Reforming Like a Behaviorist, Part 1: Rising from the Dead

Overview: This series argues that many contemporary education reform efforts are behaviorist in nature; this analysis helps us evaluate current education reform efforts from a new perspective. Part 1 offers readers evidence of behaviorism’s influence, and introduces them to five tenets of behaviorist philosophy that are not widely discussed or debated. Part 2 uses what was presented in Part 1 to examine the “personalized learning” movement, demonstrating that this “personalized learning” is a form of radical behaviorism, only rebranded and injected with the big-data steroid of learning analytics. Part 3 examines how behaviorism has contributed to altering the conception of skill, whether in research monographs, policy discussions or the popular media. How this “skillsification” is distorting both the purpose and method of education in very profound ways, and who benefits from this distortion, is explored.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, there emerged a widely popularized theory of learning known as behaviorism. Its advocates offered advice to parents, teachers, school leaders, and even the military. Behaviorism was however an unfortunate early chapter in the history of psychology, as it was eventually deemed to be mechanistic, anti-democratic and immoral.  Soon, behaviorism was replaced with more advanced theories, a transition sometimes referred to as the “cognitive revolution.” In 2015, writing in The Psychologist, Freddy Brown and Duncan Gillard emphasized that stories like that just recounted appear frequently in academic literature and the press.  “It may come as a surprise to some, then, that radical behaviorism — and its science, behavior analysis — are in fact thriving.” Duncan and Gillard could not be more accurate in their assessment: behaviorism is not dead.

So, you might ask, what exactly is this “radical behaviorism” and what relevance does it have for discussions of education policy and school reform? The short answer to the first question is, behavior modification. The short answer to the second question is, everything!

Behaviorism is Thriving  

While rarely mentioned in discussions of school reform, evidence that behaviorism is thriving is relatively easy to establish.  It is evident in recent policy, where, for example, merit pay, competitive federal grants and pay-for-success (or social investing) schemes use financial incentives to modify behavior; educators are all too aware of how federal and state laws have used standardized test scores to modify the behavior of students and teachers alike.

One important example is the U.S. Department of Education’s Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) initiative.  It aims to foster a “positive school climate” by rewarding certain behaviors with prizes and privileges, a set of practices clearly rooted in behaviorist principles, as is the related practice of Response to Intervention. This federal initiative has spawned its own education technology industry, with firms promising to create “positive school culture” with software that “[e]ffortlessly motivates students [and] automatically keeps track of [their] behavior points, scholar dollars, student paychecks, and school store rewards.”  Prominent charter schools rely heavily on behaviorist techniques for regulating all aspects of student behavior in the name of their “character” development, offering some of the most explicit examples of behaviorism applied to teaching.

Let’s take another, less obvious example. The technique of “close reading” popularized by advocates of the Common Core has been traced back to the behaviorism of John B. Watson.  This method insists that literary texts are behaviors to which readers must adapt, that the context of a text and the intention of the text’s author are irrelevant to textual analysis.  Guided by these ideas, it is no wonder that parents were troubled by all the meaningless and confusing Common Core assignments. To I. A. Richards, the founder of “close reading” and follower of Watson: “all mental events — including literature — occur in the course of processes of adaptation somewhere between stimulus and response.”  If this seems odd and robot-like, that’s because it is. Eager to help parents, Watson once urged: “Never hug and kiss [your children], never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.” For Watson, behaviorism was an excellent means to “mold the good worker—not the griper or clock watcher.”  Businessmen of the 1920s loved Watson. This kind of coldness is endemic to many efforts to improve education. In a similar vein, Harvard psychologist and leading behaviorist B. F. Skinner received negative public reaction for inventing the “air crib,” or as one popular magazine of day derided it, “baby in a box.”  This container for infants was criticized for minimizing the role of human contact and affection in child rearing.

