1.5.2 Behaviourism 1: Skinner's 'reinforcement' and 'conditioning' theories

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

- understand and explain clearly what Behaviourism means

- understand and explain clearly what Skinner means by concepts such as 'reinforcement' and 'conditioning' 

- explain how Skinner's work on behaviourism is applied to education

- critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory

- link this theory to educational practice

What is Behaviourism?

Behaviourism is a branch of Psychology which began in the late nineteenth century with the work of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), and was further developed in the United States by Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949), John B.  Watson (1878-1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). One of its most famous principles is the idea that all behaviour, in both animals and humans, can be traced back to a neurological association between stimulus and response. This idea has been highly influential across many fields, since it offers a way of training animals and humans to respond in a predictable way by creating associations between a stimulus and a response, even when there has previously been no direct link between the stimulus and the response. 

The power of early experiences should not be underestimated, since it can be difficult to erase the associations that children make when very young. These ideas are important far beyond child development studies. Adults also struggle with these unwanted responses: "the notion that learned associations can be dormant but reappear when a trigger is reintroduced has implications for those trying to overcome phobias, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, or learning healthy eating habits" (Gray and MacBlain, 2015, p. 31). Many behaviourists conceive of memory as "neurological connections between behaviours and external stimuli" (Schunk, 2012, p.23) and believe that the firing of these connections creates habitual responses over time.  It is argued that because these responses are wired into the body through reflexes, and not just the result of cognitive activity, they can be particularly difficult to erase.

Skinner's concept of 'reinforcement'

Skinner noted that the relationship between stimulus and response in humans was more complex than a straightforward reaction, as in the case of the automatic responses that Pavlov had observed in dogs. Skinner noticed that in his experiments with humans, if a behaviour is rewarded in some way, then it is likely to be repeated, while if the behaviour is punished in some way, it is less likely to be repeated. Humans, and some animals, can learn that there are consequences of their behaviour, and then modify that behaviour to avoid negative consequences and gain positive rewards.

Skinner distinguished between two different kinds of reinforcers: positive reinforcers and negative reinforcers. A positive reinforcer is something (like a treat, or a word of praise for example) that rewards the subject for demonstrating the desired behaviour, while a negative reinforcer is something unpleasant that is removed when the subject demonstrates the desired behaviour. An example of a negative reinforcer is a rule that says workers who arrive late in the morning must go and speak to their supervisor. A worker who is habitually late in the morning may change his behaviour, and therefore remove the necessity to have an awkward discussion with his supervisor. The two reinforcers have the same ultimate effect, even though they use different means to achieve that effect.

From all of his observations of behaviour in response to different kinds of reinforcers, Skinner concluded that rewards are a much more effective way of guiding behaviour than punishment. They also lead to a more pleasant social atmosphere in which everyone can express themselves. If this atmosphere of anticipating rewards is repeated, it will then, in itself, become a further positive reinforcement on those who are present. Punishment might successfully stop the worst excesses of bad behaviour, but it is not a very effective way of fostering good behaviour.

One complicating factor in this theory is the observation that responses to stimuli are not always consistent, and you cannot always tell what an individual will regard as desirable. The effectiveness of any reward system is highly context-dependent, and it is not possible to make a generic prediction about what will act as a reinforcer for particular behaviours. Furthermore, a reward that motivates an individual on one occasion may not work so well on another occasion.

Skinner's concept of 'operant conditioning'

The technical name that Skinner gave to the learned stimulus/response process is 'operant conditioning', though it is sometimes also known as 'instrumental conditioning'. These terms are used to distinguish learned behaviours from the involuntary behaviours of classical conditioning. In his later work, Skinner theorised that by varying the kinds of stimulus that a person is exposed to in a carefully planned way, it is possible to modify that person's behaviour. It is important to note that many aspects of the environment can be used to achieve this purpose, including financial reward systems for completing tasks well and fines for failure to complete tasks, verbal praise, approval and status for certain behaviours that are considered desirable by the group or organisation, and criticism or disapproval for other behaviours that are not considered acceptable.

How does Skinner's work apply to Education?

Skinner's work has been very influential in education, and many of his concepts have been translated into teaching and learning strategies that are based on the core ideas of reward and punishment. Feedback is the most common reinforcer that is used in most classrooms and it is used to encourage some behaviours and discourage others. Teachers reward learners in many ways when they behave in a way that is appropriate and helpful, while also enforcing a small but clearly defined set of classroom rules which will lead to negative consequences if they are broken. Most behaviour management systems involve some degree of behaviourist thinking, as indeed the very term "behaviour management" suggests.

