Early years pioneers - Burrhus Skinner

Linda Pound
Monday, September 8, 2014

Some common teaching methods take their cues from behaviourist theory. Linda Pound looks at the work of one of its key proponents.

Burrhus Skinner was born in 1904 in Pennsylvania, USA. His father was a lawyer and his mother a housewife. He had one younger brother. At university, he had aspirations to be a writer. He wrote poetry, took courses in Greek, creative writing and drama and became editor of the student newspaper. He also enjoyed painting and music. After graduating, Skinner wrote to poet Robert Frost, asking for advice about a career. Frost's response led him to apply for a course in psychology at Harvard University. In the late 1920s, Skinner read the work of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson. Their theories later influenced his work.

In 1931, he gained a PhD and became a teacher. He married in 1936 and was to have two daughters. They were later to become subjects of conjecture about the part they had played in his experimental work. During World War II, Skinner worked on a secret project training pigeons to guide bombs and torpedoes - work which also influenced his future experiments. He had many books and journal articles published.


Skinner conducted most of his experiments on rodents and pigeons, but wrote most of his books about people. His work became widely applied to child development and to work with parents. To him, people and animals were organisms differing only in the degree of sophistication they bring to a learning situation.

Behaviourism is sometimes known as learning theory. A key feature of behaviourist theories is that inner processes such as thinking and feeling have no part to play - that only what the researcher can see, namely actions, is studied.

Learning and development are often portrayed in terms of nature versus nurture. Behaviourism is at the extreme nurture end of this debate: behaviourists generally believe that all behaviour is learned and can be shaped. This shaping is known as conditioning. Skinner's version is known as operant conditioning - often referred to as instrumental, or even Skinnerian, conditioning.

This varies from classical conditioning, which focuses on specific reflex actions. Operant conditioning, on the other hand, is used to modify whole patterns of behaviour. The popular view is that behaviour is shaped by punishment and rewards - that humans act to avoid punishment and gain reward. Skinner emphasised reward, which he termed reinforcement. He believed that punishment (as opposed to negative reinforcement) was counter-productive.

Tasks were broken down into small steps, each step reinforced and rewarded as it was learned. Undesirable behaviours take longer to disappear if reinforcement is not consistent and conversely, Skinner claimed, if rewards are only sometimes given after completing the desired task or action the behaviour carries on for longer. This is often given as the reason for gambling becoming compulsive; those who participate are not regularly rewarded, losing at least as frequently as they win.

Skinner also studied what he termed extinction. If rewards for desired actions ceased, then the behaviour ceased as well. Skinner was particularly interested in how long it took for the behaviour to disappear when not rewarded.


Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) developed the theory of classical conditioning. He discovered that dogs could be trained (or conditioned) to salivate when a bell rang if feeding was consistently preceded by a bell ringing. Salivating at the sight of food when hungry is a natural response, so by pairing a natural response with an artificial one (a ringing bell) the two become associated with one another. As in Skinner's operant conditioning, the learned response is conditioned or shaped.

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) developed the law of effect, which suggests that any behaviour leading to a positive consequence will be repeated.

John Watson (1878-1958) suggested that operant conditioning is concerned with controlling actions by providing a stimulus after, rather than before, the action. In other words, if an adult says 'well done' every time a child eats everything on their dinner plate, the child will continue to clear their plate at mealtimes.

Albert Bandura (1925-) is known as the father of cognitivists. In a 2002 survey, he was rated fourth only behind Skinner, Freud and Piaget among the psychologists who were referred to most often.

Bandura says that learning occurs as a result of stimulus (such as the bell) and response (salivating), but claims that reinforcement is most likely to occur as a result of our observation and imitation of other humans, as we try to be like others we like or admire. Bandura's theory has acted as a bridge between behaviourism and developmental theories. His social learning theory is built on behaviourist theories, but also provides a link between the work of Piaget and Vygotsky - with a focus on the impact of social relations on cognition.


Behaviourist theory is responsible for teaching that focuses on the repetition of words and completing row upon row of sums. Programmed instruction was launched in the 1950s with materials presented in small steps.

Behaviourism is most often seen in the teaching of children with special educational needs and in behaviour management. Breaking tasks down into small steps, star charts rewarding children for keeping to rules, and withdrawal of privileges when children break rules are all approaches that come from behaviourism. Similar techniques are often applied to babies; the advice is not to pick babies up when they cry as this will reinforce the crying behaviour.


Just as Freud's work changed society's perception of the unconscious, Pavlov's work, for the first time, showed people the connections between human physiology and mental associations. His, and subsequent behaviourist theories, also showed that actions could be shaped and systematically controlled. In addition to this overarching change in public understanding, behaviourism has influenced the following areas.

Understanding of language learning

Skinner believed that all language is learned by reward - for example, when the baby says 'da-da-da' we praise them, but we don't reinforce sounds that we don't recognise. Noam Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, was so opposed to Skinner's views that he developed a theory based on the idea of language development as an innate process. He hypothesised that we are born with a 'language acquisition device' that gives us an inbuilt understanding of language structures. Chomsky's argument stimulated experiment and thinking about language throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Imitation in learning

Bandura's social learning theory has played a part in making practitioners aware of children's need to be offered positive role models in behaviour and conflict resolution and with habits such as reading and healthy eating.

Research methods

Skinner's experiments provided large amounts of data about learning. This has had a major influence on the way in which attainment and learning outcomes are measured and monitored. This has been described as a 'true science of behaviour', with Skinner the first to explore the potential of this approach.


The philosopher Arthur Koestler said, 'For the anthropomorphic view of the rat, American psychology substituted a rattomorphic view of man'. This is the most common criticism of behaviourism - that since it focused on animals it is too simplistic a view of human learning and motivation. Rewards can become counter-productive. Studies in which young children were rewarded for drawing pictures, for example, demonstrated that quickly children no longer drew pictures unless they were rewarded.

The development of teaching machines and programmed learning, whether computer based or not, is said to enable children to learn independently. However, it is clear that this is untrue since the whole programme has been predetermined by adults. This underlines a larger criticism of behaviourism - that it seeks to control behaviour, infringing human dignity.

Behaviourism ignores the emotional states and complex motives that account for human behaviour. Humans are treated as though they lack mind or soul and consist only of a brain that responds to external stimuli. It does not explain many phenomena in learning. Language learning in young children is a good example of something that cannot be explained through stimulus-response approaches. Small children say things that they have never heard - they make up words, merge words, overgeneralise rules, and so on. They may also fail to say things for which they are rewarded, such as please and thank you.

It ignores, too, the way in which patterns of learning can be adapted to new information and the role of thoughtful judgement and reflection in human thinking.

This is an edited extract from 'Burrhus Skinner and behaviourist theories' in How Children Learn by Linda Pound (Practical Pre-school Books, £17.99)


  • How Children Learn by Linda Pound is a highly accessible guide to educational theories and approaches, from that of Comenius, the father of modern education, to those of modern pioneers including Piaget, Vygotsky and Malaguzzi. Nursery World readers can receive a ten per cent discount on a copy of the book by using the code PPSNUW14 at www.practicalpreschoolbooks.com or by calling 01722 716935. The code is valid until 31 October 2014.

Download tne PDF

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2022. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved