Seeking Common Ground: Piaget and Skinner on the Nature of Learning
This is an attempt to trace the historical and philosophical foundations of the emerging "cognitive neo-associationist" theory of learning. The paper begins with the identification of commonalities in Cognitive Developmentalism and Radical Behaviorism: those apparently conflicting perspectives which provide the empirical support and epistemological premises for all modern cognitive learning models in the first case, and for those loosely termed "neo-associationist" in the second. In-depth study of the two conceptual frameworks reveals a considerable area of agreement, in spite of prevailing opinion to the contrary. Both models are soundly scientific and interdisciplinary. Both resolve the old nature/nurture controversy by demonstrating that any specific human behavior is likely to represent a complex mix of genetic endowment as well as learned acquisitions. Theorists in both camps view learning as an activity of the whole organism, grounded in biology and operating in all animals from the moment of birth, according to a mechanism similar to that governing species evolution. Both explain the process as developmental, and the product of organismic-environmental interaction. Modern cognitive models can be traced back to the pioneering work of Jean Piaget; various versions of neo-associationism to B.F. Skinner. Each theorist saw his model as a first step in building a comprehensive evolutionary theory of knowledge and culture. The key factor distinguishing the two perspectives is Piaget's principle of "equilibration" as opposed to Skinner's "operant conditioning", with its mechanism of "reinforcement", the first being a refinement of Herbert Spencer's approach to evolution and the second, an extension of Darwinism. Both mechanisms were assumed to operate biologically, psychologically and culturally. "Equilibration" appears to be internally driven -- by the active learner's need to maintain harmony with the environment -- and "operant conditioning" to be instigated from without by the environmental contingencies of previous action. In order to render the two conceptual frameworks compatible and complementary -- and to recognize both as necessary building blocks of the new "cognitive neo-associationism" -- we need only interpret Piaget's concept of inborn activity in terms of an innate urge to control incoming experience, while adding to this Skinner's postulated instinctive propensity to be reinforced by the pleasure resulting from satiation of a drive.
KEY TERMS: learning -- socialization -- education -- cognitive developmentalism -- radical behaviorism -- associationism -- Jean Piaget -- B.F. Skinner -- John Dewey -- common language community -- paradigm -- equilibration -- operant conditioning -- transaction -- reinforcement -- cognitive dissonance -- modeling -- imitation -- incommensurability -- interdisciplinarity.
Practitioners in broadly conceived, applied fields such as education and therapy, who wish to select the most reliable tools available, now have little alternative other than a "hit or miss" eclecticism. What is needed, instead, is a rigorous interdisciplinary approach to the specific problem areas with which they deal: an approach which focuses on the task of developing -- as a prerequisite to building a reliable knowledge base -- a common language community among all the scholars involved. It would appear, however, that one of the greatest obstacles to this kind of progress in the social sciences in every era has been the reluctance of leading theorists to read the works of their contemporaries, and to encourage their followers to do so. Jean Piaget was more aware of this than most. He once reported the following comment of a fellow scholar who was laboring in the same vineyard: "There seems to be some similarity ... [in our approaches]. But I will never read a work of yours and you will never read a work of mine (Evans 1973:59)."
In fact, a regressive custom seems to have developed which encourages scholars to adopt ideological positions on the various contending schools of thought. The circumstances under which students are professionally socialized encourage them to commit early in their careers to the models favored by their mentors, and to reject all others out of hand. Practitioners in these studies are sometimes not even aware of other legitimate perspectives capable of shedding light on their area of interest. As a result, the identical research problem is often organized and explained by competing scholars in mutually inconsistent ways and by incommensurable concepts and terminology. This means that research is seldom replicable across schools even within the same discipline, and the possibility of the interdisciplinary testing of common problem areas is virtually nonexistent.
