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Theoretical Perspective on Behaviorism and What an Effective Teacher Understands

by Catherine Donges, studioD

Effective teachers understand that best practices are rooted in the ability to apply theoretical principles into both their daily interaction with students and into their planning and implementation of instruction. Behaviorism is a form of learning theory that offers specific assistance to teachers in developing instructional strategies. However, it also has limitations that make it impractical to use in some situations. Effective teachers understand that no one theory explains all student learning.

History of Behaviorism

Behaviorism is one of the oldest forms of learning theory and is based on the assumption that the only scientific way of studying human psychology is through direct observation of behavior. Speculations about motivation and underlying thought are not scientific because they cannot be observed or measured. The earliest forms of behaviorist research examined animal behavior. Pavlov's experiment with eliciting salivation in dogs with sound cues was an example.

Behaviorism in Education

Some students are reinforced by good grades.

George Brown, author of "Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education" and "How to Learn," defines learning as the modification of behavior brought about by experience. When teachers set learning goals and formulate measurable objectives, break down tasks into easier, prerequisite skills and reward students accomplishments with praise and good grades, they are using behaviorist principles.

Positive Implications for Practice

Frequent drill and practice of basic skills leads to increased accuracy and automaticity.

According to the Teacher’s Resource Center of the University of California Berkeley, behaviorism relies heavily on drill and practice in order to insure that the learning takes place and has proven most effective in areas where memorization is required and where there is one right answer. It is logical, therefore, that teachers use behaviorist practices in assisting students to acquire basic skills. For example, a teacher might instruct students in how to multiply, provide them with worksheets multiplication facts and time them. The goal is for the student to increase accurate responses while building the ability to recall the facts quickly, rather than stopping to figure out the answers. There are also times when it is the preferable teaching approach because it relies on teacher-centered, direct instruction. Students who have gaps in background knowledge and students who have learning disabilities often have difficulty inferring information, using reasoning and applying what they learn in one area to another -- all skills common to other learning theories. By using direct instruction, the teacher insures that what the students learn what they need to know.


Teachers who use behaviorism as their primary theory do not teach students to think critically, solve problems, apply knowledge to new situations, innovate or evaluate their experiences. Furthermore, pure behaviorists ignore the social aspects of learning and key skills, such as collaboration and communication. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an organization devoted to helping students be ready for entry into the global economy, these skills are critical to a student's ability to function in today's innovative society. Teachers may find they need to take a more eclectic approach in implementing instruction that fosters a well-rounded knowledge base and needed skill sets.

About the Author

Based just outside of Harrisburg, Pa., Catherine Donges teaches adjudicated adolescents in a residential treatment facility in York, Pa. Donges earned both her Master of Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Wilkes University and a Master of Science in education from Capella University and has written both a women's fiction and a young adult novel.

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