Behaviourism and adaptive learning

Posted: October 3, 2015 in adaptive, learning theory
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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[1]), 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[2] (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.[3]

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 Itset the behaviourist ball rolling, believed that experimental observation could ‘reveal everything that can be known about human beings’[4]. 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.

happiness industryThe revolutionary science

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[5]. 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’[6] for the supremacy of behaviourism, and its potential as a revolutionary science.

Prediction and controlnudge

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[7] 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[8]. 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’[9]. 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[10]. 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.

[1] Hunter, D. and Smith, R. (2012) ‘Unpacking the past: “CLT” through ELTJ keywords’. ELT Journal, 66/4: 430-439.

[2] Kara, N. & Sevim, N. 2013. ‘Adaptive learning systems: beyond teaching machines’, Contemporary Educational Technology, 4(2), 108-120

[3] Mills, J. A. (1998) Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. New York: New York University Press, p.5

[4] Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. p.91

[5] Mayer-Schönberger, V. & Cukier, K. (2013) Big Data. London: John Murray, p.7

[6] Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. p.87

[7] Mills, J. A. (1998) Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. New York: New York University Press, p.2

[8] Watson, J. B. (1913) ‘Behaviorism as the Psychologist Views it’ Psychological Review 20: 158

[9] Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. p.88

[10] Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry. London: Verso. p.92

  1. alexcase says:

    I’m not sure all the similarities quite work, but most of them do and more importantly I had a lot of the misconceptions that the post mentions. I must say that even so with those misconceptions, I thought that what I was taught was behaviourism in my TEFL studies (stopping people getting in bad habits etc) sounded like something that had some useful lessons in it. For one thing, it occured to me that the inability to get wrong lyrics out of your head once they are stuck in it must have some relevance to TEFL. And to draw my own similarity which is a perhaps bit of a stretch, Newtonian physics could be said to be wrong, but it is still an incredibly useful simplification.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Hi Alex
      I’m sorry that I gave the impression that I thought that behaviourism had no useful insights to those of us involved in language teaching. My view is quite the opposite! I didn’t expand on this because I didn’t feel I had anything useful to add to Russ Mayne’s blog post and the discussion which follows it. Language is communication; communication is behaviour; behavioural science must be an important part of our understanding of language and language learning.
      The problem, for me, in ELT is that we have a long history (Russ provides some examples) of the straw-man fallacy when it comes to behaviourism. We have come to associate things like ‘stopping people getting into bad habits’ with behaviourism, but we’ve got our history wrong. Classical conditioning predates behaviourism (Pavlov was not a behaviourist). Associationism predates both, by a long way.
      Here’s a useful quote from Howatt:
      ‘Habit formation was, as we have seen, Palmer’s core methodological principle. If it was derived from anywhere – and he does not make his sources clear – one possible candidate is William James’ ‘Principles of Psychology’ published in 1890, an immensely influential work which stands, as it were, on the dividing line between speculative and scientific psychology. He was also influenced by an early work of Bloomfield’s (An Introduction to the Study of Language (1914)), which set out the generally accepted associationist view of the time: ‘language is not a process of logical reference to a conscious set of rules; the process of understanding, speaking and writing is everywhere an associative one. Real language teaching consists, therefore, of building up in the pupil those associative habits which constitute the language to be learned.’ Despite the use of the ubiquitous term ‘habit’, associationism was not a form of ‘behaviourism’, which has much more to do with the status of psychology as a science.’ (Howatt, A. P. R. with Widdowson, H.G. 2004 ‘A History of English Language Teaching’ (2nd edition) Oxford: Oxford University Press p.273)
      Getting our history wrong has caused us problems. One example of this is the way that audiolingualism and drilling have been written off by some people in ELT because of their association with behaviourism. But both audiolingualism and drilling have a complicated relationship with behaviourism, and the rejection of behaviourism was, in any case, flawed, to say the least.
      Best wishes

  2. […] 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[1]), there were …  […]

  3. […] 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[1]), 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…  […]

  4. […] Nos círculos ELT, "behaviorismo" é uma palavra boo. Na história padrão de abordagens para o ensino de línguas (caracterizada como uma "procissão de métodos" por Hunter & Smith 2012: 432 [1]), não eram os maus velhos tempos do behaviorismo até Chomsky veio junto, savaged a teoria em sua revisão de Skinner 'Comportamento Verbal', e estávamos todos capazes de ver a luz. Na realidade, é claro, as coisas não eram bem assim. O debate entre Chomsky e os behavioristas está longe de terminar, o behaviorismo não foi a força motriz por trás do desenvolvimento de abordagens audiolingual ao ensino das línguas, e audiolingualism está longe de ser morto. Para um relato divertido e de abrir os olhos de algo muito mais próximo da realidade, eu recomendaria um post em Baseada em Evidências ELT blog de Russ Mayne, juntamente com a discussão que se segue. Para qualquer um que gostaria de entender o que o behaviorismo é, foi, e não é (antes de lançar o termo ao redor como um insulto), eu recomendo John A. Mills '' Control: A História da Psicologia Comportamental "(New York University Press, 1998) e John Staddon do 'The New Behaviorismo 2 nd edição' (Psychology Press, 2014). Existe uma ligação estreita entre o behaviorismo e aprendizagem adaptativa. Audrey Watters, nenhum fã da tecnologia adaptativa, sugere que "qualquer empresa que reúne software de aprendizagem adaptativa 'tem sido influenciada por Skinner. Em uma parte mais alargada, "Tecnologia e Educação Caixa de Skinner ', Watters explora ainda mais seus problemas com Skinner ea tecnologia educacional que foi inspirada por behaviorismo. Mas os escritores muito mais simpáticas à aprendizagem adaptativa, veja também estreitas ligações com o behaviorismo. "O desenvolvimento de sistemas de aprendizagem adaptativa pode ser considerado como uma transformação de máquinas de ensino," escrever Kara & Sevim[2] (2013: 114 – 117), embora eles passam a apontar as diferenças entre os dois. Fornecedores de produtos de aprendizagem adaptativos, como DreamBox Aprendizagem ©, não são tímidos de se associar com o behaviorismo: "aprendizagem adaptativa tem estado conosco por um tempo, com a sua história de aprendizagem adaptativa enraizada na psicologia cognitiva, começando com o trabalho de behaviorista BF Skinner na década de 1950, e continuando com o movimento inteligência artificial da década de 1970.  […]

  5. […] as the direct precursor of programmed instruction, now closely associated with B. F. Skinner (see my post on Behaviourism and Adaptive Learning). It is a quintessentially self-paced approach and is […]

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