Ed tech behaviorism

Scott Mcleod, University Affairs, Jun 16, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Although behaviourism has several flavours, it is in general the idea that you can (only) talk about mental phenomena, such as learning and cognition, in terms of behaviour. The mind in behaviourism is treated as a black box, to which we do not have evidentiary access. This for the most part remains the case today, which means that most all educational theory belongs either to the category of (a) continuing to use the black box, or (b) making stuff up that we think characterizes cognitive phenomena. That is why technologists continue to employ what we would still call behaviourist methodology. Technology cannot respond to made-up phenomena (like mental 'constructions' or 'intentions') that we can't detect or measure. Nobody's happy with the current situation, but until we get accurate neural mapping, that's what we're left with.

To see my point, take a look at this account of the 'affective context model', which according to Nick Shackleton-Jones, "explains how learning takes place": "As we experience the world our brains need some way of deciding what to encode and how to encode it, so as to retrieve it in a way which is useful. Our minds solve this problem by encoding information along with its affective context – that is, our affective response to what we experience." This explanation is filled with made-up entities - like the brain "needing" to decide, it "encoding" it, it "retrieving" it, even the idea of "information" in our brain, let alone the "affective context" itself - none of this can be measured or observed, and that's why technologists measure responses rather than (say) 'encodings'.

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