B. F. Skinner


Harvard University


Why do students go to school? Why do they behave themselves in class? Why do they study and learn and remember? These are important questions, but they are seldom asked ‑ possibly because we are not proud of the answers. Whether we like it or not, most students still come to school, behave themselves, and study in order to avoid the consequences of not doing so. True, most teachers have abandoned the birch rod (though its return is called for in some quarters), but there are many ingenious, less violent replacements. Violent or not, punitive methods have serious consequences, among them truancy, apathy, resentment, vandalism, and ultimately an anti-intellectualism which includes an unwillingness to support education. These are the great problems of the educational establishment, and they can be traced in large part to the techniques of the establishment itself.


Few teachers are happy about punitive methods (most of them would like to be friends with their students), but alternatives have seldom proved fruitful. Simply to abandon punishment and allow students to do as they please is to abandon the goals of education. A "free school" was recently described in a newspaper article as follows:


The middle school classroom I saw was full of children working in an endless variety of subjects, the life cycle of the beetle, action painting, physical properties of water, mathematics (by choice), making dressing‑up clothes, writing poetry. Some of them wandered up and started a conversation. They were confident and articulate. I was asked to join various games, give an honest opinion on a painting, listen to poetry. Ten year old Michael is writing poetry nearly all the time now ... A not her child is coaxing a woodworm out of a piece of rotting wood.


It is no doubt an attractive picture until we start to think about what it school is for.


Men have been dreaming of the permissive or free school for at least two hundred years. The idea first appeared in close association with the idea of political freedom, and one man - Jean Jacques Rousseau ‑ was largely responsible for both. He has been credited with inspiring not only the French Revolution but, in his great work Emile, a revolution of perhaps comparable magnitude in education. He was interested, quite justly, in abolishing the punitive methods of his time, and so were the disciples who were to follow him) ‑‑ Pestalozzi, Froebel and his kindergarten, Montessori, John Dewey, and (ad absurdum) Neill with his Summerhill.


With Rousseau, it was clearly it dream, for Emile was an imaginary student with, as we now know, imaginary learning processes. When Pestalozzi tried Rousseauistic principles on his own child, he came to grief. And, sooner or later, the dream is almost always followed by a rude awakening. Secondary schools are founded by well‑intentioned people who want their students to be free, but the schools grow steadily more disciplined as the exigencies or teaching make themselves felt. When prospective parents begin to ask, “How many of your students go on to college"? and "What colleges do they go to?", the goal of the free student is abandoned. Courses show the same pattern. Language instruction begins painlessly with the direct method, but sooner or latter the student will be found memorizing vocabulary lists and grammatical paradigms. And one of the freedoms enjoyed by the students in Summerhill was the freedom to treat their fellows punitively.


Occasionally the dream comes true. In any generation there are a few outstanding teachers, just as there are a few outstanding artists, writers, executives and personalities in films and television. There are also many exceptional students ‑ ­students who scarcely need to be taught at all. An outstanding teacher and a few good students compose a picture that we should all like to copy, but it is not a model for the teaching of ordinary students by ordinary teachers.


Nor can we replace punishment simply by telling our students about long-term advantages. We make a great deal of the "dollar value" of an education (conveniently overlooking the fact that truck drivers and carpenters make as much as most teachers), but the ultimate consequences of an education are too remote to have any important effect on the student as he reads a testbook or listens to a lecture. The gold stars, marks, grades, honors, promotion, and prizes which we also think of as alternatives to punitive sanctions also lack a necessary immediacy. Nor can we solve the problem by bringing real life into the classroom so that students will come into contact with things which are naturally rewarding, for we can not find interesting things relevant to everything we want to teach. "Real life" philosophies of education have also meant the abandonment of important goals.


All these measures fail because they do not give the student adequate reasons for studying and learning. Punishment gave him a reason (we can say that for it), but if we are to avoid unwanted by‑products, we must find non‑punitive forms. It is not an impossible assignment. The "reasons" why men behave are to be found among the consequences of their behavior ‑ ­what, to put it roughly, they "get out of behaving in given ways." And these have been carefully studied. Behavior which acts upon the environment to produce consequences ‑ "operant" behavior ‑ has been experimentally analyzed in great detail. Certain kinds of consequences called reinforcers (among them the things the layman calls rewards) are made contingent upon what an organism is doing and upon the circumstances under which it is doing it. Changes in behavior are then observed.


