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Education Bookcast

Jan 18, 2016

Why should somebody who is interested in education be interested in behaviourism?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 theories.

Enjoy the episode.