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Behaviorists assume that human behavior can be changed through operant conditioning which includes the positive reinforcement of desired voluntary responses and the negative reinforcement of undesired voluntary responses (Snowman & Biehler, 2003). The father of Behaviorism, John Watson, applied Ivan Pavlov's study of stimulus and response reactions in his experiments with dogs to the learning process in humans and other organisms. Pavlov's theory is often referred to as classical conditioning and occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus (Philips & Soltis, 1998). Just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate with the ringing of a bell without the presence of food, Watson believed that humans can also learn to be stimulated by a neutral stimulus, such as a bell, instead of by an unconditioned stimulus like hunger. B.F. Skinner theorized that organisms are capable of learning to 'operate' in their environment in order to obtain or avoid a particular consequence (Snowman & Biehler, 2003). Skinner further believed that human voluntary behavior can be strengthened or weakened with the immediate implementation of positive or negative reinforcement.
When applying the behavioral theory to classroom instruction there are various teaching models that an instructor can chose to adopt in order to successfully educate his or her students. Direct instruction, a widely used model in schools across the United States, is one form of a behaviorist theory model that is often referred to as "teacher-led" instruction (Orlich & Harder, 2004). The direct instruction method promotes a highly structured and scripted teaching method that focuses on a fast-paced learning environment where students and teachers are constantly interacting with one another (Snoman & Biehler, 2003). Direct instruction is a skills-oriented approach that emphasizes the use of a group that is led by face-to-face instruction from teachers and aides who have carefully planned lessons in which basic skills are broken down into small building blocks that are placed in specific order so that they may be presented effectively to each student (Carnine, 2000). This method is an effective tool when an instructor is trying to obtain and incorporate new information, extend and enhance understanding of basic skills, correct misconceptions, develop vocabulary, or support concept formation (Snowman & Biehler, 2003).
If an educator decides to employ behaviorism theories in his or her classroom, it is imperative that the instruction method that is chosen is used correctly. There are several strengths to the direct instruction method and research has indicated that this method is an effective way to transfer skills across a broad range of learners and subject areas (Adams & Engelmann, 1996). A teacher who adopts the direct instruction method will find that they are able to deliver information to the entire class in a timely and efficient manner while simultaneously maintaining the center of focus on the instructor (Orlich & Harder, 2004). The teacher is also able to assess a student's feedback quickly by asking for verbal responses from the class or giving a pre-test before presenting the lesson. Also, all students are allowed equal time on all classroom activities ensuring that each student has had the opportunity to acquire the information. This type of instruction method also allows the teacher to use student reactions to modify the lesson plan or activity while it is being presented in case the student is unable to learn effectively.
A successful contribution of behaviorism is that it is a more humane approach to education. With direct instruction, the instructor is also able to stress his or her ability to motivate their students. Rewards following on desired behavior are more effective at increasing a desired behavior than punishment following an undesired behavior (Snowman & Biehler, 2003). The learner is focused on a clear goal and can respond automatically to the cues of that goal. Over the years, behaviorist theories such as direct instruction have succeeded in educating children for life, preparing them with the educational tools that they need and can build upon throughout their academic careers.
Although the behaviorism theory is practiced in classrooms across the country, it can become an ineffective instructional guide if it is not implemented properly. Weaknesses with direct instruction methods include little time for individual attention during an activity or lesson plans. Another problem with this method of instruction is that the lesson plan must be focused on the median ability level of the classroom and sometimes the stronger students become bored because they feel that they are not being challenged and weaker students become frustrated because they are unable to keep up. The direct instruction method relies heavily on the delivery capabilities of the teacher and if a teacher fails to present the information that he or she will test the students on then learning cannot be accomplished. Procrastination by the instructor to construct an adequate lesson plan also leads to poor direct instruction.
While being taught with the direct instruction method, the learner may find themselves in a situation where the stimulus for the correct response does not occur; therefore the learner cannot respond (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). A student who has been conditioned to respond to a certain cue in a classroom situation may not be able to learn the topic that is being introduced if an irregularity occurs because they have been conditioned to respond to a different stimulus. For example, if a school used bells to signal the beginning and end of a class and then suddenly stopped using bells, some students might have a hard time making it to class at the scheduled time because the conditioned response has been removed from their daily routine. Therefore, the behavioral method of teaching becomes extremely ineffective. Unlike other learning theories, behaviorism instruction has also been criticized for stifling the learner in problem solving and creative thinking skills by disregarding the activities of the mind (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). Learners do what they are told by the instructor and fail to take the initiative to change or improve things as they see fit.
Each learning theory has its' pros and cons depending on the classroom environment, goals that need to be accomplished, and skill level of the students. It may take a master teacher several years of time and practice to discover a personal learning theory that best suits his or her instructional style. No matter what theory a teacher decides to implement in his or her classroom, it is imperative that all educators stay abreast of new and innovative research in the area of learning theories and how they apply to classroom situations. Even an experienced teacher must step back sometimes in order to evaluate which learning process is the most useful in order to teach a stated goal effectively. Learning is the key to success, and all classrooms must provide a productive environment that is capable of stimulating the learning process no matter what instructional theory is practiced. An educator's first priority is to make sure that they instill in their students positive feelings about school, because once a child becomes lost within the educational system it is often impossible to bring them back.