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8 February: Behaviourism

8 February 2011

Arising from the Reading Groups:

The basic question posed was, “What are learning theories?” and we very briefly looked at how they might be categorised and what they are good for.

There’s an overall discussion here and indeed this mind-map (which also serves as a table of contents) is based on the same hierarchy.

They are (differing and sometimes contradictory) accounts and explanations of how we learn. It is assumed that such theories have direct implications for how we ought to teach –but really it is more complicated than that. They do not provide recipes. However, drawing on the evidence of previous research (or even just sensitising concepts) does enable the practising teacher to think in a focused about their own practice and the achievement –or otherwise– of their students.

We started our more systematic discussion of learning theories with…


Here is an annotated earlier version of the full presentation, of which we saw only a few slides;

View more presentations from James Atherton.

My summary page on behaviourism is at, with links in the side-bar to other pages on the site and external links in the main body of the page.

If you are searching for yourself (sorry! That’s a bit heavy and existential. I just meant if you are googling), remember that “behavior” will get many more hits than “behaviour”. If you come across anything particularly good, let me know, please.

Books! Look at;

  • SLATER L (2004) Opening Skinner’s Box; great psychological experiments of the twentieth century London; Bloomsbury –on Skinner and the myths surrounding him, and lots of other good stuff in a popular-science style.

Particular issues we touched on:


Here’s a rather sanitised reconstruction of Pavlov’s set-up!

This half-hour silent film, however, is authentic.

Here’s a bit more detail on Skinner and his pigeons and free will…


Pink: What is CBT? It stands for “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” and was developed in the ’80s by Aaron T Beck, building on the earlier “Rational-Emotive Therapy” of Albert Ellis. It has rapidly secured a reputation as the most effective of the “talking therapies” for psychiatric disorders of many kinds. As the name implies, it combines attention to the behavioural processes of learning, habituation, and condition with addressing unwanted and unhelpful thought processes known as ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) See here. And here. Here is the funding story from last week.

I hope the query about the two forms of conditioning is addressed above–if not, get back to me. And yes, we shall relate it all to actual teaching, never fear!

Blue: Negative attention is better than no attention at all. This is the experience of many disaffected students who may–through painful learning from many years of schooling (and of course other aspects of their up-bringing), be convinced they’re not going to be noticed “legitimately”. It may reach the point that they are unable to deal with positive attention, or “strokes” to use the TA term. It’s a bit off-topic but the ultimate dysfunctional state is described well in the first part of this Knot by the sinister anti-psychiatrist R D Laing…

Evaluating different types of reinforcement (Really a pink issue!) We’re only touching on an enormous body of material here, but certainly reinforcers do vary in their effectiveness.

  • To be effective, a reinforcer has to be matched to the subject. It’s no good using smarties as a reinforcer if the subject does not like chocolate.
  • Skinner kept his pigeons at about 3/4 of optimum body weight; they were always a little hungry. There is a law of diminishing returns with all kinds of reinforcers–“Well done!” is a great reinforcer to begin with, but said mechanically for the 347th time it’s meaningless.
  • As our brief mention of “clickers” illustrates, it is possible first to establish a classical conditioned response to a proxy for the actual reinforcer, and then to reinforce with that: see the chicken training video linked above.

How to use reinforcement properly to promote desired behaviour. Good point!

  • Immediacy matters; the reinforcement (or at least a token of it) needs to be within a second or two. So a star at the end of the class (as used in primary schools and special needs classes) is a watered-down form; children may have to work up to such a long delay. I have had discussions in essays from students who say that the fact that a course leads to a qualification after a year indicated that it is based on behavioural principles. It doesn’t.
  • Remember you are reinforcing for specific items of behaviour; “paying attention” is not precise enough. Looking at you or the screen may be.
  • Consistency is critical at least to begin with (remember the passage I read on intermittent reinforcement schedules for later on).
  • (This is a practice point rather than a theory issue) Put yourself in the student’s position and think what the reinforcement will mean to them. It how they receive it that matters, not what you intend by it. If they can’t stand you, being more sociable with them is not a reinforcer.
  • Reinforce for general points first, and then “shape” or focus later; as I advised a correspondent last week, who was wondering how to get her class contributing more:
  • So, in behavioural terms (as the tip of the iceberg you have identified) you may need to find ways of reinforcing/rewarding students simply for answering. At one level that can mean being positive even about wrong answers. So picking up on why an answer is wrong values the contribution, but also provides feedback on the error and can encourage the student or someone else to improve on it. “Sorry, that’s not it, but I can see where you’re coming from… You were thinking of so-and-so, weren’t you? … What about…?” Don’t stick with the one student for too long or else she may feel she stuck her head above the parapet and got more than she bargained for.
  • (That needs something of a culture change in class, where generally people only get reinforced for being right; this is about trying and finding out that failing is part of learning.)
  • Behaviourists are primarily interested in reflex-level behaviour, not thought-out behaviour.
  • So its range of convenience is primarily in skill development; motor skills,  language skills, behaviour management.

And finally, some learning situations are self-contained reinforcement systems, i.e. getting better at doing something carries its own intrinsic reward and satisfaction, as in playing a musical instrument, or perhaps cooking.


Next week

This is what the schedule says:

Cognitive approaches

  • Sotto (1994/2001/2007) ch. 4
  • Armitage et al (2007) ch 3
  • Curzon (2004) chs 6-8
  • Petty (2006) ch 21 (this is the evidence-based practice book)
  • Links in the blog, and anything else you find yourselves…

But I suspect that we shall spend a while tying up the loose ends of behaviourism for the first few minutes, so we’ll do the reading group in the second half of the first hour.

We’ll explore some optical illusions as a way of getting into Gestalt, so if you’ve got any favourites you’d like me to include in the presentation, do feel free to send them to me (although we can’t spend all the time on them fascinating though they may be).

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