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The basis of the behaviorist theory is that learning is a passive process where learning is defined as “what people do in response to external stimuli” (Elliot, 2007, pg. 46). Learning is, therefore, the procurement of new behaviors. According to Skinner, knowledge is not used to guide human actions; it is the action itself (Skinner 1976. p152). Behaviorism suggests that in order to learn, the learner needs an active engagement and needs to be reinforced with instant rewards (Sotto, 2007: 35). The more satisfying the reward to the learner, the more the behavior of the learner is strengthened, leading to more comprehensive learning (Skinner 1974 cited in Elliott 2007 pg. 48). The idea is that if a child is rewarded for their desirable behavior, they will be more likely to repeat that behavior. Skinner suggested that educators should primarily focus on positive reinforcements and the success of the learner rather than punishing poor behavior as this weakens the behavior portrayed by the learner (Pritchard, p11). This suggests that a schools rewards/ behavior system is extremely important to a student’s development, as the way the school looks at rewards and punishments can affect the behavior and learning of the students.
Behaviorist learning breaks down tasks into small, progressive sequences where continuous positive reinforcement is given. The theory suggests that without positive reinforcement, the learned responses will be forgotten. The theory relies on continuous repetition and use of the “skill and drill” exercise. It has been suggested that the point of education was to present the learner with an appropriate collection of responses to specific skills (or stimuli) by constantly repeating said behavior which is reinforced by rewards (Skinner 1976) as this is the most reliable way of processing and retaining information.
The issue with this theory is that, although the learners are actively doing tasks, they are receiving the information passively, as the teacher is the transmitter of the knowledge to the learner, rather than actively looking and deciphering information for themselves. Farnham-Diggory (1981, p60) criticized the theory for the “lack of understanding” of what individual learners own learning really involves. Pritchard argued that although positive reinforcement is an acceptable way to practice skills for some learners, for other learners, they may not be motivated by rewards or they may not understand the logic behind it (Pritchard, pg11).
In a behaviorist environment, students are required to do the same activity and work at the same pace as the rest of the class and don’t have the option of choosing their activities or topics. Although this cuts down on the amount of planning a teacher has done to, as they can focus on one topic thoroughly, it can also cause issues with regards to differentiation. When planning and delivering lessons, a teacher needs to make sure that the lessons are at the right level of understanding for each student in the class, which may influence teaching and learn as a whole (Kyriacou, p79).
Some critics claim that by constantly rewarding positive behavior and learning, it could cause some children to lose interest in their own learning (Pritchard pg10). He carries this on further by mentioning that using a reward system could have a damaging effect on students if the focus of the positive reinforcement is on only a few students, rather than the many (Pritchard, pg10). Moreover, positive responses from students following on from praise by the teacher may not be established every time, so the desired behavior may take some time to be established, or not at all in some cases. (Sotto, 2007, pg35.)
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