The contingencies, rather than the reinforcers, are the important things. It has long been obvious that men act to achieve pleasure and avoid pain (at least most of the time), but the fact to be emphasized is what they are doing at the moment they achieve these results. Special equipment is used to arrange so‑called "contingencies of reinforcement" (and if teaching can be defined as the expediting of learning, then this equipment is a kind of teaching machine). The complexity of the equipment to be found in hundreds of laboratories throughout the world is not a bad indicator of the complexity of the contingencies now under investigation. Few people outside the field are aware of how far the analysis has gone. As more and more complex contingencies have been arranged, it has been possible to study more and more complex kinds of behavior, including behavior once attributed to higher mental processes.


An application to education was inevitable, but it has not been unopposed. The fact that much of the early work involved the behavior of lower animals such as rats and pigeons has often been held against it. But man is an animal, although an extraordinarily complex one, and shares many basic behavioral processes with other species. Human behavior must nevertheless be studied in its own right, and human subjects are in fact now commonly used in experimental analyses. When comparable contingencies of reinforcement can be arranged, they yield comparable results; but the contingencies to which the human organism can adjust are extraordinarily complex. Efforts currently under analysis have the subtlety, variety, and intricacy which characterize human behavior in the world at large.


That the methods of an experimental analysis of operant behavior are appropriate to human subjects is confirmed by the success with which they have been put to work in practical ways. Psychotherapy, for example, has undergone an important change. A recent book by Ayllon and Azrin, The Token Economy, shows how a hospital for psychotics can be converted into a community in which patients care for themselves and their possessions, avoid trouble with their associates, and (within the limits imposed by their illness) enjoy life. Such an arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement has been called a "prosthetic" environment. Like eyeglasses, hearing aids, and artificial limbs, it permits people to behave successfully in spite of defects. In the psychotic the defect is often an insensitivity to contingencies of reinforcements.


The principles of operant conditioning were first applied to education in programmed instruction. The step‑wise shaping of complex behavior was first demonstrated in an experimental analysis, and the technique is probably still best seen in experiments with animals. A hungry pigeon, for example, can be induced through reinforcement with food to respond in specified ways. Quite complex forms of behavior can be generated, often with surprising speed, through a series of stages leading to the terminal specifications. One actually "sees learning take place", and the visibility is important. When a teacher can bring about conspicuous changes in behavior, changes which do not need to be confirmed by a statistical treatment of test scores, he knows immediately what he has done, and he is then most likely to learn to teach effectively. Traditional research in learning has seldom been very useful in education, and in part because it has neglected the process of shaping. Subjects have been plunged into terminal contingencies and left to struggle toward adequate forms of behavior through "trial and error". (Although shaping is important, it is not always necessary. There are effective ways of evoking complex behavior so that it can be directly reinforced, and there is often a great gain in efficiency. Relevant techniques can also be attributed to the experimental analysis of behavior.)


Programmed instruction has been largely responsible for the current emphasis on behavioral specifications. A program can be written only when certain basic questions have been answered. What is the student to do as the result of having been taught? To say that a program is to "impart knowledge", "train rational powers", or "make students creative" is not to identify the changes which are actually to be brought about. Something more specific is needed to design effective programmed contingencies (as it is needed in order to teach well in the classroom). We do not teach the skills students are said to display when they behave skillfully, we teach skillful behavior. We do not impart knowledge, we generate behavior said to show the possession of knowledge. We do not improve abilities or strengthen rational powers; we make it more likely that the student will show the behavior from which abilities and powers are inferred. When goals are property specified, the teacher knows what he is to do and, later, whether he has done it. Behavioral objectives remove much of the mystery from education, and teachers may feel demeaned when their task is reduced to less awesome dimensions. But the loss is more than offset by a greater sense of achievement.


Many early programs were constructed by writers who missed some of the implications of the basic analysis. They were encouraged to do so by educational philosophers who tried to assimilate programming to traditional theories of learning. Programming was said to be simply a matter of proceeding in small steps, of asking the student to master one step before moving on to the next, of arranging steps in a logical sequence with no gaps, and so on. This was true enough, and programs designed on these principles were better than no programs at all, but other points need to be considered. An important example has to do with "motivation".


