Behaviorism in the Classroom

As I was reading about Explicit Instruction (EI) in Chapter 1 of Anita Archer’s book, I made a note that it seems like an obvious approach to education. Reflecting on that statement, I think what I meant was that EI seems both familiar and intuitive. The principles spelled out on page 5 are a very appealing way to run a classroom. According to the text, EI is highly correlated with student achievement. I’m assuming achievement is measured in the form of standardized test scores. For reference and clarity, I’ve spelled out those principles here.

Principles of Explicit Instruction

  1. Optimize engaged time and time on task.
  2. Promote high levels of success.
  3. Increase content coverage.poss
  4. Have students spend more time in instructional groups.
  5. Scaffold instruction.
  6. Address different forms of knowledge.

For more detail on these principles, see Chapter 1 of Archer’s Explicit Instruction.

While EI is based in Behavioral Theory, these principles could all be adopted in a classroom that isn’t bound to that theoretical framework. This approach to instruction provides a great way to keep the classroom moving along at a productive pace. Of course, this type of instruction would need to be intermingled with other foms of instruction to reach the students that this high-energy approach doesn’t connect to.

A more specific application of Behaviorism that I’m interested in incorporating into my classroom is Programmed Instruction (PI). My idea right now is to possibly begin and end units with PI. At the beginning of a unit, a computerized lesson could act as a sort of introduction and diagnostic assessment. This would allow me to know exactly where each student is starting out. Then, the real heart of the unit would be activities and lessons focused on discovery. One assessment at the end of the lesson could be another computerized lesson that reviews the material and then delivers an assessment. This could then be compared with the students diagnostic assessment to gauge growth in that particular area.

There is an issue here, though. If my instruction is going to be primarily focused on discovery and activities, then the style of these assessments does not necessarily match the style of instruction. I’m sure there’s a way to resolve that, though.

PI is appealing to me because I’m interested in trying my hand at designing algorithms to drive the computerized lesson. I’m eager to pull technology and programming into my classroom. The data-tracking possibilities are also enticing.

There is definitely a place for Behaviorism in the classroom. The principles are tested and have been shown to increase at achievement as measured by tests. It happens that that form of student achievement is important in schools right now. So, improving scores on standardized tests cannot be discounted, even if there are more important and meaningful measures of student success.


Archer, A. & Hughes, C. (2011). Explicit instruction : effective and efficient teaching. New York: Guilford Press






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