©2000 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of B.F. Skinner

Analyst: Allen N. Hart


edited 8/18/11

See related articles,
Review of Skinner's Walden Two
B.F. Skinner's Concept of Person

1. Theory of Value:

When we learn to make an origami pigeon or memorize a poem, we acquire behavior .... The stimuli which take control are generated by the behavior itself That may seem like an inferior kind of knowledge, but verbal behavior is brought under the control of other kinds of stimuli in the same way. We teach a very young child to speak a word by priming it. We say "Dada" or "Mama" and reinforce any reasonable approximation. We bring verbal response under the control of an object by showing the object, speaking the word, and reinforcing a fair approximation. We hold up a spoon, say "spoon", and reinforce any reasonable response. Later we wait for a response to be made to the spoon alone. We teach what a word means by speaking the word and holding up an object. Later, we reinforce pointing to the object when we have spoken the word. Children do not need such explicit instruction, of course. They learn to talk, but much more slowly, under the contingencies of reinforcement maintained by a verbal environment. (B91)

2. Theory of Knowledge:

Cognitive psychologists have turned to brain science and computer science to confirm their theories. Brain Science, they say, will eventually tell us what cognitive processes really are. They will answer, once and for all, the old questions about monism, dualism, and interactionism. By building machines that do what people do, computer science will demonstrate how the mind works.

We can trace a small part of human behavior and a much larger part of the behavior of other species, to natural selection and the evaluation of the species, but the greater part of human behavior must be traced to contingencies of reinforcement, especially to the very complex social contingencies we call cultures. (B24)

3. Theory of Human Nature:

Actions consists of the structures and processes by which human beings form meaningful intentions and, more or less successfully, implement them to concrete situations. The word "meaningful" implies the symbolic or cultural level of representation and reference. Intentions and implementation taken together imply a disposition of the action system -- individual or collective -to modify its relation to its situation or environment in an intended direction. (A199)

4. Theory of Learning:

Learning is not doing; it is changing what we do. We may see that behavior has changed, but we do not see the changing. We see reinforcing consequences but not how they cause a change. Since the observable effects of reinforcement are usually not immediate, we often overlook the connection. Behavior is then often said to grow or develop. Develop originally meant to unfold, as one unfolds a letter. We assume that what we see was there from the start.

Copies or representations play an important part in cognitive theories of learning and memory where they raise problems that do not arise in behavioral analysis. When we must describe something that is no longer present, the traditional view is that we recall the copy we have stored. In behavioral analysis contingencies of reinforcement change the way we respond to stimuli. It is a changed person, not a memory that has been "stored". (1316)

5. Theory of Transmission:

Teaching is more than telling. When the doorman said "taxi" we "learned" that a taxi was waiting, but we were not taught. Then we were first told, "That's a taxi," we learned what a taxi looked like but again we were not taught. Teaching occurs when a response is primed, in the sense of being evoked for the first time, and then reinforced. For example, a teacher models a verbal response and reinforces our repetition of it. If we cannot repeat all of it, we may need to be prompted, but eventually the behavior occurs without help.

The same two steps can be seen when we teach ourselves. We read a passage in a book (thus priming the behavior), turn away and say as much of it as we can, and turn back to the book for prompts if needed. Success in saying the passage without help is the reinforcing consequence. (B39)

6. Theory of Society:

A culture commends and rewards those of its members who do useful or interesting things, in part by calling them and the things they do good or right. In the process, behavior is positively reinforced, and bodily conditions are generated that may be observed and valued by the person whose self it is. It is a self that is especially vulnerable to scientific analysis. (C53)

7. Theory of Opportunity

I simply must not publicly express my low opinion of them, (educational psychologists,

administrators, reformers and many others) for they are already sufficiently disposed to reject any help from a science of behavior.

(Skinner considered them) "badly educated... shaped by cheap successes... [with] a grim faith in the status quo ... they think metaphorically, illogically, or not at all. They assimilate a new idea to serve part of the established set and forget it. They are smug, unambitious. (A183)

8. Theory of Consensus

My questioner might have asked Darwin, "if natural selection is so powerful, why have people believed so long in the creation of the species according to Genesis?" The myths that explain the origin of the universe and the existence of living things, especially man, have been extremely powerful and are not yet displaced by a scientific view. Mind is myth, with all the power of myths.

See also, Skinner on the Science of Human Behavior



(A) Bjork, Daniel T., B. F. Skinner, Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1993

(B) Skinner, B. F., Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior, Merrill Publishing Co., Columbus, Ohio, 1989.

(C) Skinner, B.F. Particulars of My Life Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY 1976