Studies of operant reinforcement differ from earlier studies of learning by emphasizing the maintenance as well as the acquisition of behavior. Acquisition is the conspicuous change brought about by reinforcement, but the maintenance of behavior in a given state of strength is an equally important effect. A good program reinforces the student abundantly and at just the right times. It shapes new forms of behavior under the control of appropriate stimuli, but the important thing is that it maintains the student's behavior. It holds his attention; it keeps him at work.


Traditional studies of learning have paid little attention to why the student learns, and this has encouraged the belief that men have a natural curiosity or love of learning, or that they naturally want to learn. We do not say that about a pigeon; we say only that under the conditions we have arranged, a pigeon learns. We should say the same thing about human students. Given the right conditions men will learn ‑  not  because they want to, but because, as the result of the genetic endowment of the species, contingencies bring about changes in behavior. One of the main differences between a textbook and a program is that a textbook teaches only when students have been given some extraneous reason for studying it. A program contains its own reasons. Fortunately for us all, the human organism is reinforced by many things. Success is one of them. A baby shakes a rattle because the production of noise is reinforcing, and adults put jigsaw puzzles together, and work crossword puzzles for no more obvious reason than they come out right. In a good program the student makes things come out right; he makes things work; he brings order out of chaos. A good program helps him do so. It makes right responses highly probable ‑ just short of telling him what they are. Again the motivational issue may be missed. Many people resist making a student's task easy, and the beginning programmer may find himself unwilling to "give the response away". As a teacher he has felt the need to keep students under aversive control, and he may  not  yet be fully aware of his power to control them in other ways.


A program is also reinforcing because it clarifies progress. It has a definite size. The student knows when he is half‑way through, and when he has finished. Because of all this a good program pulls the student forward. He may feel exhausted when he has finished, but he does not need to force himself to work.


There is another problem in education which operant reinforcement helps to solve. In primary and secondary schools and to some extent at other levels, a teacher not only teaches, he has custody of his students for an appreciable part of the day. Their behavior in the classroom, quite apart from what they are learning, is part of his assignment. Coming to class, behaving well toward other students, attending to the teacher, entering into discussions, studying ‑ these are as essential to education as what is being learned, and here the teacher plays a different role. He is not a source of knowledge or an evaluator of what a student knows; he is in a sense the governor of a community.


 It should he a community in which learning takes place expeditiously, and the teacher can meet that assignment if he knows how to use reinforcement. But he must first answer an important question: what reinforcers are available? To put it roughly, what does he possess that his students want? It is often an embarrassing question, but almost never wholly unanswerable. The built‑in reinforcers of programmed materials will not suffice, but other things are available.


The physical aspect of a school may or may not be reinforcing, and this will have a bearing on what happens when a student turns a corner and comes in sight of the school. If the building is not attractive, he will be less likely to turn that corner again and may go in some other direction. The appearance of a building is usually beyond the teacher's control, but reinforcing features of a classroom may not be. Business enter­prises understand this principle. A well-run store smells good; it is tastefully decorated and pleasantly lighted; there may be music in the background. The behavior of entering the store is therefore reinforced, and customers are more likely to enter it again. To "reduce absenteeism" the teacher should take similar steps to make sure that his students are reinforced when they enter his classroom.


What goes on in the room is also relevant. The aversive techniques of birch rod or cane are not likely to reinforce coming to school, and students so treated are likely to play truant or become drop‑outs when they can legally do so. Social contingencies are important. A child is more likely to come to school if he gets along with his peers and his teacher. He is not likely to come if he is frequently criticized, attacked, or ostracized.


Unfortunately, social contingencies are often hard to arrange. To induce the members of a classroom community to behave well with respect to each other, additional reinforcers may he needed. The teacher may have some control over what food children eat at lunchtime, what supplies they are permitted to use, what privileges they can enjoy (such as access to play areas), whom they may associate with, when they may turn to preferred activities, and what field trips they may take. Personal commendation is often a powerful reinforcer, but a merely synthetic approval or affection has its dangers.