Nowhere is the need for a common language community more apparent than in the study of how people learn. Jean Piaget and B.F. Skinner made remarkable -- and quite separate -- breakthroughs here but, because of the difficulty in translating their findings into terminology understandable by both, neither was able to benefit from the other's contributions. Piaget was opposed to behaviorism, yet his writings reveal little real familiarity with the concepts underlying that model as it was developed by B.F. Skinner. He usually equated it to the older "blank-slate" sensationalism of John Locke, as reflected in the behaviorism of John B.Watson, of which he was justifiably critical (Piaget,1976:64,107). He thought that his own theory differed from behaviorism chiefly in that it allowed a role in learning for both external and internal reinforcements (Evans,1973:9). But a cursory reading of Skinner would have revealed that radical behaviorism does not draw any line between "inner" and "outer" where reinforcement is concerned. Skinner's opinion of Piaget's cognitive developmentalism was even more starkly negative; but he, too, seems not to have read the works of the chief architect of that perspective. For example, of Piaget's "stages", he wrote, "If developmental stages follow one another, it is because one stage builds the conditions responsible for the next (Skinner,1971:140)." But that happens to be Piaget's point as well! Skinner also maintained, in an attack on cognitive theory, that "language does not just grow" and neither is it innate (Skinner,1983:393). Again, Piaget would have agreed. One cannot help but wonder if educational psychology might been more scientifically productive -- and thus more fruitful as a source of reliable knowledge -- if these two great scholars had looked for common ground and sought, from there, to build a joint model that could eventually become a guiding paradigm for their shared problem area.
That key problem area is the nature of human learning; of the biological/maturational factors affecting the cognitive development which both results from and furthers it; and of the sociocultural influences shaping the entire process. Because biological and sociological -- as well as psychological -- factors are necessarily involved, the entire area is perhaps better referred to as "socialization" (Hutcheon,1976:2-4). Piaget and Skinner, unarguably the two most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, devoted most of their lives to one or more aspects of this complex subject, and to its implications for related areas of study such as education. Yet these men, with their followers, worked in virtual isolation from one another. Because communication was impossible across the conceptual divide thus maintained, we have largely failed to recognize and benefit from a few powerful insights at which both arrived while following their different paths.
This is particularly tragic in the case of Piaget and Skinner because not since John Dewey has there been anything with as much potential significance for education as can be found in the ideas of these two scholars. Both were aware of this, and of the need for reliable psychological knowledge in the general field of instruction. Piaget deplored the absence of a science of education, and our widespread ignorance of the longtime results of various popular teaching strategies (Piaget,1970:i). He thought that any real advance in this field must be based on the kind of interdisciplinary social science research that he was seeking to pioneer (ibid:24). Contrary to popular interpretations of his theory, Piaget viewed learning not as an isolated process remote from his focus of concern, but as the chief source and defining aspect of cognitive development. "It does seem," he said, that we should accept both these factors [structural maturation and environmental influences] as constantly at work and that development is a product of this continuous interaction ... the child has everything to learn (ibid:172)." He thought of learning as the growth of operational knowledge within the individual, involving "a giving up of erroneous ideas for more current ones, or ... a transformation of these ideas into higher-level, more adequate conceptions (Piaget,1967:vii)." And his work had led him to conclude thatAthe same learning has a different effect according to the stage of development of the subject (Evans,1973:9)." For Piaget this meant that, while learning is all-important, it must be viewed in the context of development, just as development must be viewed in terms of the interaction of maturational and environmental influences that either further or hinder it. Education, in turn, must be understood as a purposefully structured process by which environmental influences are adapted to students' learning requirements -- as determined by their developmental level.
