Early Childhood Education

Pavlov, Ivan Petrovich (1849-1936)


Ivan Pavlov, a Nobel Prize-winning Russian scientist, discovered, while studying the digestive processes of dogs, that reflexive behavior can be controlled, or “conditioned,” by external events. Pavlov showed how a previously neutral stimulus (the sound of a metronome) could elicit an involuntary response (salivation) if it was repeatedly paired with a stimulus that produced the reflex naturally (food). Pavlov termed this phenomenon classical conditioning. A brilliant methodologist, Pavlov’s research laid the groundwork for American academics, most notably Edward Thorndike, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner, to formulate and establish a purely objective science of learning, known as behaviorism.

Pavlov, the first child of a poor family, was born on September 14, 1849, at Ryazan in central Russia. Peter Dmitrievich Pavlov, his father and also the village priest, urged young Ivan toward theology, but Pavlov’s love of natural science led him instead to the lifelong study of physiology. Pavlov’s education began in the church schools of Ryazan but continued until he obtained an advanced degree and a fellowship award from the Academy of Medical Surgery. His early research, carried out at the clinic of S. P. Botkin, focused on the nervous system. In 1890, Pavlov became the director of the Department of Physiology at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg. Here he remained for 45 years, building the Institute into an influential center of physiological research.

Conditioned Reflexes (1927), which was published in English, established Pavlov’s reputation in the West and won widespread acclaim. The recognition that accompanied winning the Nobel Prize in 1904 may have protected Pavlov from persecution during and after the Russian Revolution. A government decree signed by Lenin in 1921 recognized Pavlov’s service to the working class; the Communist Party and the Soviet government provided well for Pavlov and his collaborators. The Soviet Union established itself as an international center for the study of physiology by 1935, a position secured in part because of Ivan Pavlov’s contributions. Pavlov remained actively involved in research until his death at age 87.

Pavlov is sometimes credited with starting the behavioristic revolution in psychology, which saw an abrupt shift toward studying only what was directly observable. An American psychologist, John B. Watson, is more appropriately recognized as the founder of radical behaviorism. Watson applied Pavlov’s methods to the study of children, successfully demonstrating that fear could be learned and then extinguished in a child by classical conditioning. Watson advanced a theoretical position that weighted environment much more heavily than heredity in the nature-nurture debate—a point of view related to social improvement. It was perhaps inevitable that Watson would soon be criticizing the nation’s mothers for failing to provide healthy conditions for their children’s growth.

Educators too felt the impact of behaviorism. At Teachers College in New York City, colleagues Edward Thorndike and Patty Smith Hill emphasized the importance of habit formation during the early years. Experimentation with children now involved stimulus-response psychology—educators sought to define desirable behavior and condition children to produce it.

In more recent times, B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning described how reinforcement can be used to modify behavior, a principle that soon infiltrated early childhood education. Using praise, token systems, or behavioral charts with the intention of altering children’s behavior are all practices that derive from reinforcement theory.

Behavioristic practices are firmly established in many American schools, particularly in special education. Whether these contemporary applications should be associated with the work of Ivan Pavlov, however, is open to debate.

Further Readings: Babkin, B. P. (1949). Pavlov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Frolov, Y. P. (1937). Pavlov and his school. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Company. Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. Translated by G. V. Anrep, London: Oxford University Press. Windholz, George (1997). Ivan P. Pavlov: An overview of his life and psychological work. American Psychologist, 52(9), 941-946.

Ann C. Benjamin