage the behaviors associated with those stimuli. Through this process of conditioning, people learn to either repeat or avoid behaviors.
Because early behaviorists tried to legitimize psychology as a science, their theories emphasized external, scientifically measurable behavioral changes in response to similarly measurable stimuli.
Although they admit that thought and emotion influence learning, behaviorists either dismiss these factors as phenomena beyond the realm of scientific inquiry (methodological behaviorism) or convert internal factors into behavioral terms (neobehaviorism/radical behaviorism).
Assuming that changes in behavior signify learning, methodological behaviorists see no fundamental difference between human and animal learning processes, and they often conduct comparative research on animals.
Behaviorism relies on the prediction or analysis of behavior based on causal stimuli, while education uses the process of positive and negative reinforcement to encourage or discourage behaviors. This school of thought emphasizes behavior’s learned causes over its biological one; therefore, behaviorism deeply values the ability of education to shape individuals.
Behaviorist learning theory distinguishes between classical and operative conditioning. The former involves natural responses to environmental stimuli, while the latter involves the reinforcement of a response to stimuli. Using a process often called “programmatic instruction,” educators use operative conditioning to reinforce positive and correct negative learnings that often accompany classical conditioning.
Behaviorist theories ascribe to a reductionist approach, which dictates that breaking behavior down into parts is the best way to understand it. Other schools of thought critique behaviorism for underemphasizing biological and unconscious factors, denying free will, equating humans with animals, and overlooking internal learning processes or types of learning that occur without reinforcement.
Behaviorism has significantly shaped the disciplines of psychology and education, illuminating major influencing factors in human behavior and learning. In psychology, both behavior modification and behavior therapy owe their origins to behaviorism.
Meanwhile, behaviorist insights underlie many of the teaching methods still used today in homes, classrooms, workplaces, and other contexts. The widespread use of learning objectives, for example, breaks down larger learning goals into a series of specific skills and behaviors desired from a student.
Behaviorism also influences the sequence and methods used during the teaching and learning process. Teachers work toward their desired objectives by using external stimuli, explaining and demonstrating a skill or behavior, and then inviting student practice and providing feedback that reinforces the behaviors or skills they wish students to learn or unlearn.