Skinner, too, was concerned with education and with the learning process which teaching is intended to further. Humans, he believed, differ from other animals chiefly in their capacity for lifetime modification of behavior, and thus in the proportion of their mature capacities that are due to learning rather than genetic makeup. "In general", he wrote, "the evolution of men has emphasized modifiability rather than the transmission of specific forms of behavior (Skinner, 1959:36.05)." It is this inherited modifiability that makes the potential for education so great. However, Skinner had little faith in the enterprise as it is presently planned and pursued -- in the absence of any scientific base. He felt that "those who have spoken out most vigorously [on the subject] have completely neglected method (Evans,1981:65)." The development of a workable technique for controlling the conditions of learning was, in fact, Skinner's greatest contribution to education -- but it has been largely ignored. He defined learning as "the reassortment of responses in a complex action" and identified the possible ways in which a living organism (human or otherwise) can learn as follows: "when a reinforcer (1) accompanies another stimulus or (2) follows upon the organism' own behavior (Skinner,1953:65)." The first is Pavlovian reflex conditioning and the second is the operant conditioning discovered by Skinner himself. He concluded that it is this second mechanism which explains the complex learning most typical of humans.
As learners, Skinner said, "we are automatically reinforced when we successfully control the physical world (ibid:75)." Teaching implies the identification of desired outcomes and precise planning of strategies for facilitating "the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement which expedite learning (Skinner,1959:15)." The educator prepares the students for situations not yet risen by bringing discriminant operants under the control of stimuli expected to occur in those situations. The child is forewarned and forearmed with powerful tools for controlling nature, the very exercise of which provides reinforcement. Because of this, the natural payoffs inherent in the subject matter are the teacher's chief allies (Hutcheon,1996:413). Skinner maintained that educators who recommend external means of motivating learning have got it all wrong, noting that "the sheer control of nature itself is reinforcing (Skinner, 1959:102)." As he reminded us, "The motives in education are the motives of all human behavior ... We appeal to that drive to control the environment that makes a baby continue to crumple a noisy paper and the scientist to continue to press forward with his predictive analysis of nature (Skinner, 1948:124)."
Given the significance of the work of these two theorists for our understanding of learning, is it possible to find an area of agreement between what we have come to know as the genetic (or cognitive) developmentalism of Piaget and the radical behaviorism of Skinner? Certainly a survey of public and professional perceptions on the matter would indicate the precise opposite. For most people involved in the humanities, social studies and education, the two psychological theories are as different as night and day. This may be related to a phenomenon commented on by many: the fact that Skinner has been the victim of the worst press since Darwin. Examples of this "press" abound in the writings of scholars of the period. Hannah Arendt thought that "behavioral sciences aim to reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a behaving animal (Arendt,1958:45)." Erich Fromm claimed that "neither behaviorism or instinct theory allows human beings the slightest control over their own lives (Fromm, 1986:72)."
On the other hand, cognitive psychology seems to have had an immediate attraction for the general academic community. An example of this is the response of the educational establishment to the two theories. Piagetian concepts are familiar to all teachers, and are referred to by educators throughout the world, whether or not they are correctly interpreted and applied; and Piaget feared that, often, they were not (Evans,1973:50). Yet even carefully designed and tested learning machines based on behaviorist principles were spurned almost wholesale by the same educators, until the advent of the computer introduced identical programs in the new format. This drove Skinner to the wry conclusion that "many people were afraid of programmed instruction just because it worked. They did not fear traditional education because they knew it was ineffective and hence harmless (Skinner,1983:205)."
There are many apparent differences between the two models, and it is these that are usually noted and used to identify the models as incompatible. Skinner is often accused by Piagetian cognitive psychologists of viewing the individual as merely a passive respondent to environmental inputs, while Piaget is congratulated for his interpretation of the learner as active (Evans,1973:xxv). Skinner is condemned for equating human learning to the reflex conditioning characteristic of simpler forms of animals, while Piaget is admired for recognizing its essential distinctiveness and complexity. Skinner is reviled for "reducing" humans to their observable behavior; for explaining human relations solely in "mechanistic" terms; and for attempting to destroy our faith in the uniqueness and autonomy of the individual (Piaget,1976:64). Piaget, on the other hand, is applauded for making it possible for us to continue viewing humans as moral beings with a consciousness uniquely human.
