Behavior theory or behaviorism generally refers to a line of educational and psychological theories tracing back to psychologist B.F. Skinner, who broke learning down to fixed processes that generate measurable results. Skinner’s theories, and the scholarship which built on them, had natural applications in teaching, child development and many social sciences. However, many disciplines have moved way from behavioral theory as their go-to philosophy to describe learning and socialization in and outside of the classroom.
One limit to behavioral theories is that people learn in different ways. Recent scholarship suggests that human development is far more complex than once imagined. Albert Bandura, a psychologist at Stanford University, states that numerous factors, ranging from genetics to life experience, shape each individual's optimal learning methods. This means that although two or more people may end up making the same choice on a mathematics test, the factors involved in making that choice could be radically different from one person to the next. Thus, training methods based on behaviorism may work for some students, but fail for others.
In situations where there is a common challenge and observable result, such as mathematics or vocabulary memorization test, a behavioralist approach will certainly help students achieve a positive result. For example, memorizing multiplication tables will lead to positive results on math tests and quizzes. However, students will encounter many other challenges where success is more difficult to measure. Today, scholars largely agree that learning is both behavioral and cognitive, meaning that it is not only important for students to complete tasks, but also to understand and interpret those tasks.
For some challenges, learning methods can benefit from behavioral theories. Skills such as typing and elementary reading and writing will almost certainly improve with repeated training to eliminate errors and develop consistent competence. However, ask students to write a journal about their thoughts on "Charlotte’s Web" or "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and behavioral approaches begin to break down. Each student will have a slightly different feeling about the book, and none are necessarily wrong. The challenge is cognitive rather than behavioral. The student must not only be able to read and write properly, but also understand the text and develop a unique idea about it.
When it comes to more nuanced challenges such as writing and analysis, recent scholarship embraces cognitive approaches rather than behavioral theories. According to Linda Flower, who works to develop new theories about learning and writing at Carnegie Mellon University, task-based approaches fail to consider how students overcome challenges. For example, behavioral theories do not account for how a student’s individual memories and experience relate to how they interpret a book or approach a challenge they’ve never been trained to deal with.
About the Author
Stephen Skok is an adjunct faculty member at DePaul University in Chicago, where he teaches courses in rhetoric and research writing. As a scholar, he specializes in the study of rhetoric and political communication. Upon entering the faculty offices during his first teaching assignment, he was routinely asked which professor he was there to see.
Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images