The Legacy of Burrhus Frederic Skinner

There are those that stand out as pioneers, and whose thinking processes make a difference to mankind. Even from humble beginnings, the thought processes of a child like B. F. Skinner were inventive. A curious child, he worked with small inventions that made a difference, though what he could never know at this stage in his life was the impact that his research would have upon mankind and the improvement of personal circumstances and society’s way of looking for improvement.

The legacy of a man isn’t measured by the life that they lived. It is measured by what they leave behind and the journey that led Skinner towards what is now his legacy was a long one that took him from childhood curiosity into adolescent rebellion and a search for answers to practical problems. Wanting to become a writer, his mind was already honed towards the curiosity that would lead him forward in the world of psychology even before the decision was made about the road he would take. It was a very strange encounter in a New York bookstore that was to make the road ahead a clearer one, as the young Skinner learned of the success of Pavlov and the way in which animals were encouraged by different behavioral approach.

This beginning was to lead Skinner to the study of Psychology at Harvard and driven not only by his own enthusiasm and curiosity of mind, but by that of his chosen mentor, Skinner developed a machine that could record responses to given stimuli. What this proved to the young Skinner was that not only were rats provoked into certain action by reward, but that they could be trained to react to the environment around them, stepping away from Pavlov’s theory and taking it a step further to what he called operant behavior. This was to take Skinner into a five year study of human behavior stimulated by consequence.

Taking his theories further, during wartime, Skinner used what he had found to program pigeons to guide bombs, and although the project was dropped because of other alternatives available, what this taught him was that there was indeed merit to the results of his theories. War also affected Skinner in that he saw the way that people coming back from war were having difficulty getting back to any kind of normality, giving rise to the books that he wrote entitled Waldon 1 and Waldon 2 in which behavioral society patterns were explored to create a Utopian Society.

1953 took Skinner into another area of human development, when he witnessed what he saw as ineffective teaching, and how students did not learn because there was no response to stimulate them. Working on a teaching machine, he furthered his belief that the learning process is almost an automatic one if the stimuli produced by giving correct answers is a reinforcement or affirmation. The development of teaching methods took a subject, broke it into smaller and more feasible sections, offering prompting methods in the early stages which developed not only the student’s ability to learn, but his willingness to do so.

In his later years, Skinner devoted his time to his written work and indeed produced not only studies and books on behavioral patterns, but also books that described the life he had led.

It is sad that Skinner was not around to see the legacy of the work that he devoted his life to. The very core elements of his research on education could have been catered for in a multi-media world and the vision that the man had even in the early days of computer science has now come to fruition, with teaching methods following those patterns he recognized and studied years beforehand as being viable methods to teach and to learn.

His legacy is present in our day to day activities, our learning abilities, and the presentation of ideas used in education and psychological understanding throughout the world. That certainly is a legacy to be proud of. Summing up this legacy with an enlightened heart as a member of the teaching profession, one of his quotations certainly explains his theory in a nutshell:

“We shouldn’t teach great books, we should teach a love of reading”