Behaviorists, in their turn, criticize cognitive psychologists for resorting once more to "mentalism": for creating out of whole cloth a network of unobservable structures supposedly housed in the brain (Skinner,1983:154). Some even say Piaget's ideas are a throwback to the "nativism" of Rousseau, and the "vitalism" of Henri Bergson (Skinner,1980:174). Skinner himself saw an inevitable conflict between the individual viewed as a storehouse of images (both conscious and unconscious) and the organism seen as operating on the environment and being changed by the process -- although he contended that Piaget wanted it both ways (Skinner,1971:195). He also saw a conflict between his own approach which "traces human behavior to its genetic and environmental histories, and the cognitive tradition, which traces the same behavior to an initiating self (Skinner, 1983:261)."
In Skinner's opinion, the cognitive psychologists, with their computer metaphor, have moved the environment back inside the head (where Kant had placed it) in the form of autonomous logical structures or "modules" representing concepts and rules. And they have concocted an internal simulacrum of the organism to provide for the storage. This simulacrum is then used, he said, as the basis for inferring the nature of the nervous system that would be required to generate its search for equilibrium. In this way they have sent those physiologists influenced by their theories on a fool's errand. Skinner noted that his own approach would leave the subject of the nature of the nervous system to those equipped to observe it directly -- the physiologists themselves. "Meanwhile, the experimental analysis of behavior would give them a correct assignment, whereas cognitive science sent them looking for things they would never find (Ibid:367)."
For Skinner, it was not good enough to say, as Piaget did, that humans function by actively sampling and organizing environmental cues into a working model of the world, and by storing all this for later recall. None of this, he noted, explains or predicts observable regularities in behavior which, after all, is the goal of a psychological science. "Where an organism, exposed to a set of contingencies of reinforcement, is modified by them and as a result behaves in a different way in the future, we do not need to say that it stores the contingencies ... What we recall ... is a response ... The conditions which are said to determine the accessibility of stored memories really determine the accessibility of responses (Skinner, 1969:274)."
Skinner claimed that the cognitive psychologists are confined by their model to verbal reports and instructions that lead nowhere. This is why their findings, although massive in quantity, have not been cumulative (Skinner,1974:12). "The contingencies of reinforcement are the missing key, " he concluded (Skinner,1980:159). He felt that his own work had provided a comprehensive yet simple theory readily compatible with modern genetics and physiology, and one which has already demonstrated its reliability and fruitfulness in identifying the essential principles for a working technology of human behavior. Yet, he said, for purely ideological reasons, followers of the more politically powerful cognitive school continue to ignore the scientific power of modern behaviorism.
Piaget did most of his work before Skinner rose to prominence, and obviously he was not familiar with the latter's research and writing. Watson's "methodological behaviorism" (very different from Skinner's) was probably the version best known to him. Piaget was convinced that behaviorism dealt with only isolated aspects or parts of the individual, while Gestalt psychology erred in the opposite direction by focusing only on unanalyzable "wholes" (Evans,1973:xxv). Piaget saw his own theory as a synthesis of the other two, in that he viewed the individual as an open system in "transaction" with its environment. As the term suggests, he had based his model on John Dewey's idea that meaningful forms of cognition are constructed by the learner in the process of acting on, and being acted on by, the environment.
Skinner, on the other hand, thought it was his own model that had restored balance to psychology. He considered that cognitive theory, no less than Freudianism and its offshoots, represented the prevailing mentalist position: one that overemphasized the "inner" person. Watson's behaviorism had done the opposite, he said, focusing exclusively on the environment, while ignoring the genetic and historical programming brought to the current situation -- and even denying the very possibility of self-observation. Skinner (also revealing the influence of Dewey) admitted that subjective perception is, of course a problem to be reckoned with, but what is happening inside the skin is no different in kind from the events without -- just less accessible to observation. Inevitably it is one aspect of the behavior under study, but it is not the source as Piaget seemed to believe. He suggested that we are misled by self-awareness into a belief in the conscious self as an uncaused instigator of action.
