Does Behaviorism Belong in the Classroom?


The paradigm of behaviorism going back to BF Skinner…denies, dismisses, trivializes, or simply writes off the whole idea of inner experience and looks only at behavior, the actions on the surface you can see and measure.

Alfie Kohn | Does Behaviorism Belong in the Classroom? by The Think Inclusive Podcast • A podcast on Anchor

The behaviorism we experienced at school and in the autism therapies recommended to us by school felt fundamentally misguided. This uneasy feeling led us to the neurodiversity movement, where we found our discomfort with behaviorism almost universally shared.

There are few allies to neurodiversity in education, but in Alfie Kohn’s work on behavior and motivation I sensed a powerful education ally aligned with autistic community advocacy. Kohn gave me vocabulary for the inchoate discomfort I had with the behaviorism used on my kids. His writing nicely complimented and supplemented my neurodiversity advocacy.

I’d been following, amplifying, and applying his work for a number of years, when, in 2018, Kohn published “It’s Not About Behavior”. This article is a neurodiversity advocate’s dream.

Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.

It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

And then, in 2020, Kohn discovered our community and published “Autism and Behaviorism”.

But even more compelling is the testimony of young people who understand the reality of this approach better than anyone because they’ve been on the receiving end of it. It is nothing short of stunning to learn just how widely and intensely ABA is loathed by autistic adults who are able to describe their experience with it. Frankly, I’m embarrassed that, until about a year ago, I was completely unaware of all the websites, articles, scholarly essays, blog posts, Facebook pages, and Twitter groups featuring the voices of autistic men and women, all overwhelmingly critical of ABA and eloquent in describing the trauma that is its primary legacy.

Autism and Behaviorism – Alfie Kohn

The ally I had long sensed came out with a powerful essay demonstrating what an insightful and compassionate ally can do.

And if it turns out that, contrary to widespread assumptions, behavior modification techniques aren’t supported by solid data even when used with autistic kids, why would we persist in manipulating anyone with positive reinforcement? A rigorous new meta-analysis utterly debunks the claim that applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is the only intervention for children with autism that’s “evidence-based.” In fact, it raises serious questions about whether ABA merits that description at all.

The late Herb Lovett used to say that there are only two problems with “special education” in America: It’s not special and it sure as hell isn’t education. The field continues to be marinated in behaviorist assumptions and practices despite the fact that numerous resources for teachers, therapists, and parents offer alternatives to behavior control. These alternatives are based on a commitment to care and to understand. By “care,” I mean that our relationship with the child is what matters most. He or she is not a passive object to be manipulated but a subject, a center of experience, a person with agency, with needs and rights. And by “understand,” I mean that we have an obligation to look beneath the behavior, in part by imaginatively trying to adopt that person’s point of view, attempting to understand the whys rather than just tabulating the frequency of the whats. As Norm Kunc and Emma Van der Klift urged us in their Credo for Support: “Be still and listen. What you define as inappropriate may be my attempt to communicate with you in the only way I can….[or] the only way I can exert some control over my life….Do not work on me. Work with me.”

Autism and Behaviorism – Alfie Kohn

Read “Autism and Behaviorism” and “It’s Not About Behavior”. Listen to “Does Behaviorism Belong in the Classroom?”

Knowing that the neurodiversity and disability rights movements back Kohn’s claims with an outpouring of testimony, do you think behaviorism belongs in the classroom? Or anywhere?

Previously on behaviorism,





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