Classroom Management Theorists and Theories/Burrhus Frederic Skinner

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Overview of Skinner's Theories of Classroom Management[edit | edit source]

The Theory

Skinner believed that the goal of psychology should be practical (Lieberman, 2000). As it relates to education, Skinner believed the goal of psychology should be to find ways to make education enjoyable and effective for all students. His learning theory relied on the assumption that the best way to modify behavior was to modify the environment. Skinner was a proponent for many instructional strategies that modern day “progressive” educational reformers advocate for: scaffold instruction, small units, repetition and review of instructions, and immediate feedback. Skinner did not approve of the use of punishments in school, or as a behavioral modification technique in general, and based these opinions on his own empirical research that found punishments to be ineffective (Lieberman, 2000). Skinner himself advocated for the frequent use of reinforcement (i.e. rewards) to modify and influence student behavior.

Skinner’s primary contribution to behavioral management philosophy has been from his research on operant conditioning and reinforcement schedules. An operant is a behavior that acts on the surrounding environment to produce a consequence. As a result of the consequence, the operant’s likelihood of reoccurring is affected. The operant is said to be reinforced if the consequence increases the likelihood of the behavior's occurrence. For example, an example of an operant in a typical classroom is staying in one’s seat. A teacher may seek to reinforce this behavior by offering a reward to reinforce student behavior (e.g. recess or food).

Three characteristics of operant conditioning are particularly important to behavior management: a) the reinforcer, b) the reinforcement schedule, and c) the timing of the reinforcement. First, reinforcers have been placed in three categories (Lieberman, 2000). Primary reinforcers are reinforcers that require no special training to be effective. These include food, water, and sensory stimulation. Secondary reinforcers are reinforcers whose reinforcing properties have been acquired through experience (typically through second order conditioning). An example of this is the use of a “token economy.” Many teachers use extrinsic rewards such as stamps, tickets, tokens, and play (or real) money to reinforce behavior. These rewards can be redeemed for prizes or privileges. Finally, social reinforcers are reinforcers whose reinforcing properties are derived from the behaviors of members of one’s own species. These reinforcers are typically seen as a blend of primary and secondary reinforcers and include praise, affection, and attention.

In addition to their type, another important characteristic of reinforcers is their saliency, or degree to which an individual prefers the reinforcement. Reinforcers with a high degree of saliency are expected to produce a greater response in the frequency of the operant behavior. Using this logic, David Premack developed a principle (the Premack principle), which argued that operant behaviors of low probability could be reinforced by using access to high-probability behaviors as a reinforcer (1965). For example, if sitting quietly during instruction was a low-probability behavior for a student, access to playing with a preferred toy (a high-probability behavior) could be used as a reinforcer for the operant behavior. Using similar logic, Timberlake and Allison (1974) developed the response deprivation hypothesis, which states that if a high-probability (or highly salient) behavior is deprived, access to that behavior will be reinforcing. In the classroom, this is often used by the introduction of a game or privilege that students highly enjoy. Access to the game is restricted, unless certain behaviors (likely low-probability behaviors) are performed first. A primary conclusion from both of these hypotheses is that teachers looking to find a highly salient reinforcer should look for activities that students prefer to do in their free time (i.e. highly-probable behavior).

Skinner also developed the concept of the “reinforcement schedule”. Reinforcement schedules are divided into two categories: a) continuous reinforcement schedules (CRF), in which every desired behavior is reinforced every time it occurs, and b) partial reinforcement schedules in which behaviors are reinforced based on ratios (reinforced after so many occurrences) or intervals (a reinforcement delivered after a certain time interval). Partial reinforcement schedules may be fixed (i.e. a reinforcement after 3 behavioral occurrences [fixed ratio] or a reinforcement after 3 minutes [fixed interval]), or variable (i.e. the ratio or interval at which reinforcement is given is random, but averages to a specific amount). It has been found that variable partial reinforcement schedules are more effective in improving the frequency of an operant behavior and in limiting its extinction when reinforcement is no longer delivered. The later effect is particularly true when compared to continuous reinforcement schedules. This finding suggests that teachers using reinforcements in their classroom suggests that teachers using reinforcements in their classroom should be cautious of seeking to reward students every time they perform a behavior. As many teachers using rewards have noted, students are less likely to perform desired behaviors when the rewards are not present (e.g. "What do I get if . . . ?).

Finally, behavioral research has found that the timing of the reinforcer is very important. If there is much delay between the operant behavior and the reinforcer, improving the frequency of the desired behavior is less likely to happen. For instance, if a teacher said that if students were to turn in their homework they would receive extra recess, behavioral theory would argue that the closer the time the teacher allowed the students to have their recess was to the time the students turned in their homework (the operant behavior), the more likely students would be to turn in their homework regularly. If a teacher often forgot to give the reward, or waited later in the day to grant the reward, the less likely students would be to turn in their homework.

