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B. F. Skinner

    B. F. Skinner

    B. F. Skinner (1904-1990)

    “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten”

    B. F. Skinner believed that education is the essence that survives beyond the classroom. He knew that the process of education is far more important than the content and information remembered by the individual. Once we forget what we’ve learned, what survives is the educational process. Understanding the process of learning, applying, and acquiring new skills, and that knowledge is vital.

    B. F. Skinner is a famous American psychologist recognized by the American Psychological Association as the most significant psychologist of the 20th century. He is mostly known for introducing the idea of “radical behaviorism” and “operant conditioning”. Behaviorism was a highly powerful academic school of psychology that influenced psychological theory between the first and the second world war. Classical behaviorism was predominant in the first third of the 20th century, while the radical one was prevalent after the 1930s.   

    As a radical behaviorist, Skinner considered classical conditioning as too simple-minded for an entire explanation of complex human behavior. Therefore, he thought the best way to understand behavior is by seeing the cause of an action and its consequences. He referred to his approach as “operant conditioning”. The meaning of the term “operant” was explained by Skinner as a person or animal “operating” on their surroundings to affect change while studying a new behavior. He was hoping on predicting and controlling the behavior of an organism through behavioral science. His focus on the connection between behavior and environment had a huge impact on education. He believed teachers can bring students’ behavior under the control of the environment by boosting it only in the presence of specific stimuli. So rather than punishing bad behavior, teachers would reward good behavior. Skinner saw the learning environment as the key to creating good behavior in the classroom. 


    Burrhus Frederic Skinner (B. F. Skinner) was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, on March 20, 1904, and died on August 18, 1990, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even though he received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, his admiration of the work and ideas of the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov on conditioned reflexes, and John B. Watson (the founder of behaviorism) attracted him to psychology. Therefore, he continued his education at Harvard University, where he received his doctorate in 1931. He worked there as a researcher for 5 years and then he went to the University of Minnesota to teach. For a time, he was a psychology professor at Indiana University but eventually returned to Harvard University as a tenured professor.

    As a professor, Skinner influenced many generations of psychologists. He was known for devising experimental equipment (the Skinner box) used for training laboratory animals to conduct complex and sometimes quite exceptional actions (pigeons playing table tennis, rats lifting levers). He also used a teaching machine to formulate the principles of programmed learning. The key to his approach was the theory of reinforcement or reward. With the use of the machine, he enabled students to learn at their own pace by rewarding them for their correct responses. Skinner’s idea was to facilitate learning through reinforcement.

    B. F. Skinner dedicated his entire career to describing human behavior through science. By doing so he initiated change in educational practices, psychology, and life itself.


    Skinner’s ideas and theories influenced both education and psychology. He believed education had two key principles. The first one was to teach verbal and nonverbal behavior, and the second was to encourage students to show interest in learning. Skinner preferred active learning over passive learning, where students are mere recipients of information provided by their teachers. Skinner was certain that students must take action, or as he loved to say: “to acquire behavior, the student must engage in behavior”.

    Unlike his predecessors (classical behaviorists), Skinner didn’t set aside internal processes like thoughts and emotions in analyzing human behavior. So, he went one step further with his radical behaviorism philosophy by including thoughts and actions in the equation. His operant conditioning principles (the connection between reinforcement and punishment) had quite an impact on education. Believing that reinforcement is the key to successful learning Skinner developed five reinforcement categories:

    • Continuous reinforcement: The student receives reinforcement after performing specific actions (The teacher rewards the student with a sticker for each creative answer)
    • Fixed interval reinforcement:  The student receives reinforcement after a fixed amount of time (The teacher rewards the student with stickers each Friday for active participation throughout the week)
    • Variable interval reinforcement: The student receives reinforcement after some time has passed (The teacher rewards the student with a sticker on a random day each week for constructive participation in classroom discussions)
    • Fixed ratio reinforcement: The student receives reinforcement after the behavior occurs a specific number of times (The teacher rewards the student with a sticker after giving five useful comments)
    • Variable ratio reinforcement: The student receives reinforcement after the behavior occurs randomly (The teacher rewards the student with a sticker after adding three to ten useful comments)

    Through his research and theories, Skinner gave insight into different areas of education, especially in the process of learning and teaching. He thought that teachers need to improve their teaching strategies for better learning results by using as much positive reinforcement as possible. Skinner’s ideas are more than useful, and they can come in handy in every classroom!


    “Teachers must learn how to teach … they need only to be taught more effective ways of teaching.”

    Skinner said more than enough about education, teaching, and teachers’ need for improvement. So, undoubtedly, he had an enormous impact on education. All we have to do is use at least some of his ideas to create a better learning environment for our students and excel at teaching. Besides his research on human behavior and positive reinforcement, he studied the “Technology of Teaching”, one of his works that especially stresses the reason why teachers fail. Skinner said that teachers must have a deep understanding of the teaching and learning process. He included both pros and cons in teaching techniques:

    Negative teaching technologyPositive teaching technology
    Teachers use aversive techniques (students avoid learning)Teachers should gain students’ attention
    Teachers depend on verbal explanations (students don’t learn simply by listening)Teachers should inform students of the expected result
    Teachers don’t adjust learning tasks (students don’t understand the level of teaching)Teachers should motivate relevant competencies
    Teachers don’t provide enough positive reinforcementTeachers need to use stimuli essential to the task
    Teachers don’t teach students age-appropriate skillsTeachers have to stimulate correct responses through encouragement
    Teachers should avoid punishment (a student forced to practice, will associate practicing with punishment and avoid it; punished students show rebellious behavior like vandalism)Teachers need to give feedback to the students

    Skinner’s teaching technologies helped teachers all over the world to improve their teaching methods, and curriculums, and develop a productive learning environment in their classrooms by following his simple rules:

    • Give clear instructions to the students so they will be able to understand the action or performance
    • Divide students’ tasks into small assignments, starting with the easiest ones and gradually coming to the more complex ones
    • Class practice should have a question-and-answer form enabling students to comprehend lessons step by step
    • Use a progressive approach to create complex behavior
    • Improve texts and classroom techniques
    • Try to free students from instructional help
    • Arrange the predicted questions by the level of difficulty, so they will have an opportunity to give correct answers to all questions, hence a chance for positive reinforcement  
    • Allow students to do each assignment, reinforcing correct actions
    • Adjust each step of the student’s assignment to make sure the students are always successful until the goal is fulfilled
    • Ensure knowledge preservation
    • Provide learning transfer
    • Switch to random reinforcement to maintain student’s performance
    • Make sure students’ good performance in the classroom is always rewarded (secondary reinforcement) through verbal praise, positive grades, and prizes
    • Instead of finding new ways of reinforcement, design better eventualities for already available reinforcement
    • Use immediate and consistent reinforcement but don’t forget the importance of sporadic and remote reinforcement
    • Don’t use frequent reinforcement if you want to keep your reinforcing power as a teacher
    • Don’t be afraid of automatic reinforcement when students are right (the use of automatic reinforcement is limitless)
    • Consider the reinforcement theory when creating class and program instructions

    According to Skinner, positively reinforced behavior will surely reoccur. Therefore, if we want to be successful as teachers, we need to use his theory first when creating our lesson plans, and then in the classroom. His radical behaviorism philosophy shows how well-ordered changes to a student’s environment affect the student’s observable behavior. As teachers, we organize the learning environment and use a system of rewards and punishments to encourage the students’ desired behavior. Students act upon their environment, creating connections between stimuli and changing behavior based on those connections. Those are the basic radical behaviorism principles that apply in educational practice to this day. Use them wisely to stimulate academic growth and student engagement!

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