What is behaviorism?

Of the many learning theories that have been postulated over the last 100 years or so, behaviorism appears to me as the least viable. If you haven’t heard of behaviorism, you have likely heard of some of its practitioners. The tenants of behaviorism were developed by John Watson in the early part of the last century. Behaviorist focus not on the inner workings of the human mind but on an individual’s observable behavior. Probably the best known practitioner of behaviorism was B.F. Skinner. Skinner used a process known as “operant conditioning” to elicit changes in behavior of laboratory animals. During operant conditioning both positive and negative reinforcement are used to modify behavior. Skinner found that when a behavior was not reinforced or had a negative consequence, it would become less frequent or even disappear. The problem that I have with behaviorism, aside from the ethical issue associate with negative reinforcement, is that it does not explain higher level thinking. The narrow focus on observable behavior ignores such things as abstract thought, creativity, problem solving abilities and intuition.   Behaviorist methodologies may be effective at training an animal or perhaps even a human being, but provide no insight into the working of the human mind.

Andragogy Versus Pedagogy

Most people, especially those involved in education, have heard the term pedagogy. Pedagogy is the discipline that deals with principles and practice of teaching.   The term is used generally in the context of teaching children. In contrast, not many people have heard the term andragogy. Andragogy, popularized by the educator Malcom Knowles, focuses on adult learning. Knowles believed that adult learn differently than children. Andragogy makes the following assumptions in reference to the adult learner: 1) adults need to know why they need to learn something; 2) adults need to learn experientially; 3) adults approach learning as problem-solving; and 4) Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

On the surface andragogy and pedagogy would appear to be dramatically different. Older pedagogical techniques included teachers transferring knowledge to dependent students, controlling the learning experience, and using fixed curriculum. However, modern pedagogy, especially in the sciences, has much in common with andragogy. A common theme in today’s pedagogy in teaching through inquiry which is similar if not identical to experiential learning. Students also now have a certain measure of control over what and how the learn. Finally, anyone who ever taught children know that they also want to know why they need to learn something just like adults.

Adult Learning and Motivation

Everybody that knows me and even those who have just looked at my website know I am a surfer. I have participated in and excelled at many sports in my life but surfing isn’t one of them. I took it up later in life and in surfer lingo, I would say I am one step above a “kook”. Even though I am not a great surfer, I constantly strive to get better. I watch “how to” surf videos and due flexibility and strength training. To some, this may seem like wasted effort for a middle-aged man but I have a real passion to learn and get better. I know that I will never be Kelley Slater (11 time ASP World Tour Champion) but I am strongly motivated to improve. A small part of this motivation is extrinsic. That is, I do like it when someone says to me “nice ride” but most of my motivation is intrinsic. I am driven by the need to challenge myself and the joy that the activity brings me.

Now you may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with instructional design. Well, I am glad you asked. In a course I am taking on adult learning, we are studying people’s motivation to learn and change. As instructional designers, we are often creating courses, tutorials, and modules to help adults learn a task or skill that they need for their job. Thus their motivation to learn is extrinsic. They want to learn the material to get validation from outside themselves (e.g. a boss, corporation, or school). In his 1969 book The Inquiring Mind, Cyril Houle identified this as goal-oriented learning. While extrinsic rewards (e.g. getting a job or promotion) can be powerful motivators, I personally don’t think they are as powerful as the intrinsic motivation that drives me to learn to be a better surfer. Which brings me to the point of this post. As instructional designers, we should strive to create learning experiences that elicit both goal-oriented learners and learning-oriented learners (i.e. motivated to learn because of a passion for something). If we can do this, we will have not only given the learners a pleasant experience but also made our instruction much more effective.