In ELT circles, ‘behaviourism’ is a boo word. In the standard history of approaches to language teaching (characterised as a ‘procession of methods’ by Hunter & Smith 2012: 432), there were the bad old days of behaviourism until Chomsky came along, savaged the theory in his review of Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behavior’, and we were all able to see the light. In reality, of course, things weren’t quite like that. The debate between Chomsky and the behaviourists is far from over, behaviourism was not the driving force behind the development of audiolingual approaches to language teaching, and audiolingualism is far from dead. For an entertaining and eye-opening account of something much closer to reality, I would thoroughly recommend a post on Russ Mayne’s Evidence Based ELT blog, along with the discussion which follows it. For anyone who would like to understand what behaviourism is, was, and is not (before they throw the term around as an insult), I’d recommend John A. Mills’ ‘Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology’ (New York University Press, 1998) and John Staddon’s ‘The New Behaviorism 2nd edition’ (Psychology Press, 2014).
There is a close connection between behaviourism and adaptive learning. Audrey Watters, no fan of adaptive technology, suggests that ‘any company touting adaptive learning software’ has been influenced by Skinner. In a more extended piece, ‘Education Technology and Skinner’s Box’, Watters explores further her problems with Skinner and the educational technology that has been inspired by behaviourism. But writers much more sympathetic to adaptive learning, also see close connections to behaviourism. ‘The development of adaptive learning systems can be considered as a transformation of teaching machines,’ write Kara & Sevim (2013: 114 – 117), although they go on to point out the differences between the two. Vendors of adaptive learning products, like DreamBox Learning©, are not shy of associating themselves with behaviourism: ‘Adaptive learning has been with us for a while, with its history of adaptive learning rooted in cognitive psychology, beginning with the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, and continuing through the artificial intelligence movement of the 1970s.’
That there is a strong connection between adaptive learning and behaviourism is indisputable, but I am not interested in attempting to establish the strength of that connection. This would, in any case, be an impossible task without some reductionist definition of both terms. Instead, my interest here is to explore some of the parallels between the two, and, in the spirit of the topic, I’d like to do this by comparing the behaviours of behaviourists and adaptive learning scientists.
Data and theory
Both behaviourism and adaptive learning (in its big data form) are centrally concerned with behaviour – capturing and measuring it in an objective manner. In both, experimental observation and the collection of ‘facts’ (physical, measurable, behavioural occurrences) precede any formulation of theory. John Mills’ description of behaviourists could apply equally well to adaptive learning scientists: theory construction was a seesaw process whereby one began with crude outgrowths from observations and slowly created one’s theory in such a way that one could make more and more precise observations, building those observations into the theory at each stage. No behaviourist ever considered the possibility of taking existing comprehensive theories of mind and testing or refining them.
Positivism and the panopticon
Both behaviourism and adaptive learning are pragmatically positivist, believing that truth can be established by the study of facts. J. B. Watson, the founding father of behaviourism whose article ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’ set the behaviourist ball rolling, believed that experimental observation could ‘reveal everything that can be known about human beings’. Jose Ferreira of Knewton has made similar claims: We get five orders of magnitude more data per user than Google does. We get more data about people than any other data company gets about people, about anything — and it’s not even close. We’re looking at what you know, what you don’t know, how you learn best. […] We know everything about what you know and how you learn best because we get so much data. Digital data analytics offer something that Watson couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams, but he would have approved.
Big data (and the adaptive learning which is a part of it) is presented as a game-changer: The era of big data challenges the way we live and interact with the world. […] Society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations: not knowing why but only what. This overturns centuries of established practices and challenges our most basic understanding of how to make decisions and comprehend reality. But the reverence for technology and the ability to reach understandings of human beings by capturing huge amounts of behavioural data was adumbrated by Watson a century before big data became a widely used term. Watson’s 1913 lecture at Columbia University was ‘a clear pitch’ for the supremacy of behaviourism, and its potential as a revolutionary science.
The fundamental point of both behaviourism and adaptive learning is the same. The research practices and the theorizing of American behaviourists until the mid-1950s, writes Mills were driven by the intellectual imperative to create theories that could be used to make socially useful predictions. Predictions are only useful to the extent that they can be used to manipulate behaviour. Watson states this very baldly: the theoretical goal of psychology is the prediction and control of behaviour. Contemporary iterations of behaviourism, such as behavioural economics or nudge theory (see, for example, Thaler & Sunstein’s best-selling ‘Nudge’, Penguin Books, 2008), or the British government’s Behavioural Insights Unit, share the same desire to divert individual activity towards goals (selected by those with power), ‘without either naked coercion or democratic deliberation’. Jose Ferreira of Knewton has an identical approach: We can predict failure in advance, which means we can pre-remediate it in advance. We can say, “Oh, she’ll struggle with this, let’s go find the concept from last year’s materials that will help her not struggle with it.” Like the behaviourists, Ferreira makes grand claims about the social usefulness of his predict-and-control technology: The end is a really simple mission. Only 22% of the world finishes high school, and only 55% finish sixth grade. Those are just appalling numbers. As a species, we’re wasting almost four-fifths of the talent we produce. […] I want to solve the access problem for the human race once and for all.
Because they rely on capturing large amounts of personal data, both behaviourism and adaptive learning quickly run into ethical problems. Even where informed consent is used, the subjects must remain partly ignorant of exactly what is being tested, or else there is the fear that they might adjust their behaviour accordingly. The goal is to minimise conscious understanding of what is going on. For adaptive learning, the ethical problem is much greater because of the impossibility of ensuring the security of this data. Everything is hackable.
Behaviourism was seen as a god-send by the world of advertising. J. B. Watson, after a front-page scandal about his affair with a student, and losing his job at John Hopkins University, quickly found employment on Madison Avenue. ‘Scientific advertising’, as practised by the Mad Men from the 1920s onwards, was based on behaviourism. The use of data analytics by Google, Amazon, et al is a direct descendant of scientific advertising, so it is richly appropriate that adaptive learning is the child of data analytics.
 Hunter, D. and Smith, R. (2012) ‘Unpacking the past: “CLT” through ELTJ keywords’. ELT Journal, 66/4: 430-439.
 Kara, N. & Sevim, N. 2013. ‘Adaptive learning systems: beyond teaching machines’, Contemporary Educational Technology, 4(2), 108-120
 Mills, J. A. (1998) Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. New York: New York University Press, p.5
 Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. p.91
 Mayer-Schönberger, V. & Cukier, K. (2013) Big Data. London: John Murray, p.7
 Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. p.87
 Mills, J. A. (1998) Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. New York: New York University Press, p.2
 Watson, J. B. (1913) ‘Behaviorism as the Psychologist Views it’ Psychological Review 20: 158
 Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. p.88
 Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. p.92