Just how justified are these criticisms on both sides of the controversy? How many of them are based on meaningful differences between the two philosophical perspectives on learning, and how many stem from uninformed stereotypes rather than the actual concepts being dealt with in each case? Perhaps we should begin to look for answers in the similarities between the two, rather than in their presumed differences.
There are indeed similarities. For example, Piaget, too, believed that there is no essential line of demarcation between what goes on inside and outside the skin. As he put it, "since the organism is itself also a physicochemical object, its actions and reactions are from the outset transparently dependent on the physical universe, because, through its very inner structure, the organism participates in and obeys the laws of this universe (Piatelli-Palmarini, 1980:283)."
In addition, both perspectives are grounded in evolutionary theory, and both are interdisciplinary in scope and methodology. An indication of the widespread recognition of this similarity is the fact that each scholar, at the height of his career, was invited to present the Herbert Spencer lectures at Oxford University. Both theorists were thoroughly scientific in approach, each expecting that his hypotheses would stand or fall on the empirical evidence. Both saw learning in terms of behavior: covert as well as overt. And they saw it as dependent upon individual-environmental interaction -- rooted in, and continuous with, the most basic of organic activity. Both were pioneering systems theorists in that they assumed some sort of an adaptive feed-back process by which changes resulting from the individual's operations on the environment in turn shape subsequent thought and action. For both thinkers the process of learning was thus cumulative or developmental. Furthermore, Piaget, no less than Skinner (and Spencer) considered human learning to be governed by the same laws that govern the learning occurring in other species.
Both theorists were convinced that intellectual development, although built upon and limited by genetic propensity, is to a large degree the result of learning from experience. In fact, both considered their work to have resolved the old nature/nurture controversy in general. According to Piaget, his theory did this by presenting "a dialectical solution halfway between empiricism and innatism (Piatelli-Palmarini, 1980:351)." It explains how the adaptation of self-regulating structures, at progressively higher states of equilibrium, coordinates the interaction of maturational and environmental effects. For any particular pattern of action, there is no way to measure the relative impact of these effects.
Skinner's theory accomplishes the same end by demonstrating the relationship between the operation of phylogenic contingencies directing biological evolution (through natural selection) and ontogenic contingencies directing learning (through operant conditioning). He wrote, "Successful responses are selected in both cases, and the result is adaptation. But the process of selection is very different and we cannot tell from the mere fact that behavior is adaptive which kind of process has been responsible for it (Skinner,1969:194)."
Both Piaget and Skinner admired John Dewey, and believed that their work was building on his. Skinner chose "operant" as a more specifically meaningful term than Dewey's "instrumental" to denote the active operation of the organism on the environment which was assumed by both theorists (Evans,1980:8). Sounding much like Dewey, he also maintained that "to say that knowledge is power is simply to say that it is successful action (Skinner,1983:407)." Another interesting similarity between Dewey and Skinner is that the first article written by both was on the subject of the "reflex arc". Skinner, like Dewey before him, revealed that he preferred the method of functional analysis to the older mechanistic, stimulus-response approach (Skinner,1953:199). Also like Dewey (and Piaget as well) he considered the study of behavior and epistemology to be closely related. "Behaviorism was a theory of knowledge, and knowing and thinking were forms of behavior (Skinner,1979:115)." And, again like Piaget as well as Dewey, he recognized a special value in the scientific pursuit (Skinner,1971:174).
Skinner's only criticism of Dewey was revealed by his comment that "what he threw out [of education] should have been thrown out. Unfortunately, he had too little to put in its place (Skinner,1959:177)." He thought that his own theory, with its principle of reinforcement, provided the grounds for the practical teaching strategy that was missing from Dewey's theories. This was because "operant conditioning" explained learning at all levels and by all animals -- including humans of all ages. "By using rate of response as a dependent variable, it has been possible to formulate the interaction between the organism and its environment more adequately," he concluded (Skinner,1969:7). All in all, Skinner believed that he had refined and improved upon the Pragmatism of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. Once he quoted a letter from a Deweyan scholar who said, "Your type of explanation is something I understand one hundred percent ... If I had been aware I would have built directly on your procedure (Skinner,1979:344)".
