Behaviourism: Why is so much of education still like this?

Well, for one thing the Behaviourism approach is a good way to drill basic information into little and not-so-little brains rather quickly. My impression is that the primary purpose of education in the last few hundred years (in the industrialised West anyway) has been to prime students to go out and deliver some type of value in the economy. This was a worthy purpose for the time wasn’t it?

Behaviourism is the classic “carrot/stick” approach. The trainer explains the concept, shows how to obtain the correct answer (there are only a limited number of correct answers), and leads the student through various scenarios designed to help the student learn all the different ways to elicit the correct answer. The student gets some positive stimulus or reward (think: a good grade, praise, stickers, badges) for getting the correct answer and a negative one for an incorrect answer (think: poor grades, criticism or even lack of attention from the instructor). We are all familiar with this technique; it’s likely how we managed to cram the multiplication tables in when we were eight years old.

Behaviourist learning techniques are characterised by:

  • Significant repetition to consistently provide positive stimuli
  • Memorisation, learning by rote
  • Valuing observable behaviour and end result, not necessarily the process which got the student to the result

Behaviourism gets a bad rap, perhaps because the leading research is associated with B.F. Skinner’s lab rats. The method can be effective for learning structured material with a correct answer such as arithmetic, foreign language vocabulary, anatomy etc. After all, you don’t need to put a lot of reasoning why 8 x 7=56, or that bone there is called a tibia, you just need to remember that fact to move on to more sophisticated concepts. The disappointment comes when an instructor doesn’t move beyond this method, even when they could.

Behaviourism in action: I remember needing this technique even in university whilst taking my first East Asian History class. Early on in the semester, the professor gave us a test on all of the Chinese dynasties (names and years) as well as basic geography of China (provinces, cities, rivers). We had to train ourselves on these with flashcards, repetitive filling out of blank maps, lists etc. in order to pass the test.

Although this was a university course and we moved on to produce work with more nuanced thinking, knowing these basics was certainly important to understand the 4,000 years’ worth of history we were learning during that term.

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