The Major Components and Principles of Behaviorism

Behaviorism is a way of learning where the desired correct response is developed through repetition with positive reinforcement. The ultimate goal of the desired learning starts from a simple beginning and repeats, incorporating positive reinforcement, until the student gives the correct response (conditioning). The educator then builds on that knowledge through additional goal setting. (

Pavlov's Dog Cartoon

Behaviorism dismisses the inner experiences in learning and it focuses on learning as nothing more than gaining a new and observable behavior. In order to teach using behaviorism instructions, teachers condition the students using two major forms of conditioning, classical or operant condtioning. Classical conditioning is a technique used in behavioral training in which a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response. Next, a previously neutral stimulus is paired with the naturally occurring stimulus. Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response without the presence of the naturally occurring stimulus. The two elements are then known as the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response.</span>

For classical conditioning, think of Pavlov’s dog experiement or view the scene from the show The Office.

The Office - The Jim Trains Dwight
In both examples, the subject is conditioned to respond to a stimulus that evokes a response.

For operant conditioning, students are taught using a system of rewards and punishments. Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Behaviorism works by forming the student’s behavior a certain way by using outside stimulus. This stimulus encourages a certain behavior. When that certain behavior happens again, a certain event can be expected to occur. If the certain behavior does not happen, the expected event will also not happen.

To summarize, the main principles that Skinner and current behaviorists believe for learners are the following:
1. Behavior that is positively reinforced will reoccur; intermittent reinforcement is particularly effective.
2. Information should be presented in small amounts so that responses can be reinforced (“shaping”).
3. Reinforcement will generalize across similar stimuli (“stimulus generalization”) producing secondary conditioning.

Major Theorists

Psychological behaviorists
Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)
B. F. Skinner (1904-1999)
Edward Thorndike (1874-1949)

Methodological behaviorist
John B. Watson (1878-1958)
Clark Hull

Analytical or logical behaviorists
Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976)
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
U. T. Place(1924-2000)

What Behaviorist Teachers Do

In the simplest terms, teachers who employ behaviorist theories give negative responses to unwanted behaviors and they provide positive rewards for desired behaviors. This may be the classroom with which most people are familiar. “A behaviorist classroom is structured and has prepared lesson plans each day. The student usually sits in an assigned seat and listens to the lesson taught by the teacher, along with the rest of his classmates." (McREL, 2006) It is teacher directed with the teacher in the role of expert, passing information along to students. Education may be seen as a series of steps that lead a student to understanding.

The behaviorist classroom relies in part upon operant conditioning which utilizes positive reinforcement as a way of increasing the likelihood of repeating desired behaviors. For this kind of approach to be effective it must be used consistently and correctly. “Research indicates that reinforcing appropriate classroom behaviors, such as paying attention and treating classmates well, decreases misbehavior (Elliot & Busse, 1991), and behaviorist classroom management techniques are often effective when others are not.” Behavioral instruction is primarily "teacher-centered" as opposed to "learner-driven." The true behaviorist teacher believes that learning is passive and that students must learn the correct response. The reinforcement for that correct response must be swift and appropriate. Knowledge according to a behaviorist teacher is a matter of remembering rather than acquiring information. Understanding on the part of the learner would simply be a matter of recognizing existing patterns.” (Spearfish School district, 2001)

One of the benefits of this kind of learning is that objectives are clear and over time the learner responds automatically to the stimulus. A problem with this kind of learning is that it is merely conditioning, not true learning. Some argue that it does not encourage problem solving. (Mergel, 1998) In addition, for behaviorism to be effective the correct stimulus needed to elicit a desired response must be provided. This can be complicated in the classroom. The teacher must understand what stimulus will be deemed positive by any given student and there must be no other stimulus that may be interpreted as a positive or reinforcement of the behavior.

If the student/teacher dynamic is one in which a student engages in behaviors intended to gain attention, he or she may display undesired or maladaptive behavior in an attempt to gain the teacher’s attention. This scenario is familiar to everyone who has attended school. A student disrupts class only to have a teacher reprimand him/her. The student has actually received what was desired—the teacher’s attention. It does not matter that the attention was not positive. In this situation, which illustrates a learned response, a teacher may chose to ignore the maladaptive behavior. This removes the positive reinforcer, in this case the teacher’s attention. If the student would be satisfied with the attention of others in lieu of the teacher, all people who may come in contact with the student must understand and agree to ignore the behavior. Without compliance by all who are in contact with the student, ignoring problem behavior will not end it.

What Students Do When Learning Using Behaviorism

An oversimplification of what students do when learning in a behaviorist classroom is that they associate particular behaviors with positive outcomes and avoid other behaviors because the elicit negative consequences.

Students in a behaviorist classroom are viewed as members of an audience with the teacher as the performer. The teacher possesses knowledge which will be passed on to the student. Students listen to lectures, complete worksheets, spend time on drills including software focusing on spelling words, math facts, and vocabulary words. Correct answers are rewarded immediately and consistently. Both acheivment and learning are directed by consequences of student behavior. Students want positive reinforcement, good grades, and they work to achieve them. Classroom behavior is controlled in the same way. Students receive negative responses, such as detention, missing recess, etc., to undesirable behaviors. Negative reinforcement, the removal of the punishments, is also a motivator.