Piaget, too, was greatly influenced by Dewey. As he explained the tradition which he had inherited, "on the one hand, the work of the pragmatists had revealed the role of action in the constitution of all mental operations ... [on the other hand] genetic psychology had increased considerably in scope, particularly with the work of Stanley Hall and J.M. Baldwin. These two trends found their exact point of intersection in John Dewey (Piaget,1970:147)." And he believed that his own work had built from there. He also claimed that Baldwin had further developed his "genetic logic" from Dewey's work as well as that of Hall -- who had also been Dewey's mentor (ibid;159). (Piaget's term "genetic epistemology" was actually borrowed from Baldwin.) Piaget, like Dewey, recommended "active" rather than "receptive" methods of teaching (ibid:69). He was even using Dewey's terminology when he emphasized "the role of action in the transaction between the biological and social factors ... [in learning]. This role played by action (or by praxis) has been abundantly emphasized by Marx, who quite rightly went so far as to consider perception itself as an 'activity' of the sense organs (ibid:67)." Piaget also noted that, "as Dewey demonstrated with such profundity, true interest appears when the self identifies itself with ideas and objects (ibid:158)."
In describing his own intellectual journey, Piaget told of having become disenchanted with Bergson and turning to the writings of the American Pragmatists (Evans,1973:113). Many of Piaget's basic concepts come directly from them. For example, the idea of "the permanent object" (originating with Schopenhauer and subsequently employed by Spencer) had been refined considerably by George Herbert Mead (Mead,1938:327). And Mead had written that "the essence of the self is cognitive; it lies in the internalized conversation of gestures which constitute thinking (ibid:173)." Piaget also described his decision to develop Dewey's idea of "action itself admits of logic (Evans,1973:113)." He subsequently wrote, "We can get to know objects only by acting on them (Piaget,1967:128)."
As we have seen, both Piaget and Skinner saw their theories as immediately applicable to the field of education, and both provided specific teaching methods and techniques for the purpose. Neither was studying how the individual learns as an end in itself, but as the means of arriving at a comprehensive theory of knowledge and of cultural evolution. Both were concerned above all with epistemology, and consequently saw their models as incipient philosophies of science (Skinner,1969:221). Both believed that human behavior was rooted in biology. Both were systematic and interactionist in orientation. As Skinner explained it, people "operate on the world and change it, and are changed in turn by the consequences of their actions (Skinner,1957:1)." Piaget was interested in developing " a theory of adaptation of thoughts to reality, even if this adaptation at last reveals ... the existence of an inextricable interaction between subject and object (Piaget,1971b:24)." Both saw language and thought as types of activity (Evans,1973:22), (Skinner,1983:84). Both recognized the futility of trying to separate "nature" from "nurture" (Piaget,1967:xvii), Skinner,1959:36), as do the evolutionary psychologists of today. Both were neutral monists in ontology. They saw the learning organism as "one"-- not as a body with a mysteriously grounded person inside (Skinner,1971:199). Yet neither thought of the learner in "holistic" or "vitalistic" terms (Piaget,1976:138), (Skinner,1971:9). And, finally, both men hoped that their work would provide a revolutionary theoretical foundation capable of incorporating diverse and conflicting schools of thought within a common conceptual framework: one that would eventually integrate all of social science and thus provide, at long last, a sound scientific basis for the practice of education.
With so much in common, one would expect that the basic concepts in each of the two theories might well be similar, in spite of being couched in quite different terminology, and being walled off from one another by current keepers of the conflicting orthodoxies. And in fact, once the issue is posed in these conciliatory terms, something quite exciting begins to happen for the student of both theories. A common ground of considerable significance indeed begins to emerge, where fundamental ideas are concerned.
