Behaviourist theory is often associated with John Watson's efforts to terrify a young boy ("Little Albert"), or B.F. Skinner's work with pigeons and pellets. Behaviourist theory, however, contributed a great deal to the study of psychology. The basics of this theory can be explained and even demonstrated in the classroom.
Behaviourist theory was developed by John Watson in the early 20th century. In his view, other psychological theories of the time -- such as those proposed by Sigmund Freud -- focused too much on unobservable phenomena such as consciousness. Behaviourist theory made psychology a more scientific discipline, by considering only observable, measurable behaviour rather than thoughts or feelings.
Behaviourists aim to predict and shape behaviour by measuring the effects that stimuli have on organisms' responses. Reinforcement of behaviour, such as a reward given for desired behaviour, will increase that behaviour. Punishment, on the other hand, will decrease the incidence of the behaviour that it is applied to. Reinforcement and punishment can either be positive (bestowing a reward or penalty) or negative (removing a reward or penalty).
Behaviourists used the term conditioning to describe learning. Classical conditioning refers to the learning of an association between a naturally occurring stimulus and a response; for example, learning that thunder follows lightning, or salivating in response to the smell of food. Operant conditioning happens when a person learns that a stimulus will be followed by a response that he has learned to think of as rewarding or punishing. Someone who has a learned fear of thunder may shake with terror after lightning flashes, and many people will start to salivate when their parents call them to dinner, even if they have not smelled the food cooking.
Many behaviourists were extreme in their views, suggesting that observable behaviours were the only things that mattered in the study of psychology. Although some of the theory's more doctrinaire ideas have been largely discredited, behaviourism has made lasting contributions to the field of psychology, especially by establishing a more scientific approach to the study of the mind and an expanded understanding of how people learn.
Demonstration activity: positive reinforcement
Behaviourist theory can be demonstrated in the classroom. Try rewarding students for desirable behaviours, for example, by handing out a sticker or other small item to each student who asks a question during class discussion (without letting the class know that you are studying behaviourist theory). After a week or so, let the students know how much their question-asking increased.
Demonstration activity: reinforcement and punishment
Have your students bring their favourite video games into the classroom - ideally on mobile phones or other handheld devices so they can demonstrate them to their classmates. Have students think about the ways in which these games are set up to encourage them to continue playing -- and even to spend money to do so. What are the rewards for good play? What happens when they do not play well?
Demonstration activity: learning and extinction
Animals can learn, too. Bring two mice, rats or other small rodents into the classroom in two identical cages, that each have a feeder to dispenses pellets when a lever or button is pressed. Fill one dispenser with food, and leave the other one empty (make sure that both animals have another food source as well). Have students observe any differences in how the animals interact with the feeders. Then remove the pellets from both feeders, and see how long it takes for the rodent who was previously getting food to stop pressing the lever.
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- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Behaviorism
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- Manchester Metropolitan University, Institute of Education, Didsbury: Learning theories in the classroom: Behaviourism
- Psychology Live Series: Classical and operant conditioning
- Play with Learning: Behaviourism and games