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How to use behaviorism in a classroom

Updated April 17, 2017

Behaviorism has played an important role in both mainstream and special education since the 1960s. Developed by psychologists John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, the core belief of behaviorism is that behaviour is influenced by our environment and can be modified through conditioning and reinforcement. More importantly, as almost all behaviour is learnt, it can be modified to make teaching and learning a more positive and successful experience.

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  1. Use a teacher-led approach. Behaviourists advocate the use of direct or teacher-led instruction in the classroom, such as lectures and presentations. Behaviourists believe that learning is a change in behaviour that occurs as a response to a particular stimulus. This response then leads to a consequence and when this consequence is positive and pleasant, the behaviour change is then reinforced. Therefore, for this process to occur, the teacher must be in control of the environment and able to offer immediate reinforcement.

  2. Break down learning into small tasks. B. F. Skinner argued that the process of shaping, where the program of learning starts from the student's initial knowledge and then moves forward incrementally, is crucial to successful learning. This involves breaking learning down into smaller tasks where students are able to give accurate responses that are continually positively reinforced. Such positive reinforcement is linked to high levels of student motivation. For example, when teaching a child how to read, behaviourists would break this process down into several phonics lessons on consonant clusters, vowel digraphs and so on.

  3. Use drills and memorisation techniques. As part of both the teacher-led and shaping processes, drill techniques and rote memorisation should be used to help students learn specific facts, such as capital cities or a list of American presidents. The teacher can then give students immediate feedback and positive reinforcement on their learning progress.

  4. Use behaviour modification techniques. Developed by B. F. Skinner, this operates on the principle that an undesirable behaviour, such as being disruptive in class, can be replaced with a desirable behaviour by reinforcement. This involves ignoring the negative behaviour in favour of focusing and highlighting on the positive.

  5. Tip

    Develop a clear set of measurable learning objectives for each lesson. Good behaviour should be praised and rewarded immediately. Check student work regularly to provide positive reinforcement.

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About the Author

Kaye Jones has been a freelance writer since 2009, specializing in history, education and mental health. Her undergraduate dissertation was published by the Internet Journal of Criminology. Jones has a first-class honors Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Manchester.

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