Beyond behaviouristic conditioning in teaching

As a student, a teacher, or an adult you’ve probably experience Behaviourism’s Operant Conditioning at some time in your life. Teachers use it all the time to guide student behaviour, and while I believe it has a place I also believe that it can be (and is) overused in the classroom.

Firstly, what is it?

Operant Conditioning is the idea that the consequences of a response determines the probability of it being repeated. So actions and behaviours that are rewarded will likely be repeated by a person, whereas actions and behaviours that are punished will occur less frequently.

In schools this has traditional been used to ensure good behaviour is rewarded and poor behaviour is punished, or is ignored.

Here’s an example

Let’s say we have 2 students in a classroom; Jenny and John. John is a quiet, attentive student who always completes his work on time. Jenny is talkative, rarely completes work and is often distracted in the classroom. How would a teacher handle these two based on operant conditioning?

John would be praised and receive plenty of positive attention from the teacher. This attention may be deliberately overt in order to model what good / acceptable behaviour should look like in their classroom i.e. so other students know what they should do. It may also be inadvertent attention. After all, an attentive student would be more likely to answer a teacher’s questions and therefore the teacher would look to John more than his peers.

Jenny would receive more corrective attention in contrast; requests for her to focus and listen, and demands to see homework could be expected.

Both students would be receiving feedback for their behaviour that attempt to reward or punish them. The teacher’s aim is to guide student behaviour to a point where there is some uniformity within the classroom, and therefore greater predictability of behaviours. With student behaviour being more predictable the teacher may become more comfortable in dealing with the class, and can then progress with their learning plan an given strategies. This final stage is key to seeing the reasoning behind why conditioning is used by teachers; we have a job as teachers to do and conditioning is an approach that can allow us to do it.

Have I used operant conditioning in the classroom? and do I still use it? Yes, and yes. It’s also likely that I will continue to use it. But I don’t believe in its overuse.

What’s the issue then?

Firstly there are more factors to appreciate here than simply moulding behaviour. The simply approach doesn’t recognise factors such as the student’s backgrounds, or whether they like the subject/teacher/school/their classmate.

There’s also the issue of the student’s academic and social strengths. Perhaps Jenny is an extremely social person and needs to discuss ideas and concepts with friends to remember them. Perhaps John needs to replay what he sees visually in his head to remember and make sense of things. After all, research has shown that the brain in males and females develop in different ways and different rates; males typically experience early development in the logical and spatial portions of the brain, whereas females develop quicker in the social and emotional parts of the brain. (Admittedly this is an oversimplification, and the division is not as simple as just male & female).

Secondly, and most important to me, the approach is (at its most basic) a corrective one aimed at ensure uniformity across the class so the teacher can do what they want. Neither of the students are given strategies to develop and learn as a result of their decisions in class, neither of them are supported or being guided academically by the teacher. The teacher has made a plan that they believe will work for all students, devised with a belief that it is the student’s responsibility to absorb and learn taught material. In my opinion there is not enough recognition of the student’s role within the learning process, nor the teacher’s role as a guide for students.

What would I do?

I’m a big proponent of obtaining a well-rounded view of students strengths and weaknesses from multiple sources; hearing student discussions, seeing their work, analysing individual test, and seeing patterns across multiple tests and multiple years. I take note on all of these for each of my students. I’m also big into giving individual feedback on how students can improve or learn better, I like students researching, expressing opinions and giving input, and I try to design classes where I am not always the centre of knowledge.

In the above example then I would have looked at John and thought he could benefit from additional group work, research and peer discussion. I would have seen Jenny as someone that might enjoy this too, but after this was complete I would have encouraged her to balance this with individual written work and some other ‘quieter’ activities. After all, the Leaving cert exams are based on an individual’s written work so this needs to be factored into all classrooms.

Tests and homework would have provided another viewpoint on the students; I could assess what they needed to work on. For example did they have problems with the rote learning of definitions, or with specific calculations, or simply understanding Physics concepts (I’m a Physics teacher). Having identified areas for improvement I’d talk with each student to give a set of things to focus on to improve, as well as strategies to help them if needed. I would track students development over the year and tell them to focus on a specific topic for a week, or have them working on increasing the speed at which they complete questions. My role would be that of an expert helping teenagers improve their learning within my Physics class. It would not be as a content deliverer, although that is an outcome of my approach and what I values as a teacher.

So how do you move beyond Behaviouristic Conditioning?

Personally I think there’ll always be a place for conditioning in the classroom. In the last fifteen years I’ve noticed teacher discussions having fewer mentions of conditioning terms or references. In fact these teacher discussions have become more complex in general and have encouraged the teacher to recognise the inherent strengths of the students. All positive moves away from an over-simplified, teacher-focused approach, that benefits from the use of operant conditioning.

In my own practice I’ve noticed that a combination of classroom (and life) experience, together with my continued research into learning, education and psychology, over the last twenty years have given me plenty of material to build some positive classroom practices.

Conditioning is one of those skills in my teacher’s toolbox, and I’ll continue to use it when needed. But after all my years teaching there are so many more that have a more beneficial effect on student learning and development.