The main problem is to make these reinforcers contingent on the desired behavior. They are often not available on the spur of the moment. The teacher cannot conveniently reinforce a child when he sits quietly by sending him off on a field trip, or when he stops fighting by handing him an ice cream cone. A "generalized reinforcer" is needed ‑ something which is exchangeable for reinforcing things. Money shows the archetypal pattern. We pay people even though at the time they receive our money they are not hungry for the food they will buy with it or in the mood for the film they will use it to go to see. Credit points or tokens can be used as money in the classroom. They are relatively independent of the deprivations which make them reinforcing and of the circumstances under which the things they are exchanged for will be consumed.


In one procedure the behavior of the students is sampled from time to time. A student is chosen with some such mechanical system its spinning a dial or drawing a name from a bowl, and his behavior is sampled for, say, 20 or 30 seconds. He is then told that he has been observed and that he has or has not received a token or credit. A day or two of this is often enough to make a great change: the room grows quiet as the students go to work. Sampling can then become less frequent. Eventually, as the students begin to be reinforced in other ways when they find themselves working more effectively in a quiet room, they will construct their own social contingencies, which may eventually replace those arranged by the teacher.


No one procedure will work well in every classroom, and a certain ingenuity is needed to devise the right system in the right place, but the principle of contingency management is sound. It is proving effective in it rapidly increasing number of experiments. Research conducted in a classroom is not always impressive "statistically", but enough has been done to warrant further experimentation on a broad scale.


There are objections, however, and some of them call for comment. Reinforcement is sometimes called bribery. (To say this is to make a confession: a bribe is paid to induce a person to do something he is for some reason inclined not to do, and it is tragic that we are so ready to see school work in that light). The point of a bribe is an implied contract ("Do this and I will give you that"), but a contract tends to destroy the effect of a reinforcer. Contingencies of reinforcement are most effective when there is no prior agreement its to terms.


A more valid objection is that contingencies of this sort are artificial. In real life one does not sit quietly in order to take a field trip to the zoo or stop annoying one's neighbor in order to get an ice cream cone. The connection between the behavior and its consequence is contrived (It is curious that no one raises the same objection with respect to punishment, for there is no natural connection between solving a problem in arithmetic and avoiding the cane. And good marks, promotion, honors, arid prizes are not only artificial reinforcers, they are artificially and ineffectively contingent on behavior.) But artificiality is not the issue. We use contrived contingencies to set up behavior which will, we hope, be reinforced naturally under the contingencies of daily life. The problem is to make sure that the behavior we set up will indeed be effective in the world at large.


There have often been great discrepancies between what is taught and what students eventually use. Verbal materials are easily imported into the classroom (in the form of discussions, lectures and testbooks), and they have often been over‑emphasized. Students spend a great deal of time answering questions, but answering questions is only a small part of daily life. Non‑verbal behavior also needs to be taught. But does this not mean that we should get rid of verbal teaching altogether. The value of verbal programs in such a field as medical school anatomy may well be questioned. Nothing but a cadaver will teach a would-be doctor what the human body is like or permit him to acquire the special behaviors he needs. One would certainly not want to be operated on by a surgeon who had merely worked through a programmed text in human anatomy. But there is a great deal to b said for programmed instruction before turning to a cadaver. What one learns in verbal or pictorial form facilitates learning about the things themselves. There is nothing unreal about verbal material. 


Another objection is that reinforcers in daily life are not always immediate, and that the student must be prepared to behave for the sake of remote consequences. No one is ever actually reinforced by remote consequences, but rather by mediating reinforcers which have acquired their power through some connection with them. Mediating reinforcers can be set up, however, and the student can be taught with available principles and techniques to find or construct them for himself.


A rather similar objection is that in daily life a student is not always reinforced when he behaves, and that he should become accustomed to non-reinforcement. But this is a subject which has been studied with particular care. High levels of activity can be sustained by intermittent reinforcement, particularly if the schedule of reinforcement has been suitably programmed. A gambler is reinforced on what is called a “variable-ratio schedule”. It may sustain his behavior to the point at which he loses all his money, but it will not have this effect unless the mean ratio of responses to reinforcements has been extended gradually. Students reinforced on a variable‑ratio schedule will show a fantastic dedication if the schedule has been properly programmed. They will work for long periods of time with no reinforcement whatsoever, and are thus well‑prepared for a world in which reinforcements may indeed be rare.