Closely related to the emergence of the Common Core in the United States is the re-emergence of Competency Based Education (CBE), associated with what is commonly referred to as “personalized learning”.  Like the Common Core, CBE and personalized learning are premised on behaviorist assumptions. These reform movements mirror the logic of and earlier attempts at developing teaching machines, but are now driven by machine learning software and big data analytics.  In this model, students are continuously profiled based on their assessed abilities and personalities.  From this profile, a “customized learning path” is developed. This “path” continuously responds and adapts to students, making assessment constant; learning credit is earned as soon as the assessment determines the student has mastered a clearly specified, discrete skill.  This vision of reformers is made clear in this picture.  This “innovation” might be called the “edu crib”.

Closely related to CBE is the expansion of online learning and “learning management systems.” In an issue of the American Association of United Professors’ publication Academe, the daughter of B. F. Skinner, Julie Vargas, argued machine learning should be the basis of online (virtual) learning.  And, to take one more related example, the thriving educational gaming industry has long been and continues to be rooted in behaviorist learning doctrines.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that social media platforms track and aim to engage participants in shaping behavior with the fetishizing of “likes”.  There are many other examples, such as the widely touted book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which crafts policy recommendations on the basis of behaviorist principles without mentioning them by name, choosing instead to craft ostensibly less dehumanizing language, such as “choice architecture.”

Before going into more detail regarding the nature of behaviorism and its influence on education policy, it seems worth asking this: if behaviorism is so prevalent, why is it rarely mentioned?[1] At least two facts contribute to this state of affairs.  

First, the trends just tagged behaviorist in the previous section rarely if ever mention behaviorism, use the language of behaviorism, or directly reference its thought leaders. This is possibly because behaviorism has been discredited or it is thought too controversial to mention by name.  And as is so common in academe, new vocabularies are constructed to signify (putatively) new thinking and analysis. New theories have emerged which do not advertise their behaviorist foundation, such as Relational Frame Theory and its therapeutic intervention, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  The popular notion of learned helplessness was a behaviorist invention, but this lineage is rarely acknowledged; “grit” and “growth mindset” also share behaviorist origins never mentioned. And, as noted, charter school management companies’ fixation on fostering student’s “character” through intensive body control techniques has behaviorist foundations as well, yet behaviorism is never mentioned in the charter management promoted literature.

Possibly a more important factor in failing to identify the ubiquity of behaviorist ideas is that its assumptions are becoming deeply rooted in our culture.  Every minute of every day people are stimulated into responding to their devices; corporate managers and school leaders banter on and on about incentives. Our popular culture enthralls us in themes of retribution while we rank Number 1 in the world in the punishment of over two million inmates. The fact is, twenty-first century capitalist-consumer-techno-culture screams behaviorism as “reward points” and “cash back” lead us into more debt.   

How Behaviorists See the World

B. F. Skinner was adamant that behaviorism is not just a set of ideas about how people learn, it is a way of viewing the world, a philosophy to live by.  To fully understand the significance of this philosophy, it will be useful to explore some of its assumptions. To accomplish this well, I need to introduce readers to a certain amount of lingo, as the philosophy is best understood in its “native” language.

Here are five tenets of behaviorism:

All behavior is controlled by the environment: For Skinner and most behaviorists, all behavior is a lawful function of environmental change. The “environment” refers to everything external to the “organism”.  The environment conditions the organism through reinforcement and shaping.  Positive reinforcement rewards a behavior to increase its frequency.  Negative reinforcement removes an aversive condition to increase the frequency of a behavior.  Stopping physical torture of a slave once the pace of work has increased is a form of negative reinforcement, not punishment, because the aim is to increase the pace of work. Punishment differs from reinforcement, as it is designed to decrease the frequency of a behavior by following it with aversive stimuli.  Shaping seeks gradual behavior change through rewarding “segments” of a behavior until the organism “emits” the desired, targeted behavior.  This process emphasizes the importance of “immediate feedback”, to foster reinforcement in “real time.” Importantly, thoughts and feelings are also considered behaviors, no different in principle from walking or speaking.  For behaviorists, learning is simply evidence of adaptation to the conditioning environment. Note that the behaviorist conception of learning mirrors a particular understanding of natural selection found in evolutionary biology, and is also closely aligned with the “Chicago School” of economics and theories of “human capital”.

