The Importance of Behaviourism in Adult Education

PIDP 3100 – Foundations of Adult Education
Vancouver Community College
Kathryn Truant
October 7, 2015


According to Merriam and Bierema (2014), there are five traditional learning theories identified in providing adult education. They were developed in the following chronological order starting in the 1920’s, and defined below:

Behaviourism emphasizes controlled behavioural objectives and skills to produce observable outcomes. Humanism focuses on self-directed learning, and the potential of the whole person. Cognitive Learning theory focuses on the process of knowing, perceiving and remembering. Social Cognitive theory relates to learning through observation in one’s social environment. Finally, the Constructive Learning theory is defined as the construction of meaning and knowledge from experience.

It is easy to see how these different theories evolved over time and there seem to be adaptations from one to another. For example, Merriam and Bierema (2014) explain that behaviourism highlights, “identifying skills needed for specific occupations, teaching those skills from basic to expert levels, and then requiring learners to demonstrate certain levels of competency in performing those skills” (p. 28). Whereas, they explain constructivism as, “making learning as ‘authentic’ as possible through field trips, case studies, field trips…” (p. 37) in order for the adult learner to construct an individual’s own applicable knowledge. And that is just one example of the seemingly subtle differences between the most recent learning theory and its original predecessor.

Learning Theory Highlights:

I consider behaviourism to be the most practical method in which adults can learn. The psychologist, John Watson, founded behaviourism in the 1920’s. Watson studied Ivan Pavlov’s famous dog experiment that took place in the 1890’s, and agreed that conditioning affected behaviour. Another psychologist who was studying behaviourism during Watson’s era was Edward L. Thorndike. Radvansky (2011) wrote that during his research, Thorndike ascertained that, “the discovery and study of these forms of conditioning are important because for decades they shaped much of the research in learning and memory” (p.8). In the 1960’s, another psychologist, B.F. Skinner, believed that by controlling every aspect of a student’s education, and positively reinforcing good observable behavior, that this would demonstrate that learning had occurred, and would compel the student to further achievements. Skinner (1971) wrote, “in operant conditioning, the purpose of a skilled movement of the hand is to be found in the consequences that follow it” (p. 199).

These early behaviourist’s methods were strict, with the key concept being to reward good behaviour. They suggested that classrooms be controlled with absolute rigidity. Contemporary reflective practitioners of behaviourism, like Dorothy MacKeracher and Kevin Roessger, agree because they believe that behaviourism already takes place in our educational systems when specific instruction must occur (Merriam and Bierema 2014). MacKeracher (2004) states that,

Adult educators have the tendency to discount the behavioural approach because the learner may indirectly learn to be other-directed rather than self-directed. However, the behavioural model does provide important insights into the intrinsic and reinforcing value of feedback, particularly when it relates to the learners’ anticipated learning outcomes (p. 213).

It is unwise to say that alternative learning theories cannot exist outside of, or alongside a behaviourist approach; the behaviourist method simply provides the foundation for a student’s education because it measures observable outcomes, and provides necessary feedback.

Why Behaviourism?:

Behavioural objectives are essential to achieve the theoretical and applied educational outcomes in a vocational program such as Dental Assisting. Because of my profession as a Certified Dental Assistant, and because I hope to become a vocational instructor one day, I prefer a practical and controlled learning theory as opposed to an abstract and student-directed one as the basis for adult education. In fact, the College of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia (CDSBC) outlines these standards. The CDSBC are a governing and licensing body that, “base dental practice on a unique, scientifically based body of knowledge and expertise” and “maintain competence by undertaking continuous learning and professional development” (College of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia, 2015). The CDSBC’s strict professional mandate encourages life-long learning with a behaviourist approach. Moreover, at my current position in an Oral Surgery practice, I instruct new co-workers to use these precise methods and standards; the benefit to my trainees is the opportunity to become valued employees who can assist in the more challenging surgical cases, and the opportunity to receive more specialized certification within our field.

That is not to say that self-directed methods don’t work; I believe that an initially structured outcome-directed learning method is necessary to provide the self-determination for an adult to the reach their full potential, especially in the medical or technical fields. However, I do not think that the behaviourism learning theory should be restricted to science alone, because even an artist who chooses pen, paint, or music as their outlet must learn the basics of reading and writing, mixing media, and music theory first. Creativity and greatness (the ultimate reinforcement or reward) will follow only after the basic principles of any given discipline are achieved.

Role of the Learner:

I had to study and memorize scientific theory and learn specific practical skills to become certified. Becoming certified was my reward. I was certified but still a novice, barely confident, but it is years of this applied theory and practical skills that have given me the knowledge that I now posses. I became an expert in my field; that is my reinforcement. Firstly, I had to take exams based on lectures and readings; I had to master the physical hands-on aspect by attending labs and demonstrations. I needed certification to practice. Those methods made me qualified, but I never stopped learning. I wanted to improve. I needed the confidence to make my patients, and their families, my employers, and my coworkers feel at ease and to trust me in a professional environment. It is the role of the learner to take responsibility and continue to learn once their educational outcomes have been met. The student can become the teacher. I believe that the Behaviourism theory supports this.

Role of the Instructor:

I want to be the kind of teacher that adheres to enforced learning outcomes while at the same time rewarding and reinforcing achievement, thus encouraging my students to succeed. My students will need to know how and why our particular science is exact in its approach to training, with the result being ultimate patient care. The self-learning in my profession comes only after the theory and the practical outcomes are met. Volumes of knowledge need to be learned precisely before the practical skills can be applied. Only then can self-learning and self-motivation, caused by pride in one’s basic level of achievement, and coupled with the drive that autonomy in furthering oneself provides, to create an environment for an individual to master one’s theoretically learned and practically learned skills. This would not occur without a behavioural method of learning. “Behaviorists believe that human behaviour is the result of the arrangement of particular stimuli in the environment. If this behaviour is reinforced or rewarded, it is likely to continue: if it is not reinforced it is likely to disappear” (Merriam and Bierema, 2014, p. 26).

Three Classroom Examples:

The importance of teaching anatomy and physiology is paramount in my profession. Why did I have to learn the eruption patterns of primary teeth, followed by the eruption patterns of permanent teeth? Thankfully I did, because I cannot count the number of times over the years as a dental assistant that I have had to recite the infant, age in month, eruption dates to parents in order for them to understand the importance of oral hygiene, especially when a tooth that erupts at one year of age needs to remain healthy until the child is twelve!

Obtaining a complete medical history is the next step in being a good clinician, for the purpose of ensuring the safety and care of a patient. This is very important because it starts to correlate the science and the human element. The knowledge obtained in the theory lessons will give students the confidence to communicate and articulate with their patients and colleagues.

Practical, hands-on skills can then be introduced, and an environment of strict adherence to scope of a dental assistant’s licensed duties as mandated by the College of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia can be practiced and ultimately mastered.

For adult students, behavioural learning methods, especially, but not restricted to vocational studies, set the groundwork for success (reward) and a desire to become life-long learners (reinforcement).

@ Please refer to my Resources page for works cited

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