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Donald Clark

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Behaviourism has influenced workplace learning more than you think

In the first article from the Great Minds on Learning content series, Donald Clark takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the behaviourists.
brown and black animal on water during daytime

A physicist would know of Newton, Einstein and Hawking, while an artist would know of Picasso, Michelangelo and Van Gogh. Yet we in the learning game struggle to name our intellectual heroes.

In the same way we would expect an engineer building a bridge to know about the underlying physics of forces, we should expect learning professionals to know about learning theory.

To be fair, this is made difficult as learning theory is not a cut and dry ‘science’. It has competing schools of thought and a complex history.

Much of this theory is locked up in academic journals, so we have decided to help bridge that gap by providing a series on learning theory called ‘Great Minds on Learning.’

First up are the behaviourists

At the mere mention of the word ‘behaviourists’, you can hear people saddling up their moral high-horses. They are often looking for bogeymen to put in a box, close the lid and label as discredited and dangerous rubbish. But some of their work has stood the test of time and we still have much to learn from them.

What does a behaviourist say after sex? It was good for you; how was it for me?”

Where did behaviourism come from?

Although behaviourism was very much an American endeavour, it had its origins in the British empiricism of Locke and Mill, who saw the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, to be filled by experiences. Locke’s ‘associationism’ saw the mind as having no innate structure and his learning theory was built on laws of association.

Behaviourists also lived in the shadow of Darwin, agreeing with his argument that humans are not the centre of all things, nor God-created creatures. 

All behaviourism came from a real focus on science, the idea that psychology should be a natural science, like physics, chemistry or biology. It needed to be experimental and gather data from verifiable, observable behaviour, not subjective testimony, which they saw as unreliable.

Another origin was Pavlov’s animal experiments on the digestive products of dogs in relation to external stimuli. This took psychology down the route of denying the distinction between humans and animals. Learning was the same in animals and humans. Animal experimentation became the bedrock of psychology and behaviourism, as it excluded the fallible, unobservable, subjective experiences of consciousness.

The measurable responses of organisms as a whole were overt, measurable and testable, with controlled variables. It also produced some real applications for phobias and other behavioural disorders.

Its weaknesses as a method are laid bare in the old joke, “What does a behaviourist say after sex? It was good for you; how was it for me?” Or the cartoon with the rat sitting on a street corner with its placard “Will press levers for food”.

It ignores biology, doesn’t cope with even internal phenomena such as the production of hormones and throws out valuable, mediated evidence. In its search for rigour, it was too reductionist, limited and partial.

It was Chomsky in 1959 that dealt it, if not a death blow, certainly an end to its era of dominance.

Behaviourism’s demise

Behaviourism was seriously rejected by Chomsky, who showed that it could not account for language learning, and subsequently denounced by many other cognitive psychologists. 

Chomsky's Verbal Behavior (1959) is widely regarded as a turning point in psychology, shifting emphasis from hard behaviourism to cognitive approaches. The theory was found wanting as it ignored language, speaking, listening, reading and writing as mediated learning. In the end it didn’t so much collapse as stayed within its very limited reinforcement domain. 

Language acquisition is not behaviourist. For example, the theory does not account for how children can recombine words and generate language they’ve never heard before. 

Learning theory and practice are still soaked in the language of behaviourism. 

Science and technology have taken over

From its roots in observable behaviour, psychology has also had to deal with the simple fact that science and technology now allow us to get inside, observe and gather data from the physical brain.

We have EEG, fMRI, lasers and a plethora of non-invasive, scanning techniques that take us down to the individual level of the neuron, neural networks and direct data from nerves and brain activity.

There is also behavioural genetics, as well as invasive techniques such as fibre arrays that allow us to read data directly from the brain. Elon Musk’s Neuralink monkeys are an astounding example, where a monkey plays the game ‘pong’ via fibres reading electrical signals in the brain.

How is learning and development influenced by behaviourism?

Workplace learning – with its focus on performance – retained behaviourist approaches as it fits more comfortably with training than education. Behaviourism lives on in Mager’s ‘performance objectives’ and Gagne’s recommendation that ‘learning objectives’ be placed at the start of every course. Learning theory and practice are still soaked in the language of behaviourism. 

Another area that has benefitted workplace learning is that suggested by behaviourist BF Skinner, who saw value not just in learning by doing but also appropriate feedback for every response. 

Skinner believed in intermittent practice after learning experiences to maintain behaviours. Spaced, deliberate and retrieval practice all conform to the behaviourist model of making learning stick through reinforcement. The evidence that this works is strong.

In online learning, games and gamification, the focus on trivial rewards, drills and league tables are so purely behaviourist.

A renewed focus on feedback is also a legacy of giving strong reinforcement during learning experiences, both pontiff and negative. Praise for performance (ie. for the work, not the learner) is a behaviourist approach, with nodding, smiling and positive comments.

Also important is corrective feedback. The idea that feedback propels the learner forward and reinforces good practice very much stems from behaviourist theory.

The focus on transfer, explored by Thorndike has also had a long lasting impact. Subsequent research explores the personal and organisational factors that lead to successful transfer, the ability to actually perform what you learn.

Finally, Tolman’s latent learning has also proved to be a powerful idea, especially in workplace learning with a renewed interest in learning in the workflow.

Behaviourism in learning technology

In online learning, games and gamification, the focus on trivial rewards, drills and league tables are so purely behaviourist that one wonders if anyone who designed them is aware of the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. The ‘Badges’ movement is similarly tainted with more than a whiff of simplistic behaviourist-led approaches to learning. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) has also used behaviourist models of the brain to create a wide range of neural network and reinforcement learning techniques. These have allowed AI to achieve high advances in performance, beyond what is possible by humans. 

AI is also being used, through image recognition and face recognition to read behaviour from humans as they learn. This data can be used to provide feedback and optimise their learning journeys.

In Virtual Reality (VR) we now have the direct measurement of head and body movements and eye tracking to read and interpret behaviour in training. This is being used from fine-tuned motor skills in surgery to general behaviour in soft skills and management training.

Behaviourism – it’s not as limited as you think

While behaviourism as a dominant school of psychology is gone, its focus on real data from real people doing real things, as opposed to verbalised testimonies of surveys, remains a powerful force in learning theory.

To find out more, listen to the Great Minds on Learning podcast episode on the behaviourists:

One Response

  1. Behaviorism is a systematic
    Behaviorism is a systematic approach to understanding the behavior of humans and animals. It assumes that behavior is either a reflex evoked by the pairing of certain antecedent stimuli in the environment

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