Limits and Successes of Behaviourism

Limits and Successes of Behaviourism

Here are two examples that might make the need for balance clearer.

  • In our local literacy tutoring program in B.C., we had one learner who wanted to improve his literacy skills to the level needed to pass the B.C. exam for a class 4 driver’s license. He wanted to drive a school bus, or maybe a semi-trailer. He had no interest in program “enjoyment.” That was all “kids’ stuff.” He was with us strictly “to get that license and get out.” We were a door he had to get through and move on.
  • We had another learner in the program who simply wanted to improve his literacy skills enough to pass the required English language exam for New Canadians so he could then qualify to take real estate classes at a local college. Like our want-to-be driver, the motivation was all external. He came effectively asking: “What do you need me to do? I’ll do it and go!”

Our tutor(s) could simply have taught to the required exams for both. Why not? Just teach enough grammar and vocabulary to these two learners. Maybe with practice tests and enough memorization so they could pass their exams. What’s to “enjoy”? We are meeting our learners’ expressed needs.

However, without the Intake Inventory, without the ensuing discussion and without a level of nurturing early on, learners can be greatly discouraged to find out a literacy program can take months, even years in some cases. Frustration rises and it is hard for you as the teacher or tutor to “start over again.” Herein is an issue of ethics and professionalism we all need to consider.

Wlodkowski has said we need to meet a learner’s needs. But if a learner leaves only hoping they might now be able to maybe pass a singular test, have we really done our job? If our first learner passes his class 4 driver’s license test, then struggles to read highway road signs or the multiple signs in a town or city, or fails to read company instructions, will he not be a driving risk? If our second learner maybe passes the English language exam for New Canadians, will he succeed in his real estate classes as he attends in the midst of a competitive, challenging college classroom? Are we setting them up for disappointment? Even failure? If they pass the tests but fail to meet their life goals, will they return to our program and try again? Probably not.

The learner-centred approach in this Guide is intended to build self-direction. It encourages us to focus on the objective of helping learners gain the self-efficacy and confidence they need to become lifelong learners. Our learners should leave our programs with the kind of self-direction needed to be able to and wanting to teach themselves as lifelong learners. If our program is a “door,” it may well have to open more slowly than the learners want. The learner should be helped to understand why that is, and why it makes sense over the long term.

Our VVSE motivational formula is a two-part process:

1) We build upon the Values and Volition the learner brings
2) by building an internal sense of Success with Enjoyment.

Literacy education is a process that should build an internalized desire and the ability to engage in self-directed literacy learning for the rest of our learners’ lives. We should not “short-cut” the motivational formula by helping adults meet a singular goal such as passing a driver’s test or passing an English exam. The area of “inner change” is central to self-directed learning and will be discussed further under the topics of transformative learning and social justice learning.

With these limitations and the VVSE formula in mind, let’s turn to using behaviourism. It is highly effective for building external motivation.

Ways to Use Behaviourism

  • Reward matters, but enhancing the desire and ability to be a lifelong learner and widening the scope of a literacy program, as mentioned above, can matter for a lifetime. Although there are many situations where behaviourism can be used, it is often called upon for those learners seeking a job or career—what will be seen as the “vocational stream” in the discussion to come.
  • Here are some suggestions that might prove helpful in the use of behaviourism:
  • Include learning materials at the appropriate reading/numeracy level that pertain to the learner’s vocational goals. Make learning relevant at the right skill level.
  • Try having your learner write their own story of why their particular vocational goal is so interesting to them. If the learner’s skills are too low to write at this point, try having them record their story verbally, with you or as a learning contract. Working with a learner and listening to their story, including why they are seeking certain goals through your program, discussing those goals in the context of the Intake Inventory and helping the learner change the spoken/recorded story into a written form is both non-threatening and can be very informative for you as the teacher or tutor. Then, revisit this story from time to time during the program because this activity can be helpful in building that sense of success. If it works well, try another, different spoken/recorded then written “life-story.”
  • Staying with the vocational track, consider helping the learner build and write a good resume, accompanied by reading materials on “How to Prepare a Resume.”
  • Consider conducting job interview role-play accompanied by materials on “How to Interview Well.” Help the learner prepare for the mock-interview, encouraging them to write down a few “cheat notes” so they have something to refer to during the mock interview with you.
  • Have a guest speaker, who is acquainted with the area of work of interest to the learner, come to chat or conduct a mock-interview, in person or online. Always try to follow up with vocational reading materials on the relevant topic at the appropriate level.
  • Take “walk-abouts.”

In my first teaching class, I had an adult learner, Bill, who could not read at all. He wanted to work in construction but was typically fired or quit (sometimes after punching the boss in the nose as soon as he had to read some work-related item). According to Bill, the boss—and he had any number of them—was always “wrong” and usually an “idiot” (or worse).

After Bill had learned some basic phonetics and, with a huge amount of sweat and struggle, could slowly make out simple words, I would assign work to the others in the class then take Bill on a walking tour of a nearby busy street with shops along it. Looking at shop signs together took Bill out of the classroom and into the real world of everyday literacy. He found he could “sound out” many of the words on shop windows and inside stores, sometimes with some help from me as we spoke in lowered tones so we didn’t draw the attention of by-passers.

We went to a couple of construction sites during or after class so he could read the various signs around the site. Safety signs and diagrams with writing were good practice materials. He began to be drawn to such signs instead of avoiding them.

His wife Dolores, who was also in the class, kept up “shadowing support” back home with reading in his own environment. Meaning, she helped him focus on the written material that surrounds each of us in our lives. This included the two of them helping their children with their homework—a first in Bill’s lifetime.

Bill completed the program and went on to an adult basic education program at the local community college. Incidentally, after their program ended, Dolores took me aside and said, “Thank you for saving my marriage.” I have been in adult literacy ever since. Teachers also have transformative learning experiences…

  • Depending on the learner’s goal, consider using practice tests if such test materials are available (e.g., GED practice tests, commercial language proficiency tests, career entry tests), but build internal motivation…self-direction, not simply “how to pass the test.”
  • Try using learning contracts that focus on readings about a relevant job or career. Any chance the learner can find some of these in a library? Can you accompany the learner on the first few visits?

Read More

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wlodkowski, R. (1999). Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.