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Behaviorism Theory in Education

Behaviorism is an approach to knowledge discovered by John Watson in the early 20th century. This theory states that our behavior is separate from the way our mind operates, therefore, learning is acquired through observation and reinforcement. Behaviorist learning theory is also referred to as direct instruction. Following are some behaviorist techniques that are ideal for use in childhood education.

Overview of Behavioral Theories
Behaviorism, along with several newer variations that have names like information processing theory, emphasize the learning of facts and skills that authorities, such as teachers or school boards, have decided are important. While these theories have many different names we will use the term behaviorism here. Names associated with behaviorism include John Watson, an American psychologist who was very influential in the 1920s and 1930s, and B. F. Skinner (, another American psychologist who had a tremendous impact on education in the 1950s and 1960s. Behavioral approaches to teaching generally involve the following:

1. Breaking down the skills and information to be learned into small units.

2. Checking student's work regularly and providing feedback as well as encouragement (reinforcement).

3. Teaching "out of context." Behaviorists generally believe that students can be taught best when the focus is directly on the content to be taught. Behavioral instruction often takes the material out of the context in which it will be used.

4. Direct or "teacher centered" instruction. Lectures, tutorials, drills, demonstrations, and other forms of teacher controlled teaching tend to dominate behavioral classrooms.

General Implications of Behavioral Theories
Behavioral teaching and learning tends to focus on skills that will be used later. You learn facts about American history, for example, because it is assumed that knowing those facts will make you a better citizen when you are an adult. You learn basic mathematics computational skills because you may need them when you get a job. Behavioral learning does not, however, generally ask you to actually put the skills or knowledge you learn into use in a "real" or "authentic" situation. That will come later when you graduate and get a job.

The behavioral emphasis on breaking down complex tasks, such as learning to read, into subskills that are taught separately is very common in American schools today. In the elementary school classroom, for example, students may spend many lessons on phonics skills such as consonant clusters, vowel digraphs, and diphthongs. Other literacy skills such as appropriate uses of the comma may also be taught in separate lessons, often by whole class lectures followed by individual drill activities.

Types of Instruction of Behavioral Theories
Behavioral theories support a number of different approaches to teaching. Almost all of them fall under the general category of "direct", or "teacher-centered" instruction. The approaches include tutorials, drill and practice, behavioral simulations, and programmed instruction. An approach that combines all these teaching strategies into one "system" is called an "integrated learning system" or ILS.

The sections below explain several popular types of behavioral instruction. The explanations are, however, very brief. You may want to explore the links in each section that take you to examples of the different types of software. "Playing" with the software will give you a much better feel for what drill and practice or behavioral simulation software are.

Examples of Behavioral Theories Classroom Activities
- Drill
- Games
- Tutorials
- Programmed Instruction
- Simulations
- Graphic Organizer/ Semantic Web
- Integrated Learning Systems


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