Is the Feeling Still Pleasant?

Many, many years ago, a psychologist by the name of B.F. Skinner further developed a theory of learning that had previously been called “Behaviorism” by his colleague, John B. Watson¹. Skinner believed that ones behavior, and ultimately the knowledge one possessed, was directly related to one’s environment. Skinner went as far as stating that behavior could be sculpted by the use of reinforcement and punishment. This theory, often referred to as “Operant Conditioning” uses reinforcement to increase the occurrences of desired or pleasurable behavior, and uses punishment to decrease the occurrences of undesired or unpleasant behavior. Behaviorism still shows up in education today, more than fifty years later.

One of Skinner’s ideas to support his behaviorist theory was programmed instruction. This method of reading a small amount of text or information and then answering questions about what was just read still shows up in schools today. In fact, if we look at the very basic structure of today’s textbooks, we still follow, for the most part, this idea of programmed instruction. Students read a chapter and then are exposed to the questions at the end of the section…based on the students answer, correct or incorrect, the student is then subjected to new information or returned to old content for remediation. Is this starting to sound too familiar?

Let’s shift this discussion to educational technology. B.F. Skinner could be considered a pioneer in regards to integrating technology into the classroom. In the mid 1900’s, Skinner actually developed a learning machine² that would expose the learner to new content, administer a series of questions, and check those questions for accuracy. Skinner was far ahead of his time…

Fast forward to today…we still employ some of these fifty year old beliefs. Homework is being assigned as repetitious work. Students are being asked to read through a section of their textbook, and answer questions or complete a worksheet on the content they just read. Even some of our technology seems to follow the same format. The online tutorials are a prime example…we are exposed to a small amount of information, and to check for recall, (notice I didn’t say understanding) we answer questions or perform a small task³.

Today, however, we have the resources and tools to make learning different, to make learning relevant, hands on, and exciting. We have many Web tools that allow us to target the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in comparison to the low levels of learning with programmed instruction. In the diagram below, using programmed instruction, we would be targeting the bottom two categories of the taxonomy: remembering and some understanding.

Here are some online tools corresponding to Blooms taxonomy:


BBC Skillwise-

Spelling City-


Discovery Streaming-




PBS Kids-


Into the Book-



Book Adventure-




PhotoBooth- Software



Google Earth-


Read Write Think-

Cool Iris-












Wiki Spaces-









Are we really still believing that environment is the sole factor in influencing behavior? Do we still believe that the best way for students to retain information is the “drill and kill” method? Is asking our students to recall a relatively small amount of information over a very short period of time the rigorous education we are striving to provide to our students? Does this continue to be our desired behavior/learning?

How pleasant is our students feelings in regards to their education?


¹B. F. Skinner – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). . Retrieved November 11, 2010, from

educational-origami – Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy. (n.d.). . Retrieved November 11, 2010, from

²File:Skinner teaching machine 01.jpg – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). . Retrieved November 11, 2010, from

iLearn Technology » Search Results » blooms. (n.d.). . Retrieved November 11, 2010, from

³Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2010). Program four. Behaviorist learning theory [Webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Baltimore, MD: Author.


~ by Dean Phillips on November 11, 2010.

2 Responses to “Is the Feeling Still Pleasant?”

  1. Dean:

    No, drill and kill is not the best way to retain information. It is a tool that helps reinforce students capability of the skill being taught. You are right it can not be the only way the information is presented to students. There has to be a connection made from the lower knowledge to higher thinking applications for true learning happen. In my classes a lot of what I teach starts at lower levels and pulls from prior knowledge students might have. I want to see if they have learned or are recalling before we move on to a more advanced project that requires them to have the neccessary skills to complete the task.

    • Hi John, thanks for the response. I too agree, that the younger students really do need a strong base of material and understanding. Many teachers may be focusing too much on the memorization and recall at early ages and therefore when they get to you in the upper grades, they have no real understanding of the concepts. Should we be focusing on the application at an earlier age?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: