Did Skinner miss the point about teaching?
The Darwinian metaphor, to which Skinner was an early contributor, has been a commonplace for several years. Skinner was sure that much can be learned from experiments with animals, and those strategies that work best for the training of animals can and should be applied to the education of humans. However, his claims about how best to teach people, especially intelligent people who are learning difficult things, have several problems. Operant behaviour is emitted (it is spontaneous, at least on first occurrence). Emitted behaviour selected by reinforcement can be compared to the Darwinian idea of selection and variation. Operant learning is seen as interplay between response emission (variation) and reinforcement (selection). In applying his ideas to teaching, Skinner emphasized selection almost exclusively. But the real puzzle posed by non-rote learning, in both animals and humans, is not selection but the sources of variation that cause an action or an idea to appear for the first time. It is in this sense that Skinner's whole discussion of teaching missed the point. The Darwinian framework for behaviour analysis points to the fact that processes of variation exist, even though they have been neglected in favour of an almost exclusive focus on reinforcement and selection. © 2006 International Union of Psychological Science.
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