Behavior modification has been implemented in schools with success. A popular way to do so is the contract between a student and teachers. Behavior contracts identify targeted undesirable behaviors, identify a reward for the student avoiding the behavior and also identify a consequence if the child continues to engage in the undesirable behavior. The specific time period during which the contract is enforced is also stated.
Another approach is based on classical conditioning where two events repeatedly occur close together and receive a positive response. The student comes to associate these two events and accepts that his action will continue to produce the desired response or reaction. Teachers may offer rewards such as stickers or candy for desired behaviors or good grades. The student comes to associate his/her behavior with a positive outcome. This type of conditioning is also the basis of animal training. Rewards are consistent and immediate.

Below is a chart comparing the possible results of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, extinction and punishment. It indicates a behavior, the reaction of the teacher and what the reaction of the student could be to how the teacher handles the situation.

Probable Effect
Exhibited behavior
Probable future effect on behavior
Positive reinforcement
Jane cleans her room.
Jane's parents praise her.
Jane will continue to clean her room.
Positive reinforcement
Carmen brushes her teeth after meals.
Carmen receives a nickel each time.
Carmen will continue to brush her teeth after meals.
Positive reinforcement
Rob works quietly at his seat.
The teacher praises and rewards Rob.
Rob will continue to work quietly at his seat.
Negative reinforcement
Jason complains that older boys consistently beat him up, and he refuses to attend school.
Jason's parents allow him to remain at home because of his complaints.
Jason will continue to miss school.
Negative reinforcement
Balin complains of headaches when it is time to do homework.
Balin is allowed to go to bed without doing his homework.
Balin will have headaches whenever there is homework to do.
Jim washes his father's car.
Jim's car washing behavior is ignored.
Jim will stop washing his father's car.
Carmen puts glue on Joe's seat.
Carmen is ignored.
Carmen will stop putting glue on Joe's seat.
Marta sits on the arm of the chair.
Marta is spanked each time she sits on the arm of the chair.
Marta will not sit on the arm of the chair.
Takeo puts Gwen's pigtails in the paint.
The teacher administers the paddle to Takeo's posterior.
Takeo will not put Gwen's pigtail in the paint.
From Walker, J.E., & Shea, T.M. (1991). Behavior management: A practical approach for educators (5th ed.). New York: Macmillan; adapted by permission. //

Examples of Behaviorist Lessons

This type of learning can also be used for more than just behavior modification. Lesson plans can be created using the behaviorist approach. Below are two examples. This behaviorist lesson plan model incorporates direct instruction. The goal is to have the students master the facts and the students are trained for success by having correct answers. The environment and reinforcement (both negative and positive) are emphasized. The first example is an eight step design for a lesson plan based on behaviorism. Following the eight steps is a lesson plan design based on the principles of the learning theory.
The following two examples (eight step design and design format):
(source )

Here is the eight step design:

1. Purpose/Objective – The purpose of today’s lesson, why the students need to learn it. What they will be able to “do”, and how they will show learning as a result are made clear by the teacher.
2. Anticipatory Set (focus) – A short activity or prompt that focuses the students’ attention before the actual lesson begins. Used when students enter the room or in a transition. A hand-out given to students at the door, review question written on the board, “two problems” on the overhead are example of AS.
3. Input – The vocabulary, skills and concepts the teacher will impart to the students – the “stuff” the kids need to know in order to be successful placed in the sequence of the lesson.
4. Modeling (show) – The teacher shows in graphic form or demonstrates what the finished product looks like – a picture worth a thousand words.
5. Guided Practice (follow me) – The teacher leads the students through the steps necessary to perform the skill using the trimodal approach – hear/see/do.
6. Checking for Understanding (CFU) – The teacher uses a variety of questioning strategies to determine “Got it yet?” and to pace the lesson – move forward?/back up?
7. Independent Practice – The teacher releases students to practice on their own base on #3 - #6.
8. Closure – A review or wrap-up of the lesson – “Tell me/show me what you have learned today.”

Below is a design format based upon the principles:
Instructor: (insert your name)
Date: (filled in weekly, leaving out holidays, including testing dates)
Unit/Title: (the title)
Objectives: (Outcomes. What the students should be able to perform, most curriculum specialists recommend no more than four. If necessary, tie into mandated objectives. Sometimes you can pull this straight from the teacher textbook.)
Standards: (Local, state, national and perhaps standardized test standards – these should tie in directly to your syllabus. Maybe list three or four standards. If you can’t find the standard to fit the lesson plan, then you should rethink the lesson objective.)
Materials: (all, and include page numbers if you have time.)
Anticipatory Set: (How the lessons begins, pretest, Q&A, video, lecture. Perhaps begin by showing the students the objectives and the standards, then relate to other subjects or state tests.)
Input: (The sequence of the lesson.)
Modeling: (The examples used throughout the course – teacher created, behavior you wish students to imitate.)
Guided Practice: (Activities done with the class, individual, group, or class work. List these activities.)
Check for understanding: (How you verify the students are on task and beginning to learn – oral response to questions, homework, class work – not necessarily grade-related.)
Independent Practice: (Student does work on own such as seat work, presentation, homework. Use this to verify progress or justify remediation/ enrichment. List these activities.)
Closure:** (A review or wrap-up of the lesson; an explanation of what will be studied next.)