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B.F. Skinner: Theories & Impact on Education

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  • 0:01 Learning Behaviors
  • 0:55 Skinner
  • 2:31 Educational Applications
  • 3:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What does candy have to do with learning and behavior? In this lesson, we'll examine the theories of psychologist B.F. Skinner, including behavioral modification and educational applications of his behavioral learning theories.

Learning Behaviors

Imagine you're a teacher, and you are standing in front of a class of students. Some of them are doing what they are supposed to be doing, listening to you. Others, though, are talking or misbehaving or staring out the window.

You tell the class an important piece of information. This information is so big, so life changing, that it's important that the students learn it. If they don't, they likely won't succeed in life. How do you know if the students have learned that piece of information? Can you pry open their heads and see the words you just said imprinted on their brains?

Since that's impossible, you will have to make do with some outward signs of learning, like if their eyes light up or if they are being attentive.

Let's look closer at B.F. Skinner, a famous behavioral psychologist, and what his research on learning can tell us.

Skinner

Remember that you're teaching your students, and some are paying attention, and others aren't. When you want to find out if they've learned what you've just taught, you look for behavioral signs of understanding, like being attentive. You might even ask some questions, and their answers would help you figure out if they've learned what you've said.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner was interested in learning and behavior. Like teachers who have to depend on behaviors to tell them what's going on inside a person, Skinner believed that observing people's behavior was the best way to figure them out.

In Skinner's branch of psychology, behavioral psychology, learning is about changing behaviors. If a student who is talking when he is supposed to be listening to you changes his behavior and begins to listen, he has learned to listen.

Likewise, if you are explaining to students how to add numbers and a student consistently answers with the wrong answer but then begins to answer with the right ones, his behavior shows you that he has learned how to add.

Skinner believed that people learn two different ways: they learn to avoid negative things and strive for positive things. So according to Skinner, if you give a child a piece of candy each time he gets an answer right, he will learn to figure out the right answer in order to get the candy because he is striving for positive things.

On the other hand, if you give a child detention every time he gets an answer wrong, he will also learn to figure out how to get the right answer, this time in order to avoid a negative thing (detention).

Educational Applications

Skinner's theory works well for some things and not so well for others. For example, if a child gives you the wrong answer a bunch of times and then gives you the right answer, how do you know that he has learned how to add and not just that he made a lucky guess?

However, there are some areas in which Skinner's principles work well. Specifically, behavioral modification, or a program meant to change someone's behavior, is a great place to use Skinner's theory in the classroom.

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