We are all familiar with Pavlov’s dogs. Measuring saliva, ringing bells, dogs eating… Okay, that is a very brief description of the famous experiment, A brief description maybe, but it does remind me of a few lesson plans. Remember the “times table”?

Back in the day, row by row, each child had to recite the “times table” of the number that came up on his or her turn. 8 was the worst one for me. Anyway, if you got the times table right by reciting it all of the way up to X (your number) times 12, you received candy. If you made a mistake, you received no candy. Not exactly an operant conditioning chamber or “Skinner Box” where rats would press on a bar to receive food (positive reinforcement) or receive an electric shock (negative reinforcement). Nonetheless, you wanted to get it right.

Students started to ask if they could get candy when they answered other questions correctly, in other subjects…social studies, science? Why not? It worked for the “times table”. Good thing there was no electrical shock.

Many believe that studying behaviorism is important to understanding learning theory. In fact, some believe that is an essential core component of the learning process. Ormrod (2016) states: learning processes can be studied most objectively when the focus of study is on stimuli and responses.

Both classical and operant conditioning are fundamental components of behaviorism because both concepts provide insight into how humans learn. I have engaged some of the principles connected to operant conditioning in my role as an instructor. We all have. Reward behavior that you want to be repeated.  This is based on the operant conditioning principle that behavior can be modified by manipulating consequences of actions.

In schools, we see behaviorism when teachers are testing specific skills usually in a one-to-one situation or a small group. The teacher will use verbal praise or other positive responses. Another way teachers incorporate behaviorism is to use a point or sticker system to reward students for good behavior or good academic performance.

Educators are very accustomed to point systems, giving stickers, and other methods of positive reinforcement, but what of negative behavior? What about the use of punishment to change negative behavior? Corporal punishment can be seen as a “behaviorist” action in terms of school discipline. Students misbehave. Students get paddled. When asked, most educators will say that the school discipline system is intended to change inappropriate student behavior. According to the Washington Post (2014), 31 states have banned corporal punishment and the following states still allow it: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.

Behaviorism’s focus on tangible behavior, stimuli, and responses make the principles of learning more accessible and applicable in real-life contexts. While there is a discussion on how to define learning, I believe that learning should always be accompanied by behavior change. Therefore, human behavior should be at the center of learning about learning.

Contributors to the behaviorist learning theory include: John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, E. L. Thorndike, and Albert Bandura


Ormrod, J. E. (2016). Human Learning, Global Edition. Pearson Education UK.

Skinner, B.F. (1950), Are Learning Theories Necessary? Psychological Review 57:193-216

Strauss, V. (2014, September 18). 19 states still allow corporal punishment in school. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from