The bucket theory of learning and behaviourism

Who needs academic learning theories when we have all been to school and are equipped with ‘common sense’? The following is extracted from Part 1 of ‘Learning Matters’

In the 1980 science fiction romp Flash Gordon (Universal Studios), Dr Zarkov, a major character, is subjected to ‘mind reconditioning’ by ‘Ming the Merciless’ using a ‘mind reprogramming’ machine. We see the unfortunate Zarkov strapped to a table beneath a huge device that resembles an X-Ray machine pointing at his head. When activated, the machine proceeds to suck out all the knowledge from Zarkov’s brain starting with the most recent then going back to early childhood and finally birth. The dastardly Ming then switches the machine into reverse so that it proceeds to refill Zarkov’s mind with a new set of knowledge presumably prepared for the purpose by Ming himself. We know this is happening because we are treated VCR style (it was 1980) to a fast frame-by-frame rewind of Zarkov’s entire life followed by ‘fast forward’ reprogramming.

The serious point is that this is an excellent illustration of the ‘bucket theory’, which assumes that teaching and learning consist of filling the heads of pupils with knowledge. The common term, ‘empty headed’ referring to a cognitively challenged person, reflects the degree to which this notion of learning is embedded in the popular culture. Pinker’s The Blank Slate (2002) refers directly to multiple aspects of this misconception. The further assumption implicit in the ‘bucket theory’ is that, like Zarkov who had to be strapped down, school pupils are naturally unwilling participants in this process and require a degree of compulsion to facilitate the necessary degree of compliance. English literature, especially the writing of Charles Dickens, is full of graphic descriptions from educational history as to how the cruel traditions and theatrical ceremonies of schooling have evolved so as to bring about this compliance.

Behaviourism is a school of psychology, very influential from the 1920s to the 1960s, that rejected the study of the mind as unscientific, and sought to explain all the behaviour of organisms, including humans, with laws of stimulus-response conditioning. The principal proponent is B.F. Skinner, who explains his position in The Behaviour of Organisms (1991).

Whereas no modern educators would admit to believing in the bucket theory, this is not the case with behaviourism. In terms of the recent history of the English education system, it can be largely documented through the return of behaviourism to mainstream practice in our secondary schools, as well as its resurgence in the primary phase, where many would argue it has always had a partially justifiable role in terms of teaching infant and junior children positive habits and social conventions. The recent further march of behaviourism in the school system is a major theme of ‘Learning Matters’and one of my core explanations for the documented decline in our national education standards.

In The Blank Slate (2002), Steven Pinker writes: “Strict behaviourism is pretty much dead in psychology, but many of its attitudes live on.”

Indeed they do. With regard to the English education system they are being resurrected at a worrying rate.

In Chapter 10 of Learning Intelligence (Adey, P. Shayer, M., 2002), Michael Shayer writes as follows:

“Children, like pigeons and rats, can be taught (according to behaviourism) any behaviour one chooses provided it is broken down into small enough steps, each of which can be drilled until automatic.

The implicit model of the brain is a tabula rasa (blank slate), upon which the teacher is exhorted to write by putting the desired knowledge in front of the children.”

Behaviourism also provides the methods needed to subdue and control the recipients so that the necessary absorption can be implemented. This is its sinister side.

Behaviourism is therefore similar to ‘The Bucket Theory’, but with the addition of sophisticated reinforcement techniques using the stimulus-response strategies learned from experiments on animals in cages. Behaviourism is not confined to the world of education. It also provides the theoretical justification for the mainstream private sector management and employment practices based on ‘performance related pay’, that are now increasingly being applied to teachers in English state schools through the vanguard examples of ‘business model-led’ Academies. We can expect many of the new ‘Free Schools’ to be set up on the same basis.

If behaviourism is a long discredited theory of learning what is the explanation for its current resurgence? First let us remind ourselves why behaviourism should have been abandoned. No-one puts it better than Vygotsky (1986).

“As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.”

I think these are the reasons for its resurgence:

  1. Because it appeals to ‘common sense’. BUT remember Vygotsky’s statement.
  2. Because control of schools from government level down to Heads/Principals has been taken away from educationalists that understand the limitations of ‘common sense’
  3. Because behaviourism is still the dominant philosophy of business and the 1988 Education Act turned all schools into businesses or pseudo-businesses.
  4. Because marketising requires simple performance indicators for schools based on aggregating exam results. Schools need to accrue SATs Level 4s and GCSE Cs. Exam Boards are also marketised private companies that sell league table success to schools. Behaviourism works for knowledge recall but not the higher levels of understanding so the exam boards created methods of assessment that work with behaviourism and dumbed down syllabuses to make as much as possible (and certainly GCSE C) accessible through behaviourism.
  5. Behaviourism works in the short term (when it most needed by schools) and is cheap.
  6. Behaviourist approaches can be arranged into ‘deliverable’ packages that do not need highly educated and experienced teachers. Hence the culture of ‘delivering the curriculum’ rather than developing understanding.

Behaviourist teaching methods do not engage or inspire pupils who are therefore likely to become bored, rebellious and disruptive, so behaviourist disciplinary and control approaches are then prescribed to maintain order.

Result: a complete victory for behaviourism unless the education community fights back. Please read and promote ‘Learning Matters’.

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  10. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a colleague who was conducting a little homework on this. And he actually bought me dinner simply because I found it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to discuss this topic here on your web page.


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