Current applications of operant conditioning to education are no doubt crude, but they are a beginning, and a beginning must be made. The task is particularly difficult because we must contend with theories and practices which are deeply entrenched. There is nothing very new in prevailing educational theories, and it will be a long time before we can properly estimate the harm they have done. Most teachers today teach essentially as teachers have taught for centuries. The best of them are simply people who have a knack in getting along with others. All this must change, and the change will take time. But we are on the verge of a new educational "method" - a new pedagogy ‑ in which the teacher will emerge as a skilled behavioral engineer. He will be able to analyze the contingencies which arise in his classes, and design and set up improved versions. He will know what is to be done and will have the satisfaction of knowing that he has done it.


The training of a teacher should begin with basic principles. Everyone who intends to be a teacher should have a chance to see learning take place or, better, to produce visible learning himself, as by shaping the behavior of a rat or a pigeon. It is a heartening experience to discover that one can produce behavior of specified topography and bring it under the control of specified stimuli. Some such experience is particularly valuable because the effects of positive reinforcement are somewhat delayed, in contrast with punishment which tends to be used in part just because the results are quick. Laboratory or classroom practice in operant conditioning gives the teacher the confidence he needs to change behavior in less immediate but more effective ways.


It also clarifies the mistakes teachers make when they are careless about reinforcement. Many problems in classroom management arise because the teacher reinforces students when they behave in objectionable ways. For example, the teacher may pay special attention when the student uses obscenities or moves about or talks at inappropriate times. The teacher tends to do so "naturally" ' and he will be dissuaded from doing so only when the effects of reinforcement have been made clear to him.


An example of the misuse of operant reinforcement in the classroom has been analyzed elsewhere. No matter how bad a teacher may be, he has at least one available reinforcer ‑ dismissing his class. If, near the end of a period, he is free to tell his students that they may leave (if there is no routine signal such as it bell),he can use dismissal as a powerful reinforcer. He should wait until the behavior of the class is as acceptable as it is likely to be and then dismiss. But almost invariably he will do the wrong thing; he will tend to dismiss the class when trouble is brewing.  A surreptitious fight is beginning in the back of the room, and so he says "That's enough for today." In doing so he gets out of today's trouble, but a fight will be more likely to start tomorrow.


Another natural mistake is to shift to a more interesting topic when a discussion or lecture appears to be boring the listener. A more interesting topic is a reinforcer, and by shifting to it we reinforce expressions of boredom. Another common mistake is to distract the attention of a likely troublemaker. A distraction is by definition reinforcing, and it reinforces what the student is doing when we distract him ‑‑‑ namely, making trouble. We make mistakes of this sort until a greater familiarity with the principles of reinforcement induces us to stop.


In England a "black paper" recently criticized the educational establishment. It performed a service by bringing into the open a growling dissatisfaction with current methods. We have been too ready to assume that the student is a free agent, that he wants to learn, that he knows best what he should learn, that his attitudes and tastes should determine what he learns, and that he should discover things for himself rather than learn what others have already discovered. These principles are all wrong, and they are responsible for much of our current trouble. Education is primarily concerned with the transmission of a culture ‑ with teaching new members what others have already learned – and it is dangerous to ignore this function. But the black paper took the wrong line by suggesting that we return to what are essentially punitive techniques. The teacher must regain control, but he must do so in ways which are not only more efficient but free of the undesirable by‑products of older practices. Progressive education made all honest effort to dispense with punishment, but it never found the alternatives it needed. Effective alternatives are now available.


The classroom is a kind of community, with a culture of its own, and we can design such a culture wile respecting the standards of dignity and freedom which we value in the world at large. The assignment is important because in the long run education must take its place as the method of choice in all forms of social control. It must replace the aversive sanctions of government, both international and domestic, and the unduly compelling economic sanctions of business and industry. The by‑products are all too visible today, in part because of the violence with which they attacked.  The sooner we find effective means of social control, the sooner we shall produce a culture in which man’s potential is fully realized. Thos who are genuinely trying to improve education have, therefore, a frightening responsibility, but they face a tremendous opportunity.



[This paper wits delivered at Western Washington State College on October 2, 1969, it, connection with the dedication of Miller Hall. It was prepared with the help of a Career Award from the National Institutes of Mental Health (Grant K6-M11-21, 775‑01).]


Instructors note: Passage have been rendered in bold by the instructor for pedagogical reasons. They are not so in the original document.