Pavlov developed the theory known now as ‘classical conditioning’ through the study of dogs.
From his perspective, learning begins with a stimulus-response connection. In this theory, a
certain stimulus leads to a particular response.
Thorndike introduced a theory of learning now called ‘connectionism’.Thorndike emphasised
the role of experience in the strengthening and weakening of stimulus-response connections:
‘Responses to a situation that are followed by satisfaction are strengthened; responses that are
followed by discomfort weakened.’Thorndike proposed that practice also influences stimulusresponse connections. His idea that rewards promote learning continues to be a key element
of behaviourist theory.
Watson introduced the term ‘behaviourism’ and was an important advocate of the approach in
the early part of the twentieth century.Watson called for the use of scientific objectivity and
experiment in the psychology of learning. He devised the law of frequency that stressed the
importance of repetition:‘The more frequent a stimulus and response occur in association with
each other, the stronger that habit will become.’ He also devised the law of recency: ‘The
response that has most recently occurred after a particular stimulus is the response most likely
to be associated with that stimulus
Edwin Guthrie put forward a theory of what he called ‘contiguity’: ‘A stimulus that is
followed by a particular response will, upon its recurrence, tend to be followed by the
same response again.This stimulus-response connection gains in its full strength on one trial.’
Guthrie conducted very little practical research and as a result doubt has been cast upon his
Skinner is probably the best known psychologist in the behaviourist tradition. He identified
the theory of operant conditioning. Skinner spoke only about the strengthening of responses,
not the strengthening of habits or actions. Skinner used the term ‘reinforcer’ instead of ‘reward’.
He was keen to stress the importance of a positive approach to learning involving rewards, but
also understood the value of punishment. His most fundamental principle is his law of
conditioning:‘A response followed by a reinforcing stimulus is strengthened and therefore more
likely to occur again.’ A second principle was his law of extinction: ‘A response that is not
followed by a reinforcing stimulus is weakened and therefore less likely to occur again.’ Skinner’s
work was meticulous and methodical, based upon scrupulous scientific observation and
measurement.He developed strict schedules of reinforcement in his attempt to codify learning
and to establish a pattern of best practice. In his later work, he began to recognise the influence
of mental process which had previously been acknowledged by behaviourists.
Behaviourists see learning as a relatively permanent, observable change in behaviour as a result
of experience.This change is effected through a process of reward and reinforcement but has
little regard, initially, for mental process or understanding.
In the classroom
■ Standard routines and expectations for behaviour can be made clear and reinforced in a
■ The use of rewards in the form of team points, or such like, can be a great incentive to work
hard and to behave well.
■ Punishments, such as loss of privileges, or the withholding of rewards can be effective as
well, although it is widely recognised that a positive approach is preferable to an approach
to behaviour management predicated solely on punishments.