Saturday, July 17, 2010


The topic of our first real discussion in my "Issues in Education" class was what role behaviourism should have in education. Behavioursim is the psychological approach of controlling behavior through the use of conditioning, or using reinforcemnt -- or as I define it: "drool-training." The classic example described is Pavlov's dog experiment. By ringing a bell when presenting food to his dogs, the dogs learned to associate the ringing of a bell with food, and would drool when the bell rings -- even if no food was around. This sort of behavior-training is the heart of behaviorism.

The articles we read - one pro-behaviorism by none other than B.F. Skinner himself - and another emphasizing the role of human choice, seemed to demonize behaviorists as manipulative, controlling tyrants. The beginning of the discussion seemed to center on this, and lean against the use of any sort of reinforcement training - i.e. the use of punishments, rewards, etc.

I felt alone in believing that behavioristic methods had some merit. I argued that behaviorism is quite natural -- we use it to train our cats and dogs -- even our young children. Some argued that students should be make their own choices, free from any external rewards or punishments.

The thing is, no choices are free from rewards or punishments -- ultimately, every choice we make has a consequence. I think the role of behaviorism in school is for students who haven't yet learned the consequences of their actions. So, for very young students, behaviorism in the form of gold stars and otherwise is certainly appropriate. Once students have learned that there are other rewards to doing right and consequences for doing bad, then behaviorism techniques should wane. It probably would not be appropriate in say a senior level class. For freshman -- possibly? Some freshman are already good at choosing wisely. Others are further behind.

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