B. F. Skinner’s key contribution to the field of psychology was his operant conditioning theory. His theory drew from the work of E. L. Thorndike and Ivan Pavlov and more specifically from their theories of classical conditioning and trial-and-error learning respectively. Skinner’s theory followed very closely to Thorndike’s theory on trial-and-error learning. At the center of Skinner’s theory was voluntary behavior and more importantly how these voluntary behaviors could be modified. Skinner believed that the result of these voluntary behaviors would produce a consequence that would in turn cause a person to possibly want to modify those behaviors. Skinner’s theory can further be broken down into four main components. These components are reinforcement, shaping, schedules of reinforcement, and extinction and punishment (B. Newman & P. Newman, 2007).
Reinforcement occurs when an event is more likely to occur in the future based on the response to the said event. There are two types of reinforcement. Candy and smiles would be considered a type of positive reinforcement. Electric shock would be considered an example of negative reinforcement. It is important to note that negative reinforcement does not reduce the likelihood of an event occurring but rather it increases the likelihood of an event occurring by neutralizing a negative incident (B. Newman & P. Newman, 2007).
The component of shaping deals with breaking down a behavior into steps and reinforcing each step you want carried out until all of the steps have been carried out accordingly. A person may have to reinforce each step individually until new steps can be learned. Once new steps have been learned previous steps may no longer be reinforced. The schedules of reinforcement deal primarily with the regularity and frequency of reinforcements. A few examples of this component would be continuous reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement. Finally, extinction occurs when a response does not result in the expected reinforcer. Objectionable behavior followed by a harmful response is the main idea behind punishment (B. Newman & P. Newman, 2007).
Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning can be applied in the classroom in many different ways. His theory has enjoyed wide success in many classrooms across America and as a result it has become a very popular management theory among many teachers. One situation you might see this theory applied to is when a teacher feels that their students cannot control their own behavior. Further, a teacher may feel that because their students cannot control their own behavior the said behavior may result in negative actions in the classroom because of the erratic nature of the students. When a teacher is faced with this type of situation they may feel that the only way to control a hostile environment is with Skinner’s operant conditioning (Edwards, 2000).
Another way a teacher can apply this theory to their classroom is by making sure that the appropriate response is reinforced by the correct environmental consequence (Edwards, 2000). To simply recognize a response is not enough. If the appropriate consequence is not put into play by the teacher it may result in inappropriate responses going forward. A teacher must have a suitable reinforcer ready to meet the responses and more importantly the needs of their students (Edwards, 2000). If this reinforcer is not present it could result in the hostile environment discussed above or it may result in a student not reaching their full potential in the classroom. The behavior modification employed by a teacher through the use of Skinner’s theory may result in a student learning the academic content they hear in the classroom much faster when compared to a situation where Skinner’s theory was not used. This theory also gives teachers the opportunity to address potential conflicts in their classroom in a positive or supportive manner instead of a negative approach. It is priceless when a teacher can address a situation in a loving and supportive manner compared to a penalizing or destructive manner (Charles, 72).
Charles, C.M. (1999). Building classroom discipline, 72.
Edwards, C. H. (2000). Classroom discipline and management, 19, 48.
Newman, B. M., & Newman, P. R. (2007). Theories of human development, 48-59.