So proud of my collaboration with amazingly smart Team One in the MIST Program @CSUMB. We had less than a week to read multiple theoretical research articles and formulate an opinion on Behaviorism theory in Education. We hammered out this collaboratively written op-ed in less than three days despite hectic schedules. We require that you listen to The Wall while reading, however.

By Karin Pederson, Sondre Hammer Fossness, Shwetha Prahlad, Russell Fleming and Stacey Knapp

“Wrong, Do it again!”
“If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you
have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”
“You! Yes, you behind the bikesheds, stand still laddy!”
Lyrics from The Wall, Pink Floyd (1979)

Pink Floyd’s lyrics memorialized a behavioristic educational perspective in this description of an English boarding school: “Wrong, Do it Again! If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding.” Early educational interpretations of the behaviorist model went as far as to include physical punishment as a behavioral deterrent—whether “stand still laddy” in Floyd’s lyrics imply a schoolyard paddling or not is unclear, but what is clear now is that, in its most extreme form—physical punishment— the behaviorist model no longer has a place in American educational systems. Despite this controversial past, instructional designers should take a second look at this historical framework in order to understand the powerful impacts and implications of the “conditioned response,” a central tenet of behaviorism. Without this understanding, educational technology products and instructional design could inadvertently be delivering a deleterious effect on learning.

While the 21st century educational landscape has erased physically “unpleasant” consequences, the behaviorist model is alive and well as demonstrated by the rampancy of meritocracy throughout our educational landscape. Skinner’s (1938) premise that an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence, and unpleasant consequences are not likely to be repeated (Thorndike, 1898) continues to hold value today. So if we leave a trail of positive feedbacks, then the learner will follow the path paved by rewards (and badges!) and avoid the pathways that lead to failure.

Not so fast! Designers should consider a few key behavioristic concepts, especially when creating merit-based learning environments:

Rewarding Laziness
The quiz is nothing new to classrooms, but the instant-feedback customizations possible in online educational environments require a deeper consideration of behavioralism than pen and paper quizzes of yesterday. Learners answer wrong, ‘and then what happens?’ For example, many online quizzing systems give students a chance to correct their own answer immediately after their first response. In practice, this means that it is fairly easy to click through a test and achieve high scores. From a behavioristic perspective, the student will experience a positive reinforcement in the form of a good grade regardless of their preparation. (Why read, if I get an A without reading?) As a result, negative reinforcement (the bad grade) is weakened and the potential for a positive reinforcement for under-preparation is strengthened.

Skinner introduced the principle of “operant conditioning,” which was based on Thorndike’s “Law of Effect” that states: a behavior followed by pleasing consequences is likely to be repeated. So what if incorrect behavior leads to pleasing consequences? By removing all negative reinforcement, it can be argued that, from a behavioristic perspective, the design encourages the “try and fail” method instead of making sure that the answer submitted is correct by reading over the material once more. In other words, students get pleasant consequences from lazy behavior.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution
Behaviorism in practice will ultimately be influenced by learners’ intrinsic motivation. And identifying positive rewards in context specific learning scenarios can be challenging. (While first grade students may find a trip to the candy jar or reading bean bag motivating, what motivates a highschool student?) Therefore, the learning outcome achieved by learners may vary greatly from student to student depending on intrinsic motivation. Such an uncertain variable makes behaviorism fall short as an all encompassing tool for learning, either in classroom or online.

Another important consideration for instructional designers to consider is whether or not receiving extrinsic rewards or punishments might become the rule of life for students. Researchers point out that students may require validation for every task, or expect positive reinforcements for even minor tasks which might not always come with a reward. In this situation, a student might stop caring or feel unmotivated to finish the homework if s/he does not get a reward.

Undesirable Rewards
Morrison (2007) explains that an individual may not particularly be interested in certain kinds of positive reinforcements. If “candies” are used as rewards for every correct response, then if the student was not “particularly interested in candies,” (p. 211) it might not be the best motivation for students to strive for (and, ideally obtain) correct answers. The author further argues that unless the student “could be given the choice between a number of different reinforcements so that they could choose one that was desirable for them” using particular positive reinforcements might not produce the intended result (Morrison, 2007, p. 211).

Pink Floyd’s famous refrain “We don’t need no education” was an unintended consequence of behavioralism in Britain’s 20th century educational system, and the album reached number 1 on the U.S. Billboard by 1980, eventually becoming one the top five greatest selling albums of all time. Instructional designers need to take a second look at behaviorist theory and consider unintended consequences when designing merit-based systems, or risk becoming as Floyd’s lyrics warn: “just another brick in the wall.”

Pink Floyd. (1979). The Wall. Los Angeles: EMI. (1979)

Reiser, R. A., & Dempsey, J. V. (2017). Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (4th Edition). New York : Pearson.
Thorndike, E. L. (1898). Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 2(4), i-109.

Morrison, Aubrey (2007): The Relative Effects of Positive Reinforcement, Response-Cost, and a Combination Procedure on Task Performance with Variable Task Difficulty. The Huron University College Journal of Learning and Motivation: Vol. 45: Iss. 1, Article 12.