Associations between identifiable environmental stimuli and observable measurable behaviors

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … repertoire of behaviors
  • Knowing is … behaving (triggered by stimuli)
  • Learner is … an organism
  • Learning is … changes in behavior (linking stimuli to responses)
  • Teaching is … training; engineering behavior (through deliberate conditioning)




Behaviorisms reject the notion that knowledge is some sort of external, stable, and context-free object that exists independently of know­ers, and they redefine personal knowledge as established and stable repertoires of behavior that are triggered by events in the world. As well, seeking to establish a scientific basis for their claims, they also rejected attempts to explain learning in terms of unobservable mental processes, opting instead for phenomena that can be observed and measured. Originally oriented by the metaphor of a telephone switchboard (and, specifically, the activity of linking nodes), learning was imagined in terms of establishing a network of causal relations between stimuli and behaviors – and so Behaviorisms are commonly described as systematic studies of how different categories of behavior (e.g., reflexes, or conscious action) can be affected by different influences (e.g., rewards, punishments, personal history, current motivational states), focusing mainly on environmental factors.


Originally, proponents of Behaviorisms regarded the process of creating links between environmental stimuli and the individual’s responses as predictable and mechanical – manageable through well-timed rewards and punishments. While this focus affords powerful insight into a wide swath of human behavior, it has also proven inadequate to account for such defining qualities of humanity as creativity and altruism. Some of the assumption-rooted issues with Behaviorisms are revealed by an associated discourse:
  • Mathematical Learning Theory (Clark, L. Hull, 1930s) – Mathematical Learning Theory is not about learning mathematics, but about describing and explaining behavior in precise, quantitative terms.
Efforts have been made to apply Mathematical Learning Theory at both individual and classroom levels, often simultaneously. Somewhat ironically, although the discourse is thoroughly aligned with the sensibilities of Behaviorisms, its most prominent conclusions are better fitted to Coherence Discourses, such as Personalized Learning. For example, proponents of Mathematical Learning Theory showed that efforts to standardize learners' experiences tend to amplify differences across learnings, that each learner should be provided with a detailed model of learning specific to that person, and that sufficient time should be afforded each individual.


  • Mathematical Learning Theory

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Behaviorisms” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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