Pavlov’s dog and Skinner’s box made their way into our popular culture long ago, and learning theories other than behaviorism have come to dominate the field of adult education and training. Among my professional colleagues in adult education and instructional design, behaviorism is felt to be somewhat outdated and mechanistic, especially in the light of humanist perspectives.
“Behaviorists believe that human behavior is the result of the arrangement of particular stimuli in the environment…” and “learning for behaviorists is defined as a change in observable behavior (Merriam and Bierema, 2014, 26).” In contrast, “…humanists refuse to accept the notion that behavior is predetermined by either the environment or one’s subconcious. Rather, human beings can control their own destiny; people are inherently good and will strive for a better world; people are free to act, and behavior is the consequence of human choice; people possess unlimited potential for growth and development (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, 282).”
It is easy to dismiss or disparage behaviorism as a learning theory, and I admit that, before taking this class, I tended to do that. Of course, I was already familiar with behaviorism’s influence on the development of behavioral objectives and competency-based education (Merriam and Bierema, 2014, 27); I have for years developed instruction based on behavioral objectives. However, this course’s readings and videos on behaviorism have reinforced for me behaviorism’s major influence on current adult education and instructional design practices, and also brought to light very positive aspects of this influence.
It was helpful to be reminded in the Crash Course video that negative reinforcement, which in popular culture is sometimes imagined to be mild electric shock and the like, is actually “…any stimulus that, when removed, strengthens the response,” and is not the same as “punishment.” Also, “extinction” of a behavior should be brought about by negative reinforcement rather than punishment. It was also helpful, in the “History of Psychology” video, to be reminded that behaviorism played an important role in shaping psychology into a modern, scientific field.
But I was most struck by the interview with B.F. Skinner himself. The interview highlighted for me the huge positive influence that behaviorism continues to have on education. Skinner pointed out “…the power of reinforcement as a change agent,” and “…positive reinforcement as a powerful technique.” As Skinner discussed this concept, I thought about how much in current child rearing, child education, and adult education practices have been shaped around positive reinforcement, as well as many institutional practices in government and industry (for example, the use of carbon credit trading rather than fines).
As he says in the interview, Skinner believed that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that could be used to advance our society “…beyond just being free and having dignity,” to create a society where human beings can “maximize” themselves and our cultures and society will survive. In the interview he gives the examples of controlling for minimal consumption and pollution. Skinner also knew the dangers of controlling behavior, as he says in the interview: “You need to understand all the ways in which you can be controlled so that you can avoid being controlled” for bad purposes, and he gives the lottery as an example of a negative use of behavior control. Hearing this high-level, even idealistic, perspective from Skinner himself was eye-opening and helped me to appreciate behaviorism’s positive influences.
Finally, I really appreciated the Seinfeld and Big Bang Theory videos! I have loved the dense, rich, and sometimes complex readings that we have done to date, but the videos were a fun, refreshing touch and gave me, among other things, a good mental picture of operant conditioning to store away for future use! I admit that this week’s Malone article went a bit over my head. Other than learning that “traits” or “general classes of behavior that are strengthened over time” have become a focus of behaviorists in recent decades (Malone, 2003, 87), I did not glean that much about recent trends in behaviorism from the article. I look forward to reading what my colleagues thought of Malone.