Another of Skinner's ideas that has proved very popular in education is that of the 'token economy'. It is impractical to keep up a constant stream of primary reinforcers such as food or money to motivate learners in an educational context.  Skinner suggested that it is possible to use tokens instead, such as for example stickers, stars, ticks, grades, or team points. When these specific symbolic rewards are linked with attention, smiles, and praise from the teacher they act as generalised reinforcers. They can also be linked to tangible rewards such as treats or privileges, and learners can be encouraged to collect the tokens and perhaps exchange them later for these real rewards. These real rewards must be something that the learners find desirable, and there must be a balance between having to work hard to achieve them, and making them achievable. If learners do not value the reward, or if they think it is beyond their reach, the reward will not act as a reinforcer and may even encourage resentment and reduced commitment from the learner.

What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?

The main strength of this theory is its contribution to our understanding of the way all animals, including humans, have both automatic and learned responses to the environment. Behaviourism in the sense it was understood by Skinner has also been extended into many different areas of education, and it has made him one of the most famous psychologists of all, on a par with Freud in terms of the influence he has had on other theorists. Another strength of this theory is the useful range of experimental methods that it has brought into use, including not just animal tests, but also exercises and tests designed to explore the responses of learners to different kind of teaching-related stimuli.

Although the strengths mentioned above can be useful in education as strategies to encourage and motivate learners, behaviourism has some serious limitations as a theory of learning. According to Whitebread (2012, p. 115) "the fundamental problem with the behaviourist approach was that it characterised learning as an essentially passive process, consisting of forming simple associations between events, and being dependent upon external rewards or reinforcements". In other words, behaviourism may be an adequate model for describing the way rats and pigeons behave, but it cannot account for the much greater range of creative, playful and sometimes obstructive behaviours that primates and humans exhibit, when exposed to stimuli that are intended to provoke certain behaviours. Every adult who deals with young children knows that their response to the same stimulus can vary enormously from one occasion to the next. Sometimes, it is possible to work out why a child will follow instructions to complete a writing task on one day, but refuse to do so the next. She may be anticipating a school trip to the park on the first day, and eager to please her teacher so that the trip can begin sooner, for example, and she may be feeling tired on the next day. Perhaps she feels this task is too boring, or she wants to continue chatting with her neighbour, rather than focusing on her writing. Sometimes, however, there is no obvious reason why a learner behaves in a particular way. Any number of factors can influence how a learner feels, or what they are thinking, and these factors influence how they behave. This means that Skinner's method of close observation can only ever be a partial explanation of human behaviour. There are other dimensions, factors and processes, including especially emotional and cognitive processes, that this theory cannot explain.

Another weakness of behaviourism in education lies in the way it emphasises the accomplishment of tasks in an automatic way, without any requirement for deeper understanding. This can be problematic in subjects like Mathematics when learners move on from elementary levels and start to tackle more advanced levels. Simple concepts often build into more and more complex ideas. Learners who can correctly carry out addition or division, for example but who do not really understand what this means, can quickly become lost when these activities become part of more complex calculations.

How can this theory be linked to practice?

Behaviourist theory can be applied to many areas of teaching practice. Most teachers find that using patterns, drills and repetition can help to establish a regular routine and consolidate basic skills. Even adults can benefit from regular question and answer routines with instant feedback, or from quizzes and tests which check whether some learning content has been mastered. Some learners are motivated by good marks in such exercises, and competition between learners can also encourage hard work and good behaviour. Other learners are fearful of tests, however, and instant feedback can be negative for them, because they have had past experiences of failure.

Educators must use behaviourist principles with care because as we have seen above, the same stimulus can have very different effects on different learners. It has been noted, for example, that "those who benefit most from approaches based on behaviourist notions are those who are less well motivated, have high anxiety or a history of failure … Bright children can find programmed instruction or simplistic drill and practice situations unsatisfying and even boring" (Pritchard, 2014, p. 12).

The two most obvious ways in which behaviourism is linked to practice in schools today are in the field of behaviour management, which was mentioned above, and in computer and web-assisted learning programmes (Dede, 2008). The ability to programme all kinds of feedback and rewards into a digital learning tool can make it very useful as an aid to modifying behaviour.


This chapter has shown that Behaviourism was notable for its insistence on using scientific methods of observation, and it dominated educational theory in the first half of the twentieth century. Skinner is one of the most famous psychologists of the twentieth century, and he developed behaviourism as a theory for modifying human behaviour. This theory stresses the role of the environment, and the associations that are made between the individual and events in that environment. It is useful for teaching classroom routines and basic material, but it has many limitations, since it does not foster deep understanding, and reinforcers do not always have the same effects.


Dede, C. (2008) Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. In J. Voogt and G. Knezek, (Eds.), International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education: Part One. Enschede: Springer, pp. 43-62.

Gray, C. and MacBlain, S. (2015) Learning Theories in Childhood. Second edition. London: Sage.

Pritchard, A. (2014) Ways of Learning: Learning Theories and Learning Styles in the Classroom. Third Edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Schunk, D. H. (2012) Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. Sixth edition. Boston. MA: Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1965) [1953] Science and Human Behavior. New York: The Free Press. Originally published by Macmillan.

Whitebread, D. (2012) Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Education. London: Sage.

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