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From Rats to RTI: A Look at Behaviorism and Reward
Systems in Education
The field of psychology and the field of education have long been connected. For centuries, researchers have
experimented, analyzed, and theorized how people learn. Just as any domain evolves over time, different learning
theories have waxed and waned in and out of popularity with the psychological world, but many theories are still
applicable in aspects of the present education system. One such learning theory is radical behaviorism, a theory
developed by B.F. Skinner. While there are some major differences between this theory and the theories of cognitive
psychology, many educators employ ideas recognized by both behaviorists and cognitive psychologists. Response to
Intervention (RTI), which eventually led to the development of Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS), is one
system that has been adopted in schools that has behaviorist ideas behind it. RTI and PBIS both have components
that can be made more efficient and consistent with the integration of technology. In this work, the connection
between Skinner's theory of radical behaviorism and the systems in place in the 21st Century schools will be
examined. To better understand the connection today, it is beneficial to first become familiar with Skinner's
development of his theory.
B.F. Skinner and Radical Behaviorism
John B. Watson is considered the founder of behaviorism. According to Moore (2011), Watson believed that
"psychology should embrace behavior as its subject matter and rely on experimental observation of that subject
matter as its method." Behaviorism was more objective than many other sects of psychology at the time because it
relied solely on what could be observed. (p.451) It did not rely on inferences, connections, or speculation, but used
concrete evidence that could be witnessed by an observer.
By 1920s, Watson had left academic psychology and other behaviorists were becoming influential, proposing new
forms of learning other than classical conditioning. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, more commonly known as B.F. Skinner,
is credited with the development of radical behaviorism. Skinner's theory "formulated as a functional relation between
the behavior in question and the environmental variables." (Moore, 2011) Skinner believed that we do have a "mind,"
but that it is more reliable to focus on observable behavior rather than internal mental events. (Mcleod, 2012)
Most behavior is observable as it takes place outside the subject's body, but some is only accessible to the person
who is behaving. While Skinner's view was not considered as extreme as Watson's, the name radical behaviorism
stems from the idea that behaviorism is a subject matter in its own right and is “an approach that is thoroughly and
comprehensively behavioral and that thereby can include behavioral events which are not publicly observable.”
(Moore, 2011)
Skinner focused much of his work on looking at the causes of an action and its consequences. He believed that this
was the best way to understand behavior. This approach was called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning
states "Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends
to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened)." (Mcleod, 2012) There are three types of consequences that Skinner
used in his studies: neutral, reinforcers, and punishers. These consequences are described in the table below:
Three Types of Consequences in Operant Conditioning
responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior
being repeated
responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated.
can be positive or negative
responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated
weakens behavior
It is important to note that there are two types of reinforcers: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is where a
consequence is found rewarding by the behaving subject. For example, if a student receives money for good grades
on their report card, the student is more likely to carry out that behavior in the future. Negative reinforcement is where
an unpleasant consequence is removed when the desired behavior is carried out. For example, if a student has to
pay their parents money when they get bad grades, the student may work to get good grades to avoid paying his or
her parents.
Applications of Radical Behaviorism: Skinner Boxes and Teacher
Pairing consequences with a behavior can help to shape the behavior of the subject. Skinner applied his idea of
operant conditioning in studying animals as well as humans. He is most famously known for his work in conditioning
rats using "Skinner boxes." A rat was placed in a box that usually had a switch or some other task that was to be
carried out. Skinner would use various consequences to see how it affected the rats' ability to accomplish the task. In
his numerous experiments, Skinner also explored different schedules of reinforcement. For example, a rat might
receive a consequence on every seventh time that it carried out the desired behavior. Some schedules were
completely variant and did not adhere to a pattern. Such a random schedule is usually tied to positive reinforcment
and has been compared to that of gambling devices. The payout is possible each time the behavior is carried out, but
does not occur each time.
