The behaviourist theory explains learning as a result of behavioural changes directly connected to stimuli or experiences. It can be divided into classical conditioning and operant conditioning (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).
Overview - Differences between classical and operant conditioning:
You might have heard about Pavlov’s dog experiments – watch this video to remember:
So we now know that dogs can learn an involuntary reaction to a conditioned stimulus. Research states that this theory applies for humans as well, so how can classical conditioning be used in the classroom? Classical conditioning evokes involuntary emotional or physiological responses (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010), so it can be used to make the classroom “an emotionally safe environment” (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010, p. 177).
The following example is based on Chapter 6, Eggen & Kauchak (2010):
A teacher greets her students warmly when they come into her classroom (unconditioned stimulus), which makes them feel welcome and liked (unconditioned response). After a while, her students connect walking into the classroom (conditioned stimulus) with feeling good (conditioned response), and that enhances a good learning atmosphere.
B.F. Skinner conducted many laboratory experiments, and by inventing the Skinnerbox (which you can see in the video), he proved that pigeons and rats were able to learn. According to Skinner, behaviour in animals and humans can be predicted and controlled (Skinner, 1953, as cited by Delprato & Midgley, 1992), and behaviour can be increased, decreased or shaped by using reinforcement and punishment (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).
Operant conditioning in the classroom is mainly used as a “classroom management tool” (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010, p. 167), and the focus has moved from eliminating unwanted behaviour to “shaping desired behaviour” (Brophy, 1999, p. 45).
To increase wanted behaviour, for example sitting quietly in class (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010), either positive or negative reinforcement can be used.
Positive reinforcement: The student is presented with a stimulus after the behaviour occurs, e.g. praise or a token that can later be traded for privileges (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010; Simply Psychology, n.d.).
Negative reinforcement: An aversive stimulus is avoided or removed, for example when a teacher says, “Please sit quietly for the while I collect these tests". If you don’t, we’ll have lunch break 5 minutes later” (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010). Waiting for lunch is an aversive stimulus, and the students will want to avoid it and therefore behave.
To gradually shape wanted behaviour, the teacher can at first reinforce any behaviour that slightly resembles the one desired, then only behaviour that is very similar, and later only the wanted behaviour is reinforced.
To decrease unwanted behaviour, behaviourists use punishment. There are two different forms, removal punishment and presentation punishment.
Removal punishment: A positive stimulus is removed, for example a token (mentioned above).
Presentation punishment: An aversive stimulus is added. This could be as simple as the teacher making a “Shhhh” sound and putting a finger to her lips (Eggen & Kauchak, 2010).
Regarding the solving of tasks individually in class, a teacher can't reinforce 20 to 30 students at the same time, which would be important for behaviourist learning. So B.F. Skinner also invented a teaching machine, which gave the students instant feedback (State University, n.d.). It was used mostly for mathematical problems and spelling, but in the technological times we live in computer games and programs can be a great learning tool for every subject. They show the learner straight away whether or not his answer was right, they allow repetition and exploration. To learn vocabulary, instead of using the flash card system, children can explore virtual worlds on the computer, click on objects, and when they type in the right word they are reinforced immediately, for example by little games that get activated when a minimum of right words is entered.
Brophy, J. (1999). Beyond behaviorism: Changing the classroom management paradigm.
Delprato, D., & Midgley, B. (1992). Some fundamentals of B. F. Skinner’s behaviourism. American Psychologist, 47(12), 1507-1520. Retrieved January 7, 2010, from
Learning Innovations & Academic Development Department at
Simply Psychology (n.d.). Behaviour Therapy. Retrieved January 24, 2010, from http://www.simplypsychology.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/behaviour-therapy.html
TeachertubeSS (n.d.). B. F. Skinner. Retrieved January 12 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3W4k7xzTxU