2. Behaviourism: The Operant Conditioning Approach

Behaviourism supposes all behaviors are responses to certain stimuli in the environment, or consequences of the individual's history. Although behaviorists generally accept the important role of heredity in determining behavior, they focus primarily on environmental factors.

B.F. SkinnerThe theory of behaviourism and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning puts an emphasis on external stimuli as the best way to change behaviour. It advocates rewarding the desired behaviour with external stimuli. As a matter of interest, Skinner was not a big advocate of punishment. He instead advocated reward far more than punishment to bring about behavioural change.

We use behaviourism all the time. From our early years trying to get rewarded with good grades in school, to job training bonuses, to parents saying: “If you are good kids we can all go for ice cream.” Behaviourism is an engrained part of Western culture.

“Skinner believed that we do have such a thing as a mind, but that it is simply more productive to study observable behavior rather than internal mental events.”

Importantly, Skinner’s operant conditioning using rewards is an approach that is not interested in “internal mental events.” His approach says the best way to change observable behaviour is through external stimuli. By his argument then, we need to focus on building the “external side” of the VVSE formula, introduced in Section Four.

Undoubtedly external stimuli encourage our learners to come to our programs. How? Well, our adult learners may need to get a job, enter a training program, or maybe want to help their children with homework. All these goals will require better literacy for our learners—even though our learners may have avoided, even feared, reading and numeracy up to now. There are countless external reasons why our learners come to us. Rewarding their behaviour in what is probably a threatening environment for them—at least initially—can be extremely helpful.

But there are limitations to this approach.

Skinner argues for rewards to build external motivation, but can we really assume driving straight to a singular goal is the “one best way”? External rewards and success are crucial in our teaching, but our VVSE motivational formula asks for balance between external and internal factors, as seen below.

V+V-S+E Formula

This visual depicts the two types of motivational influences that every learner experiences. On one hand—the external side of the VVSE formula—learners typically enter our programs with some degree of volition, meaning a level of desire to achieve something. In our case, learners normally come as a result of some external, goal-oriented motivational influences. And, they typically bring a sense of value, meaning they value our program…or they are at least valuing it enough to join. But they will typically join with a degree of skepticism. They are typically saying to themselves: “I know what I want. I know why I need this. I really hope this program will do it for me. But, if it isn’t the answer, I can always quit.” So, they enter the program…come in the door, so to speak. Now what? It is over to us. What should we do?

Wlodkowski says we need to engender an internal sense of success—both short and long term. Here we have the other side of the VVSE formula. The learners have brought their sense of volition and value. Our job is to help them fulfill their hopes by trying to build a learning process that is adult in nature. Not a repeat of the worst of their schooling experiences, not a repeat of the negative memories so many have retained—as they likely have shared during the intake inventory discussion you had earlier with them.

But how can we do this?

We all understand rewarding good behaviour…but internal motivators? What do those look like? The fact is there are countless implicit and overt ways to achieve enhanced internal motivation on a daily/weekly basis. Wlodkowski puts this part of our job into two simple words: success and enjoyment.

It comes down to this: do our adult learners really want to come back? Are they actually enjoying this program and our interaction with them? Do they show some signs of success? If we can creatively and innovatively create a true sense of enjoyment for the learner; if we can engender an increasing desire to learn and come back each day or week to engage in our program; if we can authentically build a learner’s sense of success and accomplishment so they can see they are achieving what they came for, maybe saying “This isn’t so bad!”, then we are doing our job.

Despite Skinner’s strong advocacy of reward, the internal side of the VVSE formula can be far more significant in a learner’s life. Internal motivation can be life-changing for adults. This side of the formula can bring about what has been called “deep learning.”

In short, we need both sides of the formula to succeed.

What learners bring and what we as teachers and tutors add is the key to success. At the risk of over stating it, here is the formula once again (reinforcement is good!).

V+V-S+E Formula