The key principle in cognitive psychology is "equilibration": another term borrowed from Herbert Spencer (Spencer,1898:99). Spencer, along with Freud, had assumed that to be scientific was to operate within the Newtonian conceptual framework. These early social scientists had not recognized the implications of Darwin's discovery of the vehicle of natural selection -- and the principle of dynamic systems feedback according to which it operates -- for their own field of study.Darwinian theory had, in fact, opened the door for the revolutionary understanding that, with the emergence of organic life, contingent causality began to replace the push-pull mechanistic form governing change at the inorganic level of relations in nature. Equilibrium is a central concept in Newtonian mechanics. Piaget developed the concept of "equilibration" as a way to accommodate organic change processes to what was still seen by many as the prevailing model of science. The new term symbolized what Piaget viewed as the coordinating process synthesizing ongoing physiological maturation with incoming environmental impact, and thereby increasing the viability and comprehensiveness of adaptation. As he explained it, "at each level of development there are two poles of activity: changes in the structure of the organism in response to environmental intrusion (accommodation) and changes in the intruding stimuli due to the existing structure (assimilation) (Piaget,1967:xxi)." He thought that the necessary synthesis occurs by means of self-regulating mechanisms operating on the basis of feedback. The process, he said, is common to biological evolution, individual learning and the growth of scientific knowledge. He saw it as fundamental to the understanding of all three, and to any general theory of human development capable of incorporating them all.
Skinner's key principle is that of reinforcement as the means by which "operant conditioning" operates to provide feedback from surrounding contingencies. As with Piaget's "equilibration" Skinner identified the role of reinforcement at all three of the biological, psychological and cultural levels. As he explained it, "Behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences (Skinner,1971:18)." Desirable behavior can be strengthened by means of positive reinforcement (reward) or through negative reinforcement (removal of existing aversive effects). Or it can be eliminated simply by the absence of reinforcement, or by allowing aversive effects in nature to operate without interference. Behavior can also be changed by punishment: the deliberate imposition of aversive consequences devised for the purpose. However, Skinner's research indicated that this is the least effective of the ways in which his basic principle of learning works.
From the standpoint of the learner as agent, Skinner said, the only inner compulsion operating initially is a capacity to be satiated by life-sustaining food and comfort and to experience deprivation in their absence. He assumed that all forms of complicated verbal behavior -- including thinking -- are essentially driven by the deprivation of these basic requirements. This means that any activity resulting in their satiation will be experienced as rewarding, and thus tend to be repeated. Interestingly, Piaget's model relies on just such a requirement -- the satiation of curiosity or tension resulting from a lack of "fit" between incoming data and current cognitive patterning. He saw activity as a necessary attribute of living organisms. He believed that adaptation, at any level, begins with explorations or trials into the environment, caused by an impulsion either to re-establish or to strengthen equilibrium. Equilibrium can thus be understood as the absence of cognitive conflict: a temporarily harmonious state of the system brought about through the integration of incoming stimuli into the learner's current conceptual framework. For this to occur, the learner must impose order on those stimuli. In other words, if environmental inputs are to be experienced, they must be perceived -- or assimilated -- in a form amenable to accommodation by the learner's cognitive or meaning system. One has only to interpret Piaget's search for equilibrium as an innate impulsion for (cognitive) power -- or as a need to control or make sense out of one's surroundings -- in order to make Piaget's theory directly compatible with that of Skinner!
It is easy to understand how the tension created by cognitive disjunction could drive human beings -- just as does the organic disjunction (resulting from hunger, discomfort and fear) on which it is grounded. This broadened definition of the instinctual urge to control the contingencies governing action, common to all animals, allows us to see both theories in a new light. Most of the complex verbal behaviors distinguishing humans from other animals are rooted in this urge for power over other aspects of nature. It is the drive to adapt to environmental challenge: a challenge manifested, as well, in the deprivation of food, comfort and sex assumed by Skinner -- and Freud before him. This inner drive for power over one's environment can readily spiral in the direction of control of people rather than things. The same tension that generates intellectual development and the scientific process can be readily comprehended as the source of aggression in human beings, as well as political behavior of all kinds.
