To behaviorists, the mind is a “black box.” In science and engineering, the term black box refers to any complex device for which we know the inputs and outputs, but not the inner workings. For example, to many of us, our mobile devices are a black box. We push the buttons on the phone, select the app we wish to use, and we connected to content. We neither know nor care how it works.
Skinner studied the black box of the mind through his creation and use of the Skinner Box. As digital texts and tools become more ubiquitous in our lives, we must examine whether or not these screens and digital, social networks are becoming boxes in which users are being conditioned, or trained, how to act. Our payment for these trainings resides in likes, notifications, and the shiny, sticky design of these apps.
With a decade of perspective as our lens, we can trace the earliest integrations of technology into instruction and think about behaviorist philosophies in our classrooms. In light of this ubiquitous change, we need to expand our very framing of “technology”, “learning environments,” and the associated literacy practices. Moving past a constrained consideration of “technology integration in schools”, we need to consider the role that behaviorism might play in our digital, social, and personalized networks, but also how we’re socializing youth for these environments.
Behaviorism in our schools
Behaviorist learning theory–– a philosophy that maintains that a well-rounded understanding of the relationship between stimulus and response can promote desired behaviors within an individual, has long been regarded as inconsequential to educators attempting to adapt to the needs of a 21st century learner.
Instead, behaviorism has been replaced by perspectives that promote constructivism, constructionism, innovation, and deeper learning. Despite a resistance to behaviorism, there are many current instructional strategies that remain rooted in behaviorist assumptions.
Behaviorism as an educational learning theory led to the development of several aspects of instruction and learning production, some of which we still use in classrooms today, including direct instruction, lecture, behavioral objective as classroom management, behavioral reward system, positive reinforcement, and individualized instruction, among other notions.
At a visible level, educators use methods to “control” behavior within the classroom or to ensure engagement on a topic. Teachers utilize a variety of strategies to ensure that their classrooms run smoothly and effectively. At a less visible level, we suggest that some teachers’ very inclinations toward technology integration actually reflect a desire to “control” student learning. These behaviorist applications of pedagogy, response, and reward condition a student towards a “correct” response.
Behaviorism and EdTech
We also believe that there are current uses of behaviorism built into the digital tools and social networks that teachers may unwittingly be folding into learning environments. This learning theory has been utilized by many app and software developers as they seek to modify human behaviors and keep them in the environments.
Behaviorism in educational technologies could be viewed as instructional websites or platforms in which videos that explain a variety of educational topics and are immediately followed by a short quiz, after which, based on the outcome, students can assess their own understanding of the video and content material. The results are shown immediately upon completion and provide succinct explanations to help students better understand.
Many of these electronic resources are constructed on a foundation of behaviorism as the students are challenged to complete a problem, place a word in the correct section of a chart, or define a section of a sentence, and if they do not immediately respond correctly they receive a feedback and are given the opportunity to attempt the problem once again. Students will be willing to put forth more effort after reinforcement of higher scores (and thus, positive results). The key is the instantaneous responses and grades, which can be a source of praise or criticism, both of which are strong factors in student performance.
Contracts, consequences, reinforcement, extinction, and behavior modification are all examples of behaviorist applications used in the classroom. However, behavior management is not be the only reason for the ability to view current instances of behaviorist learning theory. More progressive uses of technology in instruction also utilize both gamification and elements of behaviorism. Examples of this show behavior management systems (e.g., ClassDojo) in which a teacher can reward AND take away points dependent on in-class behavior. Sounds and images reflect the addition or taking away of points, so good behavior is easily reinforced and bad behavior is also easily discouraged.
The use of technology, such as spreadsheets, graphical representations of data, and correlation of data for large groups or classes allows students to quickly and easily understand the data being present and effect behavioral change much more quickly than if the student did not have the data presented in different media.
Moving beyond modification
There may be a desire to move from Behaviorist learning practices to Constructivist learning practices through the increased use of educational technologies. However, there are still many learning technologies and platforms that focus on Behaviorist learning techniques, and there are arguments in support of their validity as well. Using technology to give students individualized and group data about their performance is an example of a stimulus (as described by B.F Skinner) that can provide the desired response of student who is more dedicated during class and more willing to study outside of class.
Though there seems to be a desire to shift toward more Constructivist learning practices or a blending of the two learning theories, the research and pedagogy to chart this course ahead remains vague. There are many important factors involved along with challenges to both theories, and it is possible that these trends may be analyzed but put into practice in a variety of ways without any standardization.
There are also opportunities to blend the two theories, for they can be used in conjunction as well while utilizing educational technology. There are many factors to be considered when deciding which theory is more valid in certain practices, including curriculum, assessment, and resources.
There is a need for honest discussion and planning between educators, researchers, and developers of these platforms. There are so many factors involved that this debate seems to fall to the choice of individual educators, or these technologies are foisted on classroom teachers and students without an understanding of the complexities involved.
Overall, Behaviorism, although controversial in the modern educational settings, continues to remain a tool at every educator’s disposal to construct foundations for lessons and help students to succeed. The incorporation of current and burgeoning technologies will further fuel the debate regarding the use of behaviorist instructional/behavior modification strategies, however, these same technologies can help even the most struggling student to succeed and thrive in their educational career. We must ask whether we, as adults, like the ways in which our behaviors are modified by these digital, social spaces. Only upon some honest reflection can we answer whether we want to do the same to our children.
Also published on Medium.