Behaviourism is Back, but Rebranded

Been reading BF Skinner. I’ve been interested in this guy's methods ever since my teens, when I bought a book called “The Japanese Kana Workbook”, which teaches the user both systems of Japanese kana in a few days. The book was recommended to me by my first Japanese teacher, who had used it in his undergraduate days at Sheffield University, which in those days was commonly considered the UK's best Japanese-teaching university. He told me that using this book, he and his aspiring fellow Japanologists were able to master the reading and writing of both systems inside a week. That impressed me, so I acquired a copy.

The book uses a programmed learning system, and I found this very effective. In fact, I’ve never learned any foreign language script more quickly.

Programmed learning exploits several key concepts of behaviourism.

In programmed learning, teaching occurs through the one-at-a-time, pellet-like presentation of carefully sequenced parcels of information followed by questions testing recall and understanding of that information. The presentation and subsequent testing constitute the programme. Each time you get a question right, you progress to further learning. When you get a question wrong, you are directed back to the section containing the relevant information. When you have reread that section, you are again presented with the question that you answered incorrectly. If you answer it correctly, you move forward in the programme. If you answer it incorrectly again, you are sent back to the relevant section once more. You progress only when you have answered the question correctly. You answer one question after another, looping back and repeating failed questions until all are answered correctly, whereupon the programme ends..

It sounds simple, and it is. Progress is quick. But people don't like behaviourism. As an educational theory, it has been enthusiastically criticised for being reductionist (knowledge must be broken down into granules) and mechanistic (modern educational theories see learners as complex, highly cognitive, agentic individuals with their own learning styles and unique abilities). Behaviourism, when contrasted with such theories, seems to belong to another age, another paradigm of understanding the human being. But does it?

If you've heard of "gamification", you will know how closely activities described as such parallel applied behaviourist principles. If you've ever learnt online, you will know that quizzes, tests, FAQs, and message threads also dispense knowledge in parcels.

In Skinnerian operant conditioning, complex tasks are taught by separation of the task into sub-tasks, whose performance is "conditioned" through positive reinforcement. If you have ever seen an animal perform a complex, multi-step behaviour, you have probably seen the result of a trainer having systematically rewarded the animal for each sub-task until the complex behaviour is achieved. Learning behaviourists reason that more sophisticated animals, such as humans, can also be conditioned to learn. Complex knowledge and competencies can be acquired through the progressive mastery of bites of knowledge or sub-steps. The trainer/teacher rewards the learner on demonstration of the required knowledge or skill. This step-by-step method also allows the trainer/teacher to identify sticking points and address these topically. When the sticking point is overcome to the satisfaction of the trainer/teacher, the process resumes - until the next sticking point or until the whole knowledge or skill set is successfully absorbed, which will be evidenced by a demonstration of some sort.

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