What does behavior analysis have to offer education?

My first full time job as a behavior analyst was with a public school system. On countless occasions a classroom teacher would say to me, “But you’re a behavior analyst not a teacher. What do you know about teaching and learning?” I would often think to myself, “A lot. Behavior analysts know a lot about teaching and learning. Teaching is what we do and learning is what we measure.” I still think that…even 20 years later. Although, now, like many other behavior analysts (e.g., Axlerod, 1991; Skinner, 1984) I often find myself asking why we haven’t had more of an impact, especially if teaching is what we do and learning is what we measure.

Behavior analysts have a lot to offer education. We have 60 years of research starting with Keller’s (1968) personalized system of instruction (PSI) and Skinner’s (1968) Technology of Teaching. We have numerous studies exploring everything from instructional design, to methods of instruction, to reducing challenging behavior, to facilitating classroom management. We have data. We can show what is working and what is not working. We can use those data to determine when to make a change in an instructional strategy or to know how to adjust a curriculum. We have basic principles to help us to determine what to change and to make those changes more effective. We can even make predictions about the rate of learning. We have numerous behaviorally oriented teacher training programs and behavior analytic training programs housed in departments of education. We even have jobs for behavior analysts in the schools.

However, the stark reality is that many kids aren’t learning. Only one-third of kids are reading at grade level. At the same time, teachers are fed up – in recent weeks we’ve seen at least four states experience significant teacher strikes. Some have estimated that teachers are making $5000 to $8000 less per year than they have made in the last 10 years. In many states, teachers earn only 63 to 67 cents to the dollar as compared to others with the same level of education.

Heward (2005) described 12 “reasons applied behavior analysis is good for education” (p. 316). He went on to explain “why those reasons have been insufficient” (p. 324), concluding with several recommendations as to how behavior analysts could have a greater impact on education.

In the coming weeks, this blog will consider some of challenges facing education from a behavior analytic perspective.

Starting with one of Heward’s (2005) 12 reasons as to why “behavior analysis is good for education” (p. 316) or one of the explanations as to “why those reasons have been insufficient” (p. 324), a recent story regarding education will be explored. Have we overcome the barriers Heward identified? And if not, how can we overcome those barriers? Stay tuned for further discussion as to what behavior analysis has to offer education.