Early Childhood Education

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (1904-1990)


B. F. Skinner founded a movement in the field of psychology called radical behaviorism. He won numerous awards in his lifetime, including the National Medal of Science, which was presented to him in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the first Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology, which he received from the American Psychological Association (APA) shortly before his death. B. F. Skinner is now universally regarded as the most influential behavioral psychologist of the twentieth century. More than any other behaviorist, his view of human development stimulated research that had very important implications for teaching practices in the fields of early childhood regular education and early childhood special education.

Skinner was born in Susqehanna, Pennsylvania. As a young man he had aspirations of becoming a writer and enrolled in Hamilton College in New York, where he received a BA in English literature in 1926. He spent nearly a year in Greenwich Village working as a bookstore clerk and writing fiction in his spare time, but soon became disillusioned with his literary skills. At the age of twenty-four, he decided to pursue graduate work in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He received his PhD in 1931 and remained at Harvard until 1936. It was during this postdoctoral period that he conducted a series of animal experiments using a method he called the experimental analysis of behavior. Based on this work, he formulated several principles of operant reinforcement theory, described various schedules of reinforcement, and demonstrated how new behaviors could be learned through processes such as shaping, fading, and chaining.

In 1936, Skinner married Yvone Blue. The couple moved to Minneapolis, where he taught and continued to conduct research at the University of Minnesota. In 1938, they had their first child, Julie. Skinner also published his first book, The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis, which contained findings from animal experiments that he used to support his theoretical arguments. In 1943, toward the end of his tenure at the University of Minnesota, Skinner’s wife gave birth to a second daughter, Deborah. Two years later he accepted the position of chair of the Department of Psychology at Indiana University. In 1946, he and a small group of behavior analysts arranged the first meeting of the Society of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, which eventually led (twelve years later) to the establishment of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. In 1948, he returned as a tenured professor to Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his career.

During his lifetime, Skinner published dozens of theoretical and empirical journal articles as well as several important books. In 1948, he published Walden Two, which described a visit to an imaginary utopian community where U.S. citizens lived far better than people in the outside world. Skinner wrote the book because he wanted to demonstrate the advantages of a society based on scientific social planning and reinforcement principles of human development. In 1957, he presented an operant analysis of language development in a book titled Verbal Behavior, which was not particularly well received in the scientific community and strongly criticized by the noted linguist, Noam Chomsky. In 1971, he published Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which proved to be very controversial and prompted a series of university lectures and television appearances. Skinner continued to feel that his ideas were often misrepresented, which prompted him to write About Behaviorism in 1974. Toward the end of his life, he remained very active and wrote a three-volume autobiography, Particulars of My Life: The Shaping of a Behaviorist, and A Matter of Consequences. Skinner was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989 but continued to work productively. He presented his last talk to a standing-room-only crowd at the August 1990 meeting of the American Psychological Association. Ten days later he finished the manuscript from which he had taken many of the ideas for his presentation, then quietly died a few hours later.

Further Readings: Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Skinner, B. F. (1987). Whatever happened to psychology as a science of behavior. American Psychologist 42, 1-70.

Web Sites: B. F. Skinner Foundation, http//:www.bfskinner.org; Buzan, Deborah Skinner, Guardian Unlimited, http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/healthmindbody/ story/0,6000,1168052,00.html; Rachlin, Howard. National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memories, http:www.nap.edu/reacingroom/books/biomems/bskinner.html

Vey M. Nordquist and William Bryan Higgins