Image taken from
Another famous experiment that Skinner carried out made a direct connection to education and involved children. On
their site, New Learning Online, Kalantzis and Cope draw attention to this unique study. They argue:
The application of operant conditioning to education is simple and direct. Teaching is the arrangement of
contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn. They learn without teaching in their natural environments,
but teachers arrange special contingencies which expedite learning, hastening the appearance of behavior which
would otherwise be acquired slowly or making sure of the appearance of behavior which might otherwise never
Skinner developed "teaching machines" that a student would use to complete a short math or word problem. The
student would write their response and turn a dial to view the correct answer. Skinner's findings found that instant
feedback led to correct behavior and to motivation. Each student was also free to move at his or her own pace. The
teaching machines broke the learning up into a "large number of small steps where the student is almost guaranteed
to succeed at each small step." The student only moves on to the next step when the prior step has been correctly
Criticisms of Behaviorism
While there are many supporters for Skinner's work who agree with his findings, there also exists a large faction of
critics. There are some researchers that claim that learning in animals is not comparable to learning in humans.
Kalantzis and Cope (2012) summarize this argument:
Critics of behaviourism have argued that human learning and animal learning are different in some important ways –
in fact, in the ways that make us human, including factors such as self-consciousness and responsibility. As an
educational philosophy, stimulus and response seems mechanical and manipulative. Meanwhile, the idea of innate
intelligence has been thoroughly discredited, and particularly the idea that whole groups of people – races, or cultures
or the poor – are naturally less intelligent than others. Also, it is now widely agreed that it is hard to make a distinction
in practice between knowledge of things you have learned and intelligence that might be considered innate. (p.202)
Cognitive psychologists are one major opponent of the behaviorist. Cognitive psychology focuses on mental
processes such as memory. Moore (2013) describes the cognitive psychologist's criticism of behaviorism:
Some cognitive psychologists contend one difference is that cognitive psychology is concerned with the unobservable
phenomena that are held to underlie and therefore cause behavior, and in terms of which an explanation is
appropriately sought. These cognitive psychologists further contend behaviorism is concerned solely with the publicly
observable relations between behavior and stimuli in the environment, which are neither causal nor explanatory.
Because behaviorists only focus on behavior that can be observable, they ignore any internal occurrences that
cannot be observed externally. In doing so, the cognitive psychologist argues that behaviorists are ignoring the
changes that occur mentally to connect stimuli with responses, and in doing so are thus ignoring any cause or
explanation for the behavior. Flanagan (1991) claims, "The behaviorist’s tactic of only attending to law-like
connections between observable events is comparable to resting satisfied with the knowledge that the Big Bang is
responsible for the present state of the cosmos and not giving a hoot about what has gone on in between.” (as cited
in Moore, 2013, p.671)
In the realm of education, there is also some worry about using extrinsic rewards to try to shape student behavior.
The fear is that once the reinforcement is removed for a desired behavior, the student will lack the intrinsic motivation
to engage in the behavior. Akin-Little, Eckert, Lovett & Little (2004) also point out that today's teachers are mostly
using a cognitive theory of education with the emphasis on student-centered constructivism. This method "relies on
internal, intrinsic machinations with no external reinforcement procedures being used." (p.345) The National
Education Association published How to Kill Creativity (Tegano et al.) in 1991. This document stated:
The expectation of reward can actually undermine intrinsic motivation and creativity of performance...A wide variety of
rewards have now been tested, and everything from good-player awards to marshmallows produces the expected
decrements in intrinsic motivation and creativity of performance...(making) them (students) much less likely to take
risks or to approach a task with a playful or experimental attitude. (p. 119, as cited in Akin-Little, Eckert, Lovett & Little
2004, p. 357)
RTI: Response to Intervention and Behaviorism
Behaviorism is still seen in many schools even with so many criticisms of the theory. The implications of Skinner's
ideas on schools has been outlined by Kalantzis & Cope (2012) in New Learning:
Education is conceived as a process of behaviour modification. Pedagogy, in this conception, is a process of stimulus
(for instance, introduce new content), followed by response (the student is asked a question in class or takes a test),
followed by reinforcement (confirmation by the teacher of a right or wrong answer, or getting good or bad marks).
Rather like the Fordist production line , learning according to the behaviourist model can be broken up into little bits,
with a stimulus–response–reinforcement sequence driving each step in the production of learned behaviours. (p.200201)
What is different in the present state of education is the demand for evidence-based systems to be in place. Data,
research, and constant monitoring of the system, students, and outcomes are all requirements of these systems.