There is no such thing as consciousness or will: By arguing that human behavior is controlled by the environment, behaviorists deny that human behavior results from consciousness or a sense of social responsibility.  To behaviorists, it is of little value to say that a child selected the correct answer because she “understood” something. Selecting the correct answer is simply evidence of the reinforcement of past behavior.  Put differently, “understanding” or “consciousness” play no role in explaining behavior change. When acknowledged, behaviorists given consciousness as evidence of a person being effectively controlled by their environment: “To increase a person’s consciousness of the external world,” Skinner wrote, “is simply to bring him under more sensitive control of that world as a source of stimulation.”  In his infamous book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner argue that, “A person does not support his government because he is loyal but because the government has arranged special contingencies [of reinforcement].  We call him loyal and teach him to call himself loyal and to report any special conditions he may feel as ‘loyalty’. A person does not support a religion because he is devout; he supports it because of the contingencies [of reinforcement] arranged by the religious agency.”

The aim of social science is to control human behavior.  From the earliest days of the 20th century, behaviorists articulated control of behavior as the central purpose of their work, a theme evident in the above quotes from Skinner.  In fact, “control” has been the aim given to social science by many Anglo-American thinkers, displacing the once common view that science was about developing bodies of knowledge for understanding mechanisms and structures in nature and society. Historians have linked the emphasis on control and prediction to the social and political elite’s worries about social unrest and worker productivity.  The outlook articulated by early behaviorists was, indeed, very favorable to business. John B. Watson argued that the value of a person’s life was measured by money, while Clark L. Hull, another influential behaviorist, modeled his theories on the social structures of the American corporation.

Knowledge is “what works” to control of behavior:  For behaviorists, to control is to know; knowledge existed only as a behavioral adaptation. There is no such thing as understanding of the natural and social world.  The fixation on control means that knowledge is necessarily hitched to power — that is control of the environment to which individuals respond. According to an associate of Skinner’s daughter Julie Vargas, Lawrence Fraley, “data collected during the process of measuring are stimuli which control behavior.”  This exposes the behaviorist logic of “measurement driven reform” trumped for decades by corporate reform entities such as The Business Roundtable.

Democracy and rights are fictions: Skinner’s views of how society should be organized were vividly described in his famous novel, Walden Two. In is fictional experimental society, “the planners” decided everything, because they understood the science of behavior.  While voting took place, results were understood as recommendations only. Neither the planners nor the managers below them were elected.  Doctors at Walden Two, for example, were empowered to demand personal check ups at any time; they were empowered to impose large-scale preventative measures, such as changes in food service.  Members of Walden Two were described as uninterested in governing, satisfied with the limited choices offered to them regarding their own lives, as they were reinforced to be pleasant and content.  The economy of Walden Two used no cash or exchange, only work credits.  In a complementary vein, Ernest Vargas, spouse of Julie Vargas, argued that there “is no intrinsic merit to any right”, that rights are mere verbal conventions, not inherent to human being.  Notably, Vargas challenged the validity of the concept of “informed consent”. Science would have advanced much faster if behaviorists were allowed to experiment on individuals without the restriction of informed consent.  

While these tenets might seem as abstract as they are extreme, understanding their significance for the present will be much more forceful by exploring how these principles inform one of the fastest growing reform movements known as “personalized learning,” the subject of Part 2 in this series.

To be continued.


  1. Thanks to Norm Friesen for pointing out to me that Dreambox proudly tells prospective customers that its “Intelligent Adaptive Learning™” has its foundations in “the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner in the 1950s.”

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