Implementation of Skinner's Theories[edit | edit source]

Implementation Overview
Skinner's theories have been implemented in school systems in a variety of ways. Teachers and parents alike rewarded students for good behavior long before Skinner's theories were developed. However, many behavior management systems used in today's schools are directly influenced by his work. Skinner advocated for immediate praise, feedback, and/or reward when seeking to change troublesome or encourage correct behavior in the classroom. Teachers seeking to implement a reinforcement system in their classroom should use strategies such as a "token economy" to reward students immediately for behaviors that they are reinforcing. Skinner also advocated for teacher identification of and reflection on the environmental effects on student behavior. Formalized strategies that focus on the identification of "triggers" of student behavior are influenced by Skinner's work. One example of a formalized system that makes use of Skinner's research is the Crisis Prevention Institute (see for details).

For a tutorial in behavioral interventions based upon Skinner's theories of reinforcing positive behaviors see:
Elementary Implementation of Skinner's Theories
In order to apply Skinner's theories in your own elementary classroom, you could do the following:

  • Set up reinforcement schedules with your students (particularly those with behaviors that need extreme intervention) to reinforce positive behavior. For example, if a student gets out of his seat frequently, set a timer for 5 minutes. Every time the student can stay in his seat for 5 minutes, reward him (i.e. give a sticker/token, permit participation in a highly-preferred activity).
  • Set up a "token economy." Many teachers use tickets, tokens, or play money to reward student for desired behavior. Students can redeem these tokens for prizes in many systems. Some teachers have found that it is very effective to have students redeem their tickets for classroom jobs or academic privileges (e.g. center time). So long as the redeemed "prize" is highly preferred, the reinforcement should be effective in improving classroom behavior.
  • Deprive students of educational tasks they enjoy, and use them to reinforce desired behavior. Many criticisms of Skinner's work focus on the overuse of rewards that diminish intrinsic learning. Using educational tasks themselves as rewards may work to foster the desire to learn intrinsically. Teachers wanting to foster the intrinsic desire to read may want to begin the year reading highly engaging stories that students are sure to love. The teacher may then restrict "story time" to the end of the day as a reward for students who have been on-task throughout the day. As long as students highly-prefer the reading, they should be motivated to perform desired behaviors to receive their reward.

Secondary Implementation of Skinner's Theories
In order to apply Skinner’s theories in your own secondary classroom, you could do the following:

  • Create (with student input, if necessary) a system of positive incentives for individual, group, and class behavior. Reward positive behavior before reprimanding negative behavior (for example, instead of punishing one student for not turning in homework, give all other students who did turn in homework consistent rewards until that will induce that one student to follow suit with the rest of class).
  • Ensure that positive reinforcement is immediate so that it can be associated with the positive behavior. This is crucial especially when secondary teachers see students for such a small portion of each day.
  • Recognize the unique instructional needs of individual students and individual periods and modify instructional material and methods appropriately.
  • Provide feedback as students work, not just after they are finished with a particular task.
  • Ensure that students have mastered prerequisite skills before moving on, even if this puts different periods of the same class on different tracks.
  • Reinforce positive behaviors students exhibit, either with problem students or with whole class to refocus problem students

Critique of Skinner's Theories[edit | edit source]

Professional Critique of Skinner's Theories
One major critic of Skinners’ behavioral theories is Alfie Kohn, another prominent educational theorist. Kohn, noted for his assertions supporting entirely intrinsic motivation for learning and behavior, feels that the rewards and punishment system of management so lauded by Skinner is actually a root cause American education’s decline (Kohn, 1993, p. xii). Kohn suggests that rewards and extrinsic motivation yield compliance, which is not, as Skinner suggests, a natural behavior devoid of willful choice. Additionally, it trains humans to expect rewards to such a large extent that they fail to find motivation in the absence of a promised reward.

Kohn does not entirely negate the legitimacy of operant conditioning, but does stress the ability of humans to make moral and conscious judgments and decisions. What Kohn sees is a system of “carrot-and-stick” motivation that has permeated education throughout the United States largely due to the efforts of Skinner and his successors (Kohn, 1993, p. 15). Yet Kohn criticizes that rewards have become such a natural and expected part of the American classroom and workplace that citizens here have become conditioned to expect them. This avoids even the possibility of children learning to find intrinsic motivation in their educations; the more often rewards are used, the more humans become used to them and expect them, and the more they are needed.

Kohn acknowledge the history of rewards and punishment in behavioral psychology, but stresses that the majority of experiments, studies, and practices contributing to this history involved animals other than humans. Both Ayn Rand and Noam Chomsky echo this critique, posing Skinner’s disbelief in conscious choice as preposterous. Rand debases the very suggestion that memory is not influential in human choice, that humans can simply be “conditioned” to adapt to particular environmental factors. Chomsky echoes this sentiment and asserts that Skinner’s empirical evidence is non-transferable to the complexity that exists in human’s ability to communicate and respond to a variety of environmental influencers.

However, many contemporary theorists and psychologists in education adhere to Skinner’s principles of arranging the classroom environment in a manner most appropriate for student learning.

