Why we should not ascribe to behaviorialism!

I am increasingly disturbed with the amount of behavioralism practices that run rampant through our educational and training environments. In my world of accelerated adult education, the buzz theory is constructivism. Why do I call it a buzz theory? Certainly not because it’s an invalid theory; quite the opposite! I strongly believe in it, as well as the underpinnings of humanism and social constructivism for effective education. I call it a buzz theory because it’s popular to tout, but not often actually used. As I worked on a doctoral piece that correlates self-efficacy and motivation across academic mentoring and executive coaching, I was quite shocked to realise how much we continue to ascribe to behaviorialism despite protests otherwise. As you read it, think about your own efforts in instructional design…are we really shaping curriculum to provide learners the ability to achieve self-actualization through transformative learning? Through constructing one’s own knowledge? Or are we simply creating a set of evaluation and assessments to provide to our accreditators that we are providing the proper education? I fully admit that our society demands the accountability that behaviorialism obsesses over, but there won’t be a major shift without schools and instructionals designers proving that humanism and constructivism truly is a more effective educational experience, allowing learners the opportunity to self-actualize, rather than simply earning a certificate that their employer demands.

Maslow (1970) and Rogers (1980) contributed the most to our understanding of motivation and learning that transcends cognitive learning in order to allow development of a growth mindset. The essence of humanism is that human beings are allowed to control destiny, have free will, and are inherently good. The motivational theory posited by Maslow and principles of significant learning posited by Rogers have been strongly embedded into andragogy by Knowles (1980), and a foundation for constructivism. Humanism was the new method that damaged many preconceptions in both psychology and education, specifically behaviorialism. While Maslow’s original intention was to build off of behaviorialism with the additional of affective learning, the bottom line, and to the surprise and acknowledgement later by Maslow, is that humanism conflicts strongly with the behaviourist approach developed in the early twentieth century. Maslow’s (1970) belief that people are inherently good and will experience emerging motivation in an effort towards self-actualization has provided a great deal of positive adult learning practices. However, there are still many practices that are rooted in behaviorialism due to it’s focus on “measureable, overt activity of the learner” (Marriam, Cafarella, and Baumgartner, 2007, p. 280) that guides so much current instructional planning.

Accountability links back to behaviorialism as well, and is demonstrated in current legislation such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that demands evidence-based practice. The most relevant indication of behaviorialism’s presence in adult education is the vocational skills acquistion required for many occupations from skill-based jobs to knowledge-based careers. Many human resource practices involve external motivation through rewards, even if it’s as simple as promotions upon achieving certification, but will only get exactly what is being demanded, rather than the continual innovation that humanism and constructivism encourages through the growth mindset driven by intrinsic motivation. As extrinsic motivation is the focus, intrinsic motivation is no longer necessary, greatly damaging the individual’s ability to achieve self-actualization. That is not to say that accountability is not important, but the incredible focus on extrinsic motivation hurts the lifelong learning and growth mindset, and organizations lose incredible potential by insisting on drones. Organizations must invest in the whole person learning approach as Rogers helps us understand, and reap the massive benefits of self-actualized employees achieving innovation through the creativity that they would be allowed to access. However, this cannot truly occur until academic institutions provides the curriculum to enhance the growth mindset for those adult learners to realise that there is more to education than simply getting the job or promotion.

Knowles, M. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Marriam, S., Caffarella, R., and Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and Personality. New York, NY: Ballentine Books.

Rogers, C. (1980). A Way of Being. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.

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