“Using behaviorism to control learning is like using an umbrella to control the weather.”
--Steve Nordby

If this is the case, education is in trouble. For years, teachers have been using behaviorism in the form of punishments and rewards to maintain order in their classrooms. Skinner’s rats and Pavlov’s dogs have led the way for an entire generation of people who focus on the extrinsic side of human motivation; our behavior is merely the product of our conditioning, our motivation purely biological. After all, if humans are just animals, is it really that far-fetched that we should train our children the way we train our house pets?

The theory goes like this: we are born as clean slates or tabula rasa. As we grow, we react to the stimuli our environment provides. The result is a series of learned behaviors which help us to survive and function as living organisms. We are, in short, stimulus-response machines that are motivated entirely by outside factors. If this is the case, education is as easy as pie!

Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments demonstrated that by giving a specific response to a corresponding stimulus, the stimulus eventually elicits a conditioned reflex or behavior in the subject. Taking it one step further, B.F. Skinner demonstrates operant conditioning. In this process, the consequences we administer, based on a behavior, are the teaching tool. Students who get good grades are given money, rats who pull a certain lever are given food. At the crux of these processes is the belief that humans are biologically motivated. We will naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain, try to keep our senses activated, and maintain homeostasis by eating, drinking, or staying warm. We are then motivated to obtain pleasant consequences, or rewards, and to avoid unpleasant consequences, or punishments.

In schools today, many teachers use the behavioral learning theory to run their classrooms. These teachers are easily spotted; their students’ behavior is always either encouraged with candy or some other reward, or is discouraged through punishment or the removal of rewards. The students have no intrinsic desire to complete tasks and quickly learn to focus on the extrinsic reward rather than the ultimate goal of the teacher, the learning. Rather than fostering autonomy in these students, the teacher gives them a most costly lesson: rely on other people and things to motivate you to be successful. Rewards are most effective on a short-term basis, so for a behavior to exist long-term, it is generally necessary to keep the rewards coming. If this is the case, and motivation exists in some of us without promise of rewards, then there must be something else at the heart of motivation.

Perhaps behaviorism has a place as a teaching tool or a technique for severe situations, but it is a temporary protection at best. In the end, if we are to advance, we'll need to develop an intrinsic, more complex system of motivation. We'll definitely need more than an umbrella to weather the storm.

Steve Nordby is a middle school Science teacher who has won several state and national awards for his work with children.