Response to Intervention, or RTI, is one of these systems. Smith & Okolo (2010) explain that "“At its core, RTI
features four primary components: (a) evidence-based classroom instruction, (b) student assessment with a
classroom focus, (c) universal screening of academics and behavior, and (d) continuous progress monitoring of
students.” (p.258)
The OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports explains that RTI "grew
from efforts to improve identification practices in special education. Simply put, it is a process of systematically
documenting the performance of students as evidence of the need for additional services after making changes in
classroom instruction.” Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, is closely related to RTI and uses
many of the same principles. OSEP states:
"Both RTI and PBIS are grounded in differentiated instruction. Each approach delimits critical factors and components
to be in place at the universal (Tier 1), targeted group (Tier 2), and individual (Tier 3) levels. Our goal is to describe
the shared (identified in bold) characteristics of these approaches as a basis for highlighting how best to meet the
needs of children experiencing academic and social difficulties in school.”
Both RTI and PBIS use a three-tiered intervention system
Differentiation, or individualization as it is sometimes called, allows each student to have their education experience
catered to their needs. RTI and PBIS are both part of this differentiated approach. For example, if a student has a low
reading level, certain supports will be put into place to help close the gap. Depending on the data collected on the
student, usually gathered using assessments, the student may qualify for tier 2 or tier 3 interventions. A student who
qualifies for tier 2 will receive the same instruction that tier 1 students recieve, but will also receive a small group
intervention for reading. A tier 3 student will receive the same instruction as tier 1 and may receive the tier 2
intervention, but will also have an individual, more direct intervention.
PBIS focuses on behavior rather than academics. PBIS systems can take several forms such as consistent
vocabulary and expectations or token economies. Students can earn rewards for displaying desirable behaviors. Data
on these behaviors is collected and interventions are put into place for students who qualify. As behaviors begin to
improve, different qualifications or goals are set to receive the positive reinforcement. Akin-Little, Eckert, Lovett &
Little (2004) connect this system to behaviorism stating:
"...techniques that aid teachers in improving their management skills have existed since Skinner's (1953) seminal
work on the principles of operant conditioning. Techniques based upon the use of extrinsic reinforcers (i.e., positive
reinforcement) work in the classroom. These include verbal praise, token economies, group contingencies, contracts,
and others (Maag & Kotlash, 1994)."
PBIS works best when it is a schoolwide systematic approach. While teachers have their own systems in place to
help manage student behavior in the classrooms, the unstructured time spent in common areas can often be a
problem for student behavior. Wheatley, West, Charlton, Sanders, Smith & Taylor (2009) write, "School common
areas may include hallways, lunchrooms, playgrounds, and buses or bus lines. Previous research suggests that
misbehavior in school common areas accounts for approximately one-half of all problem behaviors in many schools.”
Token economies can be quite successful in shaping behavior. One example of a token economy is at North Boone
Middle School in Poplar Grove, IL. Students can earn "Viking Vouchers" for displaying correct behavior or meeting
certain goals. Every two weeks on Friday in the cafeteria during lunch, the "Viking Vault" is open. This is a store
where students can trade in their vouchers for rewards such as candy, school supplies, posters, gift cards, or other
desirables. But what about the criticism of using extrinsic rewards to shape behavior? Akin-Little, Eckert, Lovett &
Little (2004) argue:
...any detrimental effects of the use of extrinsic reinforcement can be easily avoided with the use of these guidelines.
Rewards should not be presented for mere participation in a task without regard for completion or quality.
Decrements have also been found in the literature when rewards are presented on a single occasion. This is not the
most common method utilized in classrooms. In general, reward contingencies used in schools are presented
repeatedly with appropriate thinning of schedules utilized when behavior change has occurred. School psychologists
are advised to heed this advice when consulting and planning with teachers on the use of reinforcers in the school
setting. (p.357)
Incorporating Technology into RTI and PBIS Systems
While RTI and PBIS have behaviorism at their roots, namely Skinner's idea of operant conditioning, it is the data
collection and need for evidence before making changes or decisions that makes it more accepted. If decisions or the
system is called into question, the data can be analyzed and the plan can be altered, rejected, or continued.
Technology can make the data collection, data management, data analysis, and communication more efficient and
reliable. At North Boone Middle School, data is collected and maintained using Google Drive. Spreadsheets can be
edited and shared with teachers, administrators, social workers, counselors, even parents and students, if
appropriate. Google forms can be used as point sheets or surveys to collect data on students daily or just when
particular situations occur. When data is made easier to manage and collect, the interventions can be adjusted
quicker to meet the needs of the student.