Additionally, theorists today point to the history of such methods that predates Skinner, arguing that if they didn’t work, they would no longer be a part of the increasingly empirical American education system. The notion that productive educational environments should precede intervention exists even in the Individuals with Disabilities Act. This act prescribes accommodations and modifications for students with disabilities prior to intervention, a law that proponents of functional assessment credit directly to Skinner (Ervin et al., 2001, p. 177). Skinner’s supporters note that Skinner’s suggestions for classrooms are not simply systems of overtly proscribed rewards and punishment; rather, they constitute a well-planned and research-based control of environmental factors. This control will leave students no options other than learning and behaving.

Hannah's Critique of Skinner's Theories
I see legitimacy in the classroom management and learning theories of B. F. Skinner. His theories make sense and are familiar to me as a teacher, but I also agree with arguments against his studies’ reliance upon laboratory experiments with animals. Skinner relies heavily upon empirical evidence, but in reading his theories of classroom management specifically, I see little evidence to back his opinions aside from hearsay and casual observations.

Yet I also think that other theorists such as Kohn are quick to reduce Skinner’s prescriptions for the classroom to an entirely superficial system of rewards and punishment. Skinner’s ideas are more complex than this; beyond rewards and punishment, he stresses that the environment of a classroom and school, both physical and temporal, should be as conducive as possible to students’ learning. It should not be an environment that necessarily attempts to control that learning with what we popularly call consequences. Skinner stresses immediate feedback, scaffolding, and ensuring student success. These teacher actions are manipulations of the classroom environment that any educational theorist would be hard pressed to criticize.

Of course, Skinner does also suggest praise and rewards once student success is achieved, and I do agree with Kohn that in the perfect world, this wouldn’t be necessary. However, I would challenge Kohn to come to my classroom, or any classroom, and ensure that students are intrinsically motivated throughout every single lesson. While we can try to make lessons as motivating and engaging as possible, not every lesson can realistically have every student intrinsically engaged. I use praise and rewards, not over abundantly, but I use them. While they may not make learning as intrinsic as I’d like it to be, I truly don’t think they’re hurting the education of my students. Regardless of where one stands in the dialogue on Skinner and his contemporaries, it is noteworthy that his, Kohn’s, and others’ theories and critiques focus on a students’ engagement in learning as an antecedent to behavioral problems. As long as students have some reason to be engaged in a lesson, whether it is through extrinsically motivated compliance or intrinsically motivated engagement, they will not misbehave. This I concur with wholeheartedly.

Michael's Critique of Skinner's Theories

It is my belief that B.F. Skinner's theories are the most widely used and misunderstood of any psychological theories that have been applied to educational settings. As Hannah noted in her own reflection, many critics of Skinner and many developers of reward programs based on his theories, simplify his ideas to superficial systems of rewards and punishments. They neglect what is, in my opinion, the most revolutionary aspect of his theory, the influence of the environment on behavior. Skinner did not believe that elements of the environment do cause behavior (as classical conditioning would have it), but that they lead to the probability that a behavior may occur. This probability would depend on previous learning experience and its generalizations to the current environment, as well as genetics.

My own opinions diverge from Skinner's in the use of his theories to create school-wide, and to some degree classroom-wide, initiatives. I agree with critics such as Kohn who argue that these sorts of initiatives, which often focus on primary reinforcers like food (PIZZA PARTY!!), have a negative effect on educational aspiration and self-motivation. It is my opinion, that teachers should seek creative ways to make educational activities highly probable activities. I believe that intrinsic motivation is simply an internalization of the extrinsic motivation that is demonized in "progressive" educational literature. However, behaviors that are intrinsically motivated react to reinforcement in the same ways as those that are more extrinsic. What teachers should try to do is move students from responding primarily to extrinsic rewards to understanding how they are intrinsically motivated. Effective use of Skinner’s ideas relies on individualizing the use of reinforcement to fit the specific interests of specific students.

In sum, students are not lab rats. They will not all push a lever to receive a food pellet. Most will "push" for a pizza party, or extra recess. However, teachers need to consider the fact that some will "push" for time to read their favorite book, time to research a topic on the internet, math worksheets, and word puzzles.

Questions for Consideration[edit | edit source]

  • Would you rather have Skinner or Kohn as your boss? Why?
  • If Skinner were to set up a charter school in a new utopian society, what would a typical day look like at this school and why would it look this way?
  • Identify two types of reinforcement schedules. Which type of reinforcement schedules have been found to be most effective in influencing enduring behavior?
  • What is the Premack principle and give an example of how it is used in classrooms.

References[edit | edit source]

Chomsky, N. (1967). A review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Retrieved November 4, 2007, Web site:

Ervin, R. A., Ehrhardt, K. E., & Poling, A. (2001). Functional Assessment: Old wine in new bottles. School Psychology Review. 30, 173-179.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Premack, D. (1965). Reinforcement theory. In D. Levine (ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation. (Vol. 13). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Rand, A. (1998). Philosophy: Who needs it?. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs Merrill.

Timberlake, W., & Allison, J. (1974). Response to deprivation: An empirical approach to instrumental performance. Psychological Review, 81, 146-164.

Ulman, J. D. (1998). Applying behavioral principles in the classroom: Creating Responsive Learning Environments. The Teacher Educator. 34, 144-156.