7 junio, 2024

Behaviorism in education: what it is, theory, application and examples

What is behaviorism in education?

He behaviorism in education It is the study of observable human behavior, based on external stimuli and responses to those stimuli, in this case, related to the teaching/learning process. It can be applied to improve the acquisition of knowledge of students, their behavior or their attitude towards classes.

Due to this, many of its techniques are still used today both in the field of formal education and in other less regulated areas.

Behaviorism is a branch of psychology that tries to understand, explain, and predict human and animal behavior based on the stimuli present in their environment. In its most radical form, it assumes that all behaviors are either a response produced to an element in the environment, or a consequence of the individual’s history.

Despite the fact that some of its premises have been shown to be false, many of the ideas that emerged from behaviorism continue to be applied in a large number of different fields. Thus, ideas such as reinforcement and punishment, classical and operant conditioning, and habituation and sensitization are born from this theory.

It is impossible to apply all the ideas of behaviorism in education. However, those that do fit within the educational field can be very useful for teachers, educators and parents.

behavioral theory in education

The behaviorist theory is based on the idea that all the behaviors of a person have been learned through a complex system of reinforcements and punishments that has been given since birth. From this premise, several techniques are developed that can help modify the way an individual acts.

The technique most applicable to the field of education is operant conditioning. This affirms that a behavior will be repeated more or less frequently in the future depending on whether it is rewarded or punished, that is, whether the person associates pleasure or pain when carrying it out.

Thus, by modifying the system of reinforcements and punishments related to a specific way of acting, it is possible to influence the behavior of a person to shape their way of behaving at will. This works especially well for children, although it can also apply to adults to some extent.

How reinforcements and punishments work

Operant conditioning is based on the application of reinforcements to the behaviors that you want to promote in a person, and punishments to those that you do not want to be repeated. Both reinforcement and punishment can be «positive» if they involve adding a stimulus to the behavior, and «negative» if they involve removing something.

Faced with a behavior that you want to modify, it is possible to have four types of responses: positive and negative reinforcements, and positive and negative punishments. The first two are used to make a course of action more likely in the future, and the latter to decrease its frequency.

Positive reinforcement involves giving a person a pleasant stimulus, such as attention or praise, when they behave in a certain way. Conversely, negative reinforcement would mean removing something unpleasant from your experience, as might happen when a person manages to stop an annoying sound (such as the alarm clock) by pressing a button.

A positive punishment has to do with the use of an aversive stimulus to reduce the probability that a behavior will be repeated again. For example, a child who gets burned by touching a stove would have received a positive punishment by perceiving the pain.

Finally, negative punishment involves the removal of a pleasant stimulus to prevent a behavior from being repeated in the future. An example could be a father who takes his son’s mobile so that he does not perform a certain action again.

Application of behaviorism in education

The most applicable part of behavioral theory in the field of education is the use of reinforcement and punishment to modify behavior. However, there are some aspects that need to be considered in order to understand how this approach is actually used within the field of teaching.

According to studies carried out on operant conditioning, punishments are much more effective than reinforcements in changing a person’s behavior. Because of this, in the past it was very common to spank a child who was acting «incorrectly», verbally humiliate him, or use any other type of physical or mental punishment.

However, for moral and ethical reasons, in recent decades it has begun to be seen that despite being effective in modifying behavior, punishment of this type can have very negative consequences for children. For this reason, currently the techniques used are usually of a very different nature.

For example, today it is also known that withdrawing attention from a child is one of the most effective «punishments» that exist. Because of this, to avoid unwanted behaviors, one of the best weapons of a teacher or parent is precisely to ignore the negative behaviors of the little ones until they extinguish themselves.

And what about reinforcements?

Despite the fact that punishments have proven to be more effective, reinforcements are also very useful when it comes to modifying behaviors. For this reason, they are commonly used within the field of education.

Using reinforcements in this field can involve anything from something as simple as praising the children’s good behaviors, to tools such as positive grades, or giving small prizes to those who carry out certain behaviors.

Examples of behaviorism in education

positive reinforcement. It means praising a student for correctly answering a question or giving a tangible reward, such as a smiley face sticker or a prize for completing a task.
Classical conditioning. This technique can be applied to establish associations between stimuli and responses in the classroom. For example, a teacher may ring a bell as a signal to start class, which conditions students to associate the sound of the bell with the start of the lesson.
Modeling. Teachers can use modeling to teach students new skills. Showing examples of appropriate behaviors or allowing students to observe an activity being performed can help them learn and replicate those behaviors effectively.
practice and repetition. Exercises and repetitive tasks to reinforce concepts and skills can help students consolidate information into their long-term memory.
extinction of attention. When unwanted behavior occurs in the classroom, teachers can apply the extinction principle to reduce its frequency. By ignoring or not reinforcing an unwanted behavior, students may lose interest in repeating it, which will eventually decrease its occurrence.


Behaviorism in the classroom. Retrieved from learningscientists.org.
Behaviorism. Retrieved from funderstanding.com.
How to Use Behaviorism in a Classroom. Retrieved from theclassroom.com.
Behaviorism. Retrieved from learning-theories.com.
Behaviorism. Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org.

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