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
Natalie Boyd

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

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

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.


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).

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Additional Activities

B.F. Skinner

Activity 1:

You learned about behavioral modification in this lesson. For this activity, you get to operantly condition a friend or relative of yours! Pick two behaviors. For example, one behavior may be talking about plans for the weekend and the other behavior might be plans for the week. Your goal is to use behavior modification to shape how much your friend talks about these two sets of plans. Pick one behavior that will get your attention, and one that will not. Guide your friend into this conversational topic. When your friend talks about one of the behaviors (e.g., weekend plans) pay lots of attention, give him eye contact, and act generally interested. When your friend talks about the other behavior (e.g., weekday plans), act a bit bored and disinterested, perhaps turning your attention to your phone. If your friend's behavior changes such that he discusses his weekend plans more than his weekday plans, you have successfully shaped his behavior! (You may want to share with him that this was a psychology assignment afterward.)

Activity 2:

In this lesson you read that punishment decreases a behavior, such as giving a child detention for getting a bad grade or for failing to pay attention. Could there be some ill effects of punishment that go beyond the result that Skinner described? Could there be some negative effects of punishment? On a piece of paper, list three behaviors in a child that you might want to extinguish and identify three types of punishment that would reduce that behavior. In a paragraph or two, discuss any negative effects that might occur as a result of the punishment you described.

Activity 3:

If you have a dog, or have a friend with a dog, use Skinner's principles to teach the dog a trick. For example, if you want to teach the dog to "shake," then say the word "shake," pick up his paw, and give him a small treat. Repeat this many times, until the dog figures out that he needs to hold up his paw when you say "shake," and then he will get a treat. (Do not punish the dog if he does not appear to understand. Animal training should only use reinforcement and never punishment. Just have patience and the dog will learn the trick if it is not too difficult!)

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