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Skinner and Behaviorism | TESL Issues

Skinner

Skinner (1953) attempted to extend a classical behaviorist model of learning to language in his famous ‘Verbal Behavior’. His goal was to provide a way to predict and control verbal behavior by observing and manipulating the physical environment of the speaker. In his review of this work, Chomsky (1959) showed that the Skinnerian concepts for learning (which included stimulus, conditioned response and reinforcement) do not apply to language knowledge and behavior. According to Chomsky, “Our capacity to generate language crucially determines our capacity to perceive language. It appears that we recognize a new item as a sentence not because it matches some familiar item in any simple way, but because it is generated by the grammar that each individual has somehow and in some form internalized. And we understand a new sentence, in part, because we are somehow capable of determining the process by which this sentence is derived in this grammar (Chomsky, 1959, p. 576).

The founder of modern behaviorism is generally considered to be B. F. Skinner, who constructed a system of principles to account for human behavior in strictly observable terms (Skinner, 1957, 1987). He believed that learning was the result of environmental rather than genetic factors. Skinner extended the possible application of principles of conditioning by introducing the notion of ‘operants’, i.e. the range of behaviors that organisms perform or are capable of performing. He also emphasized the importance of ‘reinforcement’.

Verbal Behaviour by B. F. Skinner.

Skinner (1957) in his Verbal Behavior, even argued that language development could be explained by the adoption of 4 simple procedures as:

  • Teachers should make explicitly clear what is to be taught;
  • Tasks should be broken down into small, sequential steps;
  • Students should be encouraged to work at their own pace by means of individualised learning programmes;
  • Learning should be ‘programmed’ by incorporating the above procedures and providing immediate positive reinforcement based as nearly as possible on 10 per cent success.

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