Thursday, December 29, 2005

CALLT 2/5: Behaviorism

I'm currently reading Skinner's Technology of Teaching, and I may write this entry again after I've finished it. However, here's a short summary of essential behaviorism.

Behaviorism is school of thought in psychology. It emphasizes empirical research and lab experimentation. Their central claim is that because the mind and thoughts can not be observed directly, psychologists should instead concentrate on the kind of behaviour which can be observed directly.

Behaviorists are most famous for their animal experiments on learning. They used a really simple model:

S -> O -> R
S: Stimulus
O: Organism
R: Response

In natural language, when the organism gets a specific stimulus, it responds with a certain behaviour.

For example, when a dog is trained, the words are the stimulus and the hoped behaviour is the response. The behaviorists called training conditioning - in conditioning, the stimulus becomes a condition for response.

Their central findings are that the following conditions must be met in order to achieve maximal conditioning efficiency:

  • Feedback: The learner (animal or human) gets feedback, which he, she or it clearly recognizes as positive or negative.

  • Short delay: Too much delay between the act and the feedback sharply decreases the efficiency of conditioning.

  • Suitable difficulty: If the behavior is already well learned, the training no more significantly reinforces the behaviour. On the other hand, difficult behavior should be divided to small components, and these component behaviors should be taught first.

These may seem obvious, but once when Skinner attended her daughter's class, he noticed that they are very much violated in the classroom. Often there were days between doing exercises and getting the feedback on their correctness. The level of difficulty was such that the bottom 1/3 had great trouble doing the exercise, while top 1/3 didn't learn much from doing them.

The solution proposed by Skinner was individualized teaching machines. They would show the material in small chunks, and present questions after each piece of material. Correct answers would take the student to the next topic, while wrong answers would present more material on the same topic.

This way, there would be more feedback compared to reading a book. The feedback would be immeadiate. The individualized teaching would ensure that the level of difficulty was always be suitable.

The behaviorists built some mechanical (the only computers back then were mainframes!) teaching devices, although they never became popular. I haven't found any proper explanation, why the movement has not been resurrected now, when computers make it easy to implement everything in software. The 3 issues are still there (except in the university, where you can take basic, intermediate and advanced courses as you wish.)

No comments: