Who was the most important teacher in your life? What did that person do that was important? Are the effects created by that person replicable? That is, do we know enough to move from that person’s considerable “talents” to a technology of teaching that any properly trained person can implement? If so, why are there so few all-time favorite teachers?
Behavior analysts think about teaching as the dynamic and reciprocal relations between the behavior of the teacher and the student(s). Because teaching is behavior, it’s part of our discipline’s subject matter and therefore a viable – some would say essential – topic for behavioral research. And yet, our journals don’t feature much on the process of teaching.
Teaching, Pedagogy, and a Culture That Doesn’t Care Enough
A teacher is one who engages in teaching, and following Skinner (1968), “teaching is simply the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement” (p. 5). But, that “arranging of contingencies” is not a simple endeavor, nor is it restricted to classroom settings. Researchers and practitioners are often mentors (teachers) as well to the individuals they oversee. Parents are teachers. When as citizens we engage with our communities and political systems to seek social change, we are also teaching.
Teaching is everywhere, and doing it well matters. I was able to create this post because of my teachers. You are able to read and reflect upon it because of your teachers. We are lucky. Those less fortunate pay the price daily for a lack of good teaching. For example, those who don’t learn to read well – a problem far too common in the United States – are at increased risk of dropping out of school, underemployment, unemployment, health issues, among many other social ills.
As Skinner wrote in The Technology of Teaching:
“Education is perhaps the most important branch of scientific technology.
It deeply affects the lives of all of us” (Skinner, 1968, p. 19).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines pedagogy as, “the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept.” Pedagogy is the science of teaching, while education is the practice of teaching. Unfortunately, the science of does not always get a lot of respect. As Skinner observed:
“Pedagogy is not a prestigious word” (p. 94).
We are faced with a paradox: Although education is important, indeed one of the most pressing problems in our country, its scientific examination is not commonly practiced or supported (see Lamal et al., 2000). And this may be true because our culture doesn’t really value teaching. Though it’s common to claim otherwise; think of token “Teacher Appreciation” days. But actions speak louder than words. Most professional teachers are given an impossible job (too many students, too many administrative demands, too few resources) and compensated far less than business executives, physicians, or master plumbers.
Behavior analysts see evidence of this cultural bias all the time. We know that people in higher education often draw distinctions between a professor (a scholar or scientist) and a person who is “just a teacher.” We know that in some institutions of higher education, faculty researchers don’t get the same credit toward tenure and promotion for publications on the topic of teaching as they do for publication on other topics. And we know that for many supervisors, mentors, and researchers in behavior analysis, teaching is “invisible labor.” They are supposed to shape the repertoires of their coworkers without time budgeted for this in their formal job descriptions.
We live in a culture that doesn’t value teaching. As experts in behavior, with particular knowledge in social validity, shouldn’t we be able to escape that bias? Shouldn’t we know everything there is to know about the behavior of teaching?
Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
Because teaching is essential and takes place practically everywhere, it deserves to be the focus of sustained and systematic research in behavior analysis. To elevate teaching as research, I want to tell you about the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), which is a relatively unknown area in behavior analysis.
If you have not heard about SoTL, you’re in for a treat. SoTL “is a field that systematically examines processes and practices in teaching and learning” (Kim, 2023, p. 3). SoTL has been around for a while and it employs a definition of scholarship that views teaching as a research (Boyer, 1990). You may think that learning and teaching are already covered in behavior analysis, and you are correct. However, we are not the only ones paying attention to these topics; it serves us well to learn from the existent scholarship of others.
Teaching and learning are topics of interest for both SoTL and behavior analysis. It was refreshing for me to learn about and join the inclusive community of SoTL, which embraces a variety of disciplines, a multitude of methodologies, and claims the respect that teaching deserves in academia and beyond. I joined the SoTL community by reading articles within the field, attending and presenting at their conferences, publishing some SoTL projects, and speaking to colleagues in the field. While exploring unfamiliar methodologies made me occasionally uncomfortable, it expanded my horizons and opened opportunities for collaborations. Most importantly this process of delving into SoTL was centered on improving the learning experience for my students. You can read more about the connections I made between behavior analysis and SoTL in a free book, an open-educational resource, called Behavioral Pedagogies and Online Learning.
Given Skinner’s position on the importance of education, it should come as no surprise that teaching has been examined in behavior analysis. Related to the application of behavior principles to education and in remembrance of the influence of Skinner’s book The Technology of Teaching, Layng (2023) stated, “We may lament that more applications have not arisen, but we also need to celebrate what has been accomplished” (p. 8). Following Layng’s recommendation, let’s now examine how the topic of teaching has been treated in some issues of the journal The Behavior Analyst (TBA) now Perspectives on Behavior Science (PoBS).
Image of the cover of the journal Perspectives on Behavior Science.
Teaching in Perspectives on Behavior Science
The editors of this journal have consistently highlighted the need to reach an audience that is broader than behavior analysts. We need to consider that our audience includes students of behavior analysis and members of releated fields (see Madden et al., 2004). It is imperative that articles about teaching and education published in PoBS are written in an accessible way (i.e., if at all possible, free from behavior-analytic jargon) to reach a wide audience and have other educators adopt behavior-analytic practices.
Journal editors influence the topics and policies of the journal; they hold power and responsibility over the discipline. In their editorials, short publications at the beginning of an issue, editors present statements of their position which include their priorities, any changes to the journal, and/or continuation of trends on topics and procedures previously followed. I find that reading the editorials of the journals is informative and interesting, and it helps me get a sense of the trends in our field. Take for example, Samuel M. Deitz who served as editor of TBA from 1990 to 1991. He introduced a new section to the journal called Not For Professors Only.
This will be a new section at the end of each issue of the journal. While TBA has occasionally published pieces that are humorous or off-beat, I plan to make this more regular (we shouldn’t always take ourselves too seriously). When I teach behavior analysis, I am always looking for jokes, stories, anecdotes, excellent applied examples (especially of complex topics), improvements for my lessons, analogies, and, in general, ways to bring behavior analysis to life for my students. I think it is within the purposes of TBA to present these items to readers. (Deitz, 1990a, p. 2)
For this new section Deitz (1990a) was seeking “an original story, anecdote, analogy, example, lesson plan, joke, or whatever, send it to me for consideration in this new section.” (p. 2). Two initial works were published in this section: a discussion on the value of college teaching manuals (Schneider, 1990) and a piece on experiences and recommendations for advising, and mentoring students to complete theses in applied behavior analysis (Heward et al., 1990).
Shortly after announcing this new section, Deitz, (1990b) wrote another editorial titled “No Longer for Professors Only”, where he explained that:
The contents of TBA are not, nor should they be, only for professors. Clearly, the section needs a new title. Since most material in this section is to help us work with traditional students, and since all behavior analysts continue to be students of our field, the new name for this section will be: For Students of Behavior Analysis. (Deitz, 1990b, p. 203)
In the following issue of TBA, Michael (1991) published an article titled “A Behavioral Perspective on College Teaching.” Far from short and light, in this full-length paper, we learn about effective learning, student motivation, and aversive control in college teaching as well as how to minimize it. Also, Hummel et al. (1991) published a piece on an ever-lasting important topic of how to teach students to analyze examples of classical conditioning. Lastly, in that issue Palya’s (1991) “Catalyst for Discussion on Observables, Inference, and Behaviorism” discussion may best fit what Deitz was seeking.
In 1992, while Jay Moore was editor, Miltenberger (1992) published a paper under the section “For Students of Behavior Analysis” following up on the topic of theses where he encouraged behavioral theses within non-behavioral programs. He shared experiences as well as advantages and disadvantages of working with committees composed of faculty outside of behavior analysis.
In her inaugural editorial Margaret Vaughan (1994) — editor from 1994 to 1996, envisioned TBA as “an advanced course in behavior analysis” (p. 1). Accordingly, a special section on teaching behavior analysis was published, addressing a need still relevant today: “more and better teaching of behavior analysis” (Heward & Malott, 1995, p. 70).
Articles on the challenges and experiences of teaching behavior analysis at the college level appeared later in TBA. Greer and McDonough (1999) proposed a measure of teaching called the learn unit, which describes the interactions between teachers and students. Most recently Morris (2022) introduced a special section of PoBS dedicated to teaching the history of behavior analysis. Whether you are working with undergraduate, graduate students, mentoring professionals, and setting up reading groups, there are valuable tools in these articles to infuse or focus on the history of behavior analysis in your teachings.
The Prestige of Pedagogy and Teachers in Behavior Analysis
From the levity intended with the short-lived journal section proposed by Deitz to the seriousness that characterizes the publications on the topic of teaching in PoBS, I think that teaching has been an important topic in TBA/PoBS. We are encouraged to examine what is going on with this topic in other behavior-analytic journals as well. Still, more can be done, and part of the reason, to me, is revealed in Deitz’s (1990b) editorial, because “all behavior analysts continue to be students of our field” (p. 203).
Although I have described work published in TBA/PoBS during the1990s and jumped to 2022, there has been more published in between those years. Still, the topics of teaching, pedagogy, and education, warrant further scientific development in basic, translational, and applied fields of behavior analysis.
Let’s make the words pedagogy and teacher prestigious by centering focus and efforts on scholarship on this subject matter. By prestigious I mean admired, respected, significant, important, and impressive. Let’s make our actions related to teaching in behavior analysis speak louder than words. I acknowledge that I am proposing individual and group level efforts, but that concurrently institutional and more systemic changes need to occur to better support and sustain pedagogy and education.
As mentioned earlier, one avenue towards advancing research in teaching in behavior analysis is to learn more from the community of SoTL. Another way is to use and build upon the existent behavior-analytic literature when developing courses and teaching activities, and to consider publishing more on this topic. After all, the future of behavior analysis is in our current and future students and they deserve the best pedagogies and teachers. The survival and growth of our field depends on pedagogy and teachers. Honor your teacher(s) and be proud of how you are a student and a teacher of behavior analysis. Learning and teaching unites us.
Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered. Priorities of the professoriate. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. https://www.umces.edu/sites/default/files/al/pdfs/BoyerScholarshipReconsidered.pdf
Elcoro, M. (2022). Exploring connections between the scholarship of teaching and learning and behavior analysis. In Behavioral Pedagogies and Online Learning (pp. 113-135). A. Brewer, M. Elcoro, & A. Lippincott. (Eds.) Hedgehog Publishing.
Deitz, S. M. (1990a). Editorial. The Behavior Analyst, 13(1), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392508
Deitz, S. M. (1990b). No longer “Not for professors only.” The Behavior Analyst, 13(2), 203–203. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392541
Greer, R. D., & McDonough, S. H. (1999). Is the learn unit a fundamental measure of pedagogy? The Behavior Analyst, 22(1), 5–16. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391973
Heward, W. L., Heron, T. E., & Cooper, J. O. (1990). The masters thesis in applied behavior analysis: Rationale, characteristics, and student advisement strategies. The Behavior Analyst, 13(2), 205–210. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392542
Heward, W. L., & Malott, R. W. (1995). Introduction: how the happy few might become the competent many. The Behavior Analyst, 18(1), 69–71. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392692
Hummel, J. H., Abercrombie, C., & Koepsel, P. (1991). Teaching students to analyze examples of classical conditioning. The Behavior Analyst, 14(2), 241–246. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392579
Lamal, P. A., Rakos, R. F., & Greenspoon, J. (2000). Collegiate contingencies. The Behavior Analyst, 23(2), 219–238. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392012
Michael, J. (1991). A behavioral perspective on college teaching. The Behavior Analyst, 14(2), 229–239. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392578
Miltenberger, R. G. (1992). For students of behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 15(1), 81–83. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392589
Morris, E. K. (2022). Introduction to teaching the history of behavior analysis: Past, purpose, and prologue. Perspectives on Behavior Science, 45(4), 697–710. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-022-00356-9
Palya, W. L. (1991). A catalyst for discussion on observables, inference, and behaviorism. The Behavior Analyst, 14(2), 247–247. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392580
Schneider, S. M. (1990). Now what?: Not for TAs only. The Behavior Analyst, 13(2), 201–202. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392540
Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. B. F. Skinner Foundation. Copley.
Vaughan, M. (1994). Editorial. The Behavior Analyst, 17(1), 1–1. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392647