Jan 18, 2016
Why should somebody who is interested in education be interested
- Because it's had a huge impact on educational theory
and practice over the past more than 100 years. When I
started reading books on education, the I was astounded at the
frequency with which behaviourist arguments were put forward to
support ideas. I felt like I could hardly budge without bumping
into another reference to it. And it's no surprise - behaviourist
educationalists include figures such as Edward Thorndike, sometimes
referred to as "the father of educational psychology". The first
book I read about educational psychology said that there were three
chief paradigms of teaching, one of which was "behavioural".
Understanding behaviourism helped me to better understand what
these books were talking about, and to know when they didn't know
what they were talking about.
- Because it says some pretty crazy stuff, which is
nonetheless hard to refute. Burrhus Frederic Skinner,
the behaviourist who made the greatest contribution to
the field, had some pretty scary ideas. He denied the existence of
choice, will, or freedom. He considered dignity to be an empty and
worthless idea. (Hence the title of one of his books, Beyond
Freedom and Dignity.) He thought that people could be
perfectly controlled with the right external conditioning, and he
even hoped that the future would be this way, as expounded in his
apparently utopian novel Walden Two. The non-existence or
at least unimportance of internal states (thoughts, emotions) is at
the very core of the philosophy of behaviourism. Outraged yet? And
yet the theory has a lot of evidence going for it.
- Because, a lot of the time, it works.
Behaviourist principles have proven very effective in a range of
situations and applications. Their greatest successes have been in
animal training, but they've also been effective in various human
domains, including making games and gambling machines more
addictive. (Hooray?) There have also been some applications in
sports coaching (more on this in another of Karen Pryor's books,
Reaching the Animal Mind).
Don't Shoot the Dog! serves as an introduction to
behaviourism. Karen Pryor takes us through both the basic theory
and applications in behaviour modification. She uses a combination
of examples from both animal and human subjects in everyday
situations. Want your dog to stop barking all night? Need your
roommate to start doing the laundry for once? Can't wait to teach
your cat to give you a high-five? Karen Pryor tackles all these
tricky situations and more.
Behaviourism claims to be a complete model of learning and
behaviour - a very ambitious claim indeed. How does it do on this
score? Without giving the game away too much, let's just say that
the results are mixed. In some situations, behaviourist approaches
and ideas work incredibly well. In certain cases, however,
particularly to do with motivation, it is clear that it hasn't got
all the answers. The fact that it's partially true and partially
false makes it all the more intriguing - why does it sometimes
work, but sometimes not? This is a question that will take a lot
longer than one episode to answer, but it is worth thinking on.
Even if you're not behaviourism's biggest fan, or you don't
think you'll be using it much, it is an important thing to have a
grasp of to provide context for other theories and ideas. It's like
Newtonian physics, which does a good job prior to the arrival of
other theories (relativity theory and quantum mechanics), and we
can then ask why Newtonian physics works so well in most situations
even though it's "wrong" as it has been superseded by other
Enjoy the episode.