The Application of Behaviorism

Thorndike’s connectionism theory posits that “the most fundamental type of learning involves the forming of associations between sensory experiences and neural impulses” (Schunk, 2016, p. 74).  The process of trial and error allows students to select and then connect their learning through a gradual and ongoing process.  Thorndike observed animal behavior, which mimicked a seemingly drill-and-kill, automatic response through repetition, but he recognized that human learning added a layer of complexity that allowed for analysis and reasoning beyond the initial connections.  His Law of Effect focused on the consequences of behavior; subjects learn in connection to positive consequences, while negative consequences decrease a certain behavior. It is worth noting that, based on research, he later revised this Law of Effect to de-emphasize the influence of negative consequences.  The Law of Readiness asserted that students are motivated to learn if at the appropriate developmental level but that “when students do not possess prerequisite skills, then attempting to learn is punishing and a waste of time” (Schunk, 2016, p. 76).  Further, teachers should instruct students in a manner that provides both context and application in order to increase proficiency in order to facilitate the transfer of cognitive skills (Schunk, 2016, p.76).

Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory was similar to Thorndike’s in that it resulted from experiments with habitual associations, or repetitive conditioning.  He found that responses to stimuli can elicit emotional and behavioral reactions.  In humans, there is a level of awareness to conditioning, allowing it to be used as a desensitization, or counter-conditioning, technique.  For example, emotional conditioning could be applied to anxious test takers or young students encountering new environments.  Schunk (2016) explains that activities can represent “informal desensitization procedure” in that “pairing fun activities with cues associated with school may cause the latter to become less anxiety producing” (p. 83).

In the scenario with Mrs. Stevenson, the students who are constantly talking and disrupting class might benefit from the application of Thorndike’s theory.  Thorndike calls for educators to set explicit expectations and help students to form good habits.  The revised Law of Effect implies that teachers should use positive consequences to help reinforce these habits. A norm setting procedure that outlines appropriate behavior and expectations during parts of a lesson would communicate to the students not only the desired behaviors but also provide a context in which the students can connect and understand.  This might be a multi-faceted approach that details these behaviors during whole-group work, partner work, group work, and individual work because the expectations might vary and because the students need to clearly see and distinguish between the activities.  Allowing the students to participate in the setting of norms provides a sense of agency over their own development.  Macallister (2014) posits that this agentic view is in contrast to behaviorist theory, but the personal connection seemingly enhances the meaning and context of procedure in the same manner that Schunk (2016) calls for map skills to be applied in a real-world setting (p. 76).  Further, Mrs. Stevenson should ensure that the disruptive students possess the knowledge and skills required to fully engage with the work so that their disruption is not a manifestation of developmental frustration.  Incorporating formative bell ringers as both a classroom habit and a means to assess readiness would encapsulate the holistic spirit of Thorndike’s studies.

Macallister, J. (2014). Why discipline needs to be reclaimed as an educational concept. Educational Studies, 40(4), 438-451.

Schunk, D. H. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective – With access(7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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