Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Behaviorist Theory & Instructional Strategies

As our video presenter indicated, behaviorist theory relies on reward and punishments-- the basis of operant conditioning. While we are not resorting to shock collars and food pellets, we do essentially the same thing with our words and actions in the classroom. In the text, a major focus is on providing appropriate feedback. When we give a simple "good job" or "that's correct," we have just given a small positive reward to encourage that behavior. Similarly, when we enact any of our stated-and-posted classroom rules/policies/practices due to some misbehavior, there is a negative consequence.

For me however, student success in my subject area (high school math) cannot be just about getting the right answer and small behaviorist viewpoints on teaching & learning. In all my lessons, I seek not only to educate students in the content, but to also help them regain their lost abilities of: being curious, wanting to learn, needing to know "why," and striving to succeed. I wish there were a way I could help students survive 5th-8th grade without that joy of learning being squashed out of them. It is a big job to dig it back out once it has been put away!

However, behaviorist theory can still help me in this quest, for it is often a student's perception of their abilities that controls their actions. Most of us will avoid doing things that make us look foolish, awkward, or stupid. For teenagers, that list of "things" can be almost infinite, and school tasks are no exception. So, I ask a lot of "duh" questions during class- if a student finds themselves thinking "duh" when I ask the question, it means they are probably right! This leads to a series of personal successes that build self esteem and confidence. Then, I work to help students transfer that success into bigger successes with problem solving and increased test scores. That whole process is operant conditioning-- the gradual reinforcement of desired behaviors to encourage those behaviors to be repeated.


  1. As a math teacher myself 7th and 8th grades (certified 7-12) I do not know how to respond to that we squash out all of the willingness for students to learn. I will say this in the state of Ohio these grades are when they do most of their state testing. We have to have a lot of material in so the students can pass their graduation test in the tenth grade. When I taught senior math I did not have to get near the same material in and it was a much more relaxing. Have you ever taught or sub at these levels?

  2. I've taught all grades 7-12, and our curriculum has greater and greater requirements as the years go. About 2 years ago, the State upped the graduation requirements to require all students to take advanced algebra. This has met with so many problems, that they are now backpedaling to allow different options for students. There is simply too much material. Our big standardized tests happen about every other year- 8th, 9th, 11th grades are some of the big ones. Soon, that will be 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, with the new State requirements, so students never get a break from the constant testing.

  3. Also, I do not mean to imply that the teachers are responsible for the squashing! Much of it is simply the system- suddenly grades matter, and learning isn't the goal any more- it is all about making points.

  4. Hi Karma,
    I am also confused---about the squashing in the middle school level. I realize you probably did not mean it the way it sounds, but many of us middle school teachers would take great offense to that statement. I am a teacher in Montana, 7th grade geography and 8th grade honors. Our school did just win an award of 30,000dollars for our test scores---but, you should see how all the teachers in our school teach. Inquiry based lessons, cooperative groups, lots of technology, etc. etc., and yes---Learning is our Goal!

    By the way, love that you dressed the part for your class lesson. Sounds like a fun lesson! I am always doing things like this in my class. Have a great week.