All this becomes increasingly clear as we observe how children learn. The chief criticism of Skinner's behaviorism has stemmed from the fact that, for the outside observer, it is seldom clear what actually constitutes a reinforcement or reward -- or, conversely, the withholding of reward. This has meant that critics often fail to register the universality of Skinner's fundamental principle of learning, because it is the child's feeling of power that is actually being reinforced, although the observer is unaware of this. More in-depth comprehension of organic and environmental sources of this experience of power in children can be gained by studying Piaget's observations of child development. He recognized four stages of intellectual development : the "sensorimotor", "pre-operational", "concrete operational" and "formal operational". When we interpret these in terms of increasingly powerful breakthroughs in children's ability to manipulate and control their surroundings -- spurred on by the natural reinforcement that such power offers -- we have a superbly simple (and "powerful") explanation for the process so ably documented by Piaget.
A cognitive neo-associationist interpretation of Piaget's observations would agree that the child learns to adapt to the physical environment by maneuvering through the relations of the surrounding space, and by handling objects, but it would point out that this is because the child's behavior is being reinforced by experienced regularities in surfaces, dimensions and motions. As Skinner noted, "If we could not find some uniformity in our world our conduct would remain haphazard and ineffective (Skinner,1953:13)." This can be recognized as the source of the internal construction of rules posited by Piaget. Many behaviorists have criticized cognitive theorists for confusing an essential distinction between rules and reinforced propensities to act. They maintain that rules are consciously elaborated and learned descriptions of contingencies, and that the behavior governed by them is quite different from that shaped by the contingencies themselves, which operate without conscious awareness in the person being affected. But a close reading of Piaget reveals that he viewed the rule-assimilating process somewhat as Dewey saw habit formation; and as Skinner himself saw contingent reinforcement. Only gradually, at a relatively advanced stage of intellectual functioning, is the child able consciously to recognize, apply and infer rules. In fact, it is the critical relationship between unconscious rule-following and the deliberate application of rules that alters as the child develops in a moral and intellectual sense. Abstract (or "formal") thought requires this ability. However, Piaget discovered that the latter will not develop without appropriate feedback from the environment (in other words -- reinforcement)! In fact, he once noted that "Skinner's machines provide evidence of good psychology, in that they made use exclusively of positive reinforcement (Piaget,1970:77)." This is one of the many examples of how Piaget's observations can be explained in terms of Skinner's theory. It is also an example of how behaviorism can be enriched by the assimilation of Piaget's insights.
The key concepts of Social Learning theory -- modeling and imitation -- can also be interpreted in terms of an equilibration process operating by means of reinforcement. In the case of the baby's first smile it is easy to see how both the adult model and the infant imitator are reinforced by the feedback process set up in the response of the learner and the expressions of pleasure revealed in the adult by that response. Subsequent and more complex imitative reconstructions can be explained compellingly in terms of the reinforcement of the child's innovative attempts to restore meaningful cognitive mappings of experience.
Piaget's equilibration theory views the child as a primitive scientist impelled, by the tension resulting from sensations of disequilibrium, to make trial and error forays into the environment. Herbert Spencer referred to this as "cognitive disjunction". Dewey spoke of the potential for intellectual growth arising when the actor experiences a contradiction between the expectations aroused by habits built up through past experience of regularities, and the impact of current environmental effects. Modern scholars have used the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe the same sensations. All these can be understood as sources of that curiosity which drives animals to restore an internal sense of order by gaining increasing power to control the effects of their actions. Once the existence of this impulsion is accepted, all of Piaget's descriptive constructs that have seemed to lead nowhere can be explained simply and completely by Skinner's theory of reinforcement. And cognitive neo-associationistresearch can be seen to shed new light on the most complex forms of human thought and action. The two perspectives, thus combined, should prove capable of generating a host of new testable hypotheses and, eventually, of laying the ground for a powerful new integrated paradigm for the study of how people learn. It could herald the breakthrough which many educators would agree has been a long time coming.
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