As the continued rate of societal change and technological innovation works to place a greater emphasis on the development of 21st century skills involving critical thinking, expert communication, and students’ abilities to effectively collaborate and utilize technology, today’s classrooms teachers are actively rethinking the manner in which they interact and instruct their students. In looking at 21st century skill development The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2011) cites the Programme for International Student Assessment in defining ICT literacy as “the interest, attitude, and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital technology, and communication tools to access, manage, integrate and evaluate information, construct new knowledge, and communicate with others in order to participate effectively in society” (p. 4). In citing this information and recognizing the very apparent need for instructional change teachers are left to question whether learning theories utilized successfully with past generations, such as behaviourism, are as relevant and applicable to current instructional practices. In light of society’s changing views on learning one is left to question whether there is a place for behaviourism within current education given the increased push for the successful integration of educational technology? In answering this question I believe so, and in carefully reviewing various technological resources and looking at the educational strategies of reinforcing effort and homework and practice, an instructional connection between these strategies, B.F. Skinner's concept of behaviourism, and the utilization of technology resources indeed supports student achievement and promotion of learner success.
Reflecting on my time in the classroom I, as a teacher, have always been a strong proponent of positive reinforcement and believe an encouraging word can do wonders in the classroom! As a means of motivating students to achieve their best the use of positive reinforcement works to build on the self-esteem of students and allows them to see the value inherent to their actions. In looking at the methodology of behaviourism its beginnings can be attributed to behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner whose theory of operant conditioning, as discussed by Orey (Laureate Education, 2011) centers around the theory that learning only occurs as a result of a stimulus response, be it positive or negative. Building on this concept Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski’s (2007) research on effective instruction and technology use supports this behavioural theory and recognizes that the positive reinforcing of student effort is an important factor in achievement, and can work to “enhance students’ understanding of the relationship between effort and achievement by addressing [students’] attitudes and beliefs about learning” (p.155). In taking the reinforcement of effort and adding in the element of technology, the use of digital resources can, as Pitler et al. (2007) note, allow students and teachers to more easily identify the connecting link between class effort and achievement levels due to the provision of immediate feedback and the tracking of the effects of effort. In utilizing technology such as data spreadsheets as a visual tool within the reinforcement process, students are given the opportunity to track and see first-hand the correlation between their grades and the level of effort they put forth. Again Pitler et al. (2007) note, “a powerful way to convince students that effort is truly tied to achievement is to show them data – not just data on themselves but also combined data on the groups they associate with” (p.161). From a behavioural standpoint this sharing of data with students works to influence behavioral change by providing students with visual information and a source of stimulus needed to maintain learner performance, or if required garner the sought after learner changes, i.e. the student sees their low performance rating, becomes motivated to change, and subsequently learns they need to apply themselves more efficiently if they want a better grade.
Homework and Practice
Thinking back to my days in grade school homework was a given and generally involved reams and reams of photocopied worksheets and a multitude of textbook pages. Back then I just thought my teacher was mean; it is only now that I am on the other side of the desk that I can see that the perceived benefit of her actions was not the crushing of my social life. The intended purpose of homework and the repeated practice of classroom concepts is that students gain proficiency by being given frequent opportunities to review materials and apply what they have learned in the interest of gaining a better level of understanding. In relating the use of homework to Skinner’s (as cited by Laureate Education, Inc., 2011) operant theory the stimulus for learning, and improving, is garnered through students observing their level of proficiency increasing on continued assignments. With repeated practice the hope is that students begin to observe that the speed or ease with which they complete questions or tasks has improved; and that they appreciate and are motivated by the fact that learning has taken place. In looking at the changing nature of homework within current classrooms with the advent of instructional technologies, Pitler et al. (2007) observe how “technology facilitates homework and practice by providing a wealth of resources for learning outside the classroom, making it easy for students to work on collaborative homework assignments and providing ‘drill and practice’ resources that help students refine their skills” (p.189). Through the use of a variety of instructional tasks teachers are able to assign homework which utilizes a range of learning technology and software. Be it word processing assignments, spreadsheet development, communication software, or the creation of multimedia projects, homework has been taken to a new level of student interaction - a level which allows teachers to target learning objectives, increase student engagement, and scaffold their instruction to accommodate multiple learning preferences and student diversity, be it cultural, linguistic, or academic. In reviewing a variety of electronic resources, such as webMATH and online keyboarding, many are constructed on a behavioral foundation in that students are challenged to correctly work through various tasks and if they fail to perform correctly they receive some form of feedback and are given the opportunity to attempt the task again. Technological resources vary in terms of complexity but the constant in design is that students are afforded the opportunity to review and practice skills, and then apply their learning in an interactive fashion. As Pitler et al. (2007) highlight, the integration of technology, specifically web resources into instruction “allows students to practice concepts and skills repeatedly from their homes, during a study period, or even as an anchor activity within a differentiated classroom” (p.195). Teachers are quick to recognize that technology has an immediate appeal to today’s digital minded students generally as a result of its ability to engage and provide immediate feedback with relation to the garnering of mastery level understanding, i.e. students enjoy the task, learn the needed skills, and ultimately work to master the online resource. Clearly the integration of technology as a homework tool affords teachers the opportunity to utilize resources that reaffirms learners’ actions, allows for differentiation, and builds learning exponentially whereby students can progress along a learning continuum of novice to expert activities and tasks whilst receiving immediate constructive feedback throughout the learning process. In offering possible resources that facilitate the greater integration of technology into instruction, the Black Gold Regional Schools "Engaging Students" home page (http://engagingstudents.blackgold.ca/) offers a wealth of online resources for students in k-12, special education, and home-based learning. In helping with the development of the resource I can speak first-hand when I say it is a great resource and there is virtually something about most concept strands including webquests, online tools, and Smart Board resources.
There is no denying that the learning needs and expectations of today’s students have shifted. Current instruction must now be capable of addressing 21st century skills if it is to meet society’s changing requirements of learning. In recognition of this fact classroom instruction and resources involving aspects of behaviorism, though a dated theory of learning, will continue to assist teachers in the promotion of learning behaviors, and allow students opportunities to further develop and reinforce their understanding of instructed concepts, including the sought after 21st century skills. Ultimately in analysing current instructional strategies and the increasingly prevalent use of technology resources with students, the meaningful inclusion of behaviorist teaching techniques and resources as a means of promoting desired learning behaviors will, despite societal change, continue to be a part of the learning process by contributing to the delivery of effective classroom instruction and assisting students with concept retention through repeated practice.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Program four: Behaviorist learning theory [Video webcast]. Bridging learning theory, instruction and technology. Retrieved from http://laureate.ecollege.com/ec/crs/default.learn?CourseID=5700267&CPURL=laureate.ecollege.com&Survey=1&47=2594577&ClientNodeID=984650&coursenav=0&bhcp=1
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (n.d.). A Report and Mile Guide for 21st Century Skills. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/images/stories/otherdocs/p21up_Report.pdf.
Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using technology with classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.