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Battle of the Behavioral Theorists: An Analysis of the theories of B.F. Skinner and Albert Bandura

By: Laura Ma

Publish Date: January 22, 2024

The ideas behind creating a positive learning environment have evolved over time. Today I will look at two key theorists, B.F Skinner and Albert Bandura, and examine their contributions to our current understanding of behavior management and creating positive classroom environments. Then, I will examine multiple elements of a positive learning environment based on previous research and personal experience. 

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner conducted his famous experiments on rats on pigeons during the 1930s. The behavior theory he formed and wrote heavily only is called Operant Conditioning. Skinner’s theory states that behaviors can be influenced by adding a consequence and providing rewards. He believed that people did not truly have free will but were a product of the operants  environmental responses that follow a behavior they experienced. For instance, if a child takes a candy without asking and is caught by their adult, if the adult takes away a privilege then the child will adjust their behavior in the future to avoid this negative response from their adult. Skinner used rats and levers that delivered an electric shock when moved to come to this conclusion. His theory also includes positive and neutral reinforcement. He also found that If a if punishment is removed then the previous behavior returns. Behaviors don’t go away entirely but are just suppressed. 

Skinner’s theories are seen in classrooms now. His language of “Positive reinforcers”, “Negative reinforcement” and “neutral” are still used today. In my first teaching job we were trained on using these. For example, we gave stickers to students exhibiting positive behaviors. If a student was chatting too much during class we might move closer to them or ask them to switch seats with another student as neutral reinforcers. Then, of course there are negative reinforcers when a student loses a privilege or a phone call is made home.  

Albert Bandura

Bandura’s research also discovered that “self-efficacy, the belief in one’s own capabilities, has an effect on what individuals choose to do, the amount of effort they put into doing it, and the way they feel as they are doing it” according to Nolan, 2024. This idea is at odds with Skinner’s assertion that people cannot influence their own decisions. 

Bandura’s research and theories were formed in the 1970s. He developed the social learning theory which states that. Children learn from observing others. His Bobo doll experiment was controversial but played a key role in the formation of his theory. He was asked to testify before the FTC giving evidence for the relationships between violent TV programs and an increase in violent behaviour in yong people during the 1960s. 

Key tenets from a paper Bandura wrote with paper with Walters :

  • Learning is a cognitive process which takes place in a social setting.

  • Learning can occur by observing behavior and consequences of such.

  • Learning can occur without an observable change in behavior, because we may learn without displaying what we have learned.

  • Reinforcement plays a role but isn’t entirely responsible for learning

  • Cognition, behavior, and environment all mutually influence each other. This is what Bandura called reciprocal determinism 

We can see the influence of his work in our own classrooms. Teachers are trained to be consistent with rewards and punishments. When a student calls out in class and the teacher reprimands them, the other students are reminded that this is not the way to take part in 

Let’s delve further into the differences in these theories. 

Both theorists look at the role of the environment as a key factor in people’s learning. They both believe that behavior is a result of what is learned from experience according to Corey, 2009. However, Bandura observed that learning can occur without an observable change in behavior, because we may learn without displaying what we have learned. Both men had significant contributions to behavior theory. Skinner believed that operant conditioning reinforced behavior for people as well as his famous pigeons. He did not think that people had free will but rather were a product of their their conditioning over time. 

 Bandura focuses on how children learn from watching adults but concludes that people are “goal-oriented and have specific intentions and purposes”. However, he and Skinner align in that Bandura accepts the idea that an person’s behavior might be conditioned through the use of consequences. 

When it comes to creating a positive classroom environment, both theorist’s ideas are important. While they did not agree on all points, what we all can see from their research is that the classroom environment plays a pivotal role in the experience and success of students. Young learners thrive then they feel heard and valued by their peers and teachers alike. It is the job of the administrators and educators to foster this environment by:

  •  Investing in resources for student centered classrooms

  • Training teachers in SEL curriculum integration

  • Lobbying local government to keep social welfare programs that support all students

  • Learn about their students individual academic and social needs

  • Utilize parent support

  • Foster a culture of mutual respect by using class charters

These are just a few examples of ways to create a positive learning environment for students. Whether a teacher believes more in the theories of Skinner of Bandura does not matter much with the above examples. The key thing is that that student success and the learning environment are closely linked. We must work to make the classroom a happy, safe, and educational space for all. 

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