Technology can also be used directly for the intervention itself, but it has been hard to support with concrete
evidence. Smith & Okolo (2010) argue that more data and documentation needs to be collected on the use of
technology for interventions:
Thus, if technology-based solutions for students...are to be considered and integrated, they too must provide
evidence of the effectiveness of a technology-based instructional practice… The use of technology applications for
students with disabilities may continue to be limited within the RTI model unless the effectiveness of technologybased tools can be documented, furthering their use within multi-tiered models of instructional support. (p.258)
Data collection can prove difficult when students are using technology. Smith & Okolo (2010) explain, "Teachers
rarely observe students' performance when they are on a computer or mobile device and, therefore, may not be
aware of when students encounter difficulties with a task or skill that requires teacher intervention.” (p. 269) While
there is much work and research that needs to be done in this area, using technology as a form of interventions does
show some potential.
One great example of a technology-based tool that serves as a reinforcement system as well as a data collection
system is Class Dojo. Class Dojo allows the teacher to set up a virtual classroom and assign each student a "secret
code." This code allows students to access their profile and see their data. According to their website, "The teacher
can easily award feedback points for behavior in class in real-time, with just one click of your smartphone or laptop."
Teachers can project the virtual classroom when the projector is not in use, have students be responsible to monitor
their own progress, or provide a time each day or week to allow students to see their points. This works extremely
well in a 1:1 environment or when the virtual classroom can be projected so that students can have instant feedback.
Classroom Dojo Screenshot
This actually improves behavior." If the teacher desires, students can receive notifications about points that are added
or subtracted from their profile. "Behavior-tracking analytics and reports can be shared with parents and
administrators. There is no data entry needed. Ever."
Student Data Report
Class Dojo claims that there are many benefits for both teachers and students in using this system. For teachers, it
aims to reduce the amount of time spent managing behaviors and provide "a painless way to focus on developing
positive behavior over time, rather than just logging referrals once it is too late to intervene." For students, "research
suggests the shorter the time period between an action and feedback for that action, the greater is the effect of the
reinforcement. Specific positive reinforcement helps students develop a sense of purpose in the classroom,
enhancing intrinsic motivation over time. By giving students visibility and data on their own behavior, Class Dojo
makes class less disruptive and creates a more positive learning environment."
If Skinner was still alive, he would approve of the use of Class Dojo. Like his teaching machines, it provides instant
feedback to students allowing the reinforcement to lead to motivation. The marriage of his behaviorist ideas with the
technology of today provides a systematic reinforcement system for 21st century classrooms.
The implications of Skinner's theory of radical behaviorism on 21st century classrooms can be seen in the schoolwide
RTI and PBIS systems. With operant conditioning at the center and concrete data used as diagnostic evidence to
drive decision-making, students are having their education tailored to their individual needs. The integration of
technology has made the implementation of these systems easier to manage and more efficient in their changing as
the student grows and improves. While behaviorism often carries a negative connotation in many education circles,
the two systems for behavior management and academic decisions in schools would not exist in their present state
without it.
Akin-Little, K., Eckert, T. L., & Lovett, B. J. (2004). Extrinsic Reinforcement in the Classroom: Bribery or Best
Practice. School Psychology Review, 33(3), 344-362.
ClassTwist, Inc. (2011). Class dojo. Retrieved from
Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2008). New learning. Retrieved from
Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2012). New learning:elements of a science of education. (2nd ed.). New York, NY:
Cambridge University Press.
McLeod, S. (2012). Skinner-operant conditioning. Retrieved from
Moore, J. (2011). Behaviorism. Psychological Record, 61(3), 449-465.
Moore, J. (2013). Tutorial: Cognitive psychology as a radical behaviorist views it. Psychological Record, 63(3), 667679. doi: 10.11133/j.tpr.2013.63.3.019
Response to intervention (rti) and pbis. (2014). Retrieved from
Smith, S. J., & Okolo, C. (2010). Response to Intervention and Evidence-Based Practices: Where Does Technology
Fit?. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33(4), 257-272
Wheatley, R. K., West, R. P., Charlton, C. T., Sanders, R. B., Smith, T. G., & Taylor, M. J. (2009). Improving Behavior
through Differential Reinforcement: A Praise Note System for Elementary School Students. Education & Treatment
Of Children (ETC), 32(4), 551-571