One of the most basic debates revolves around the respective importance of the features and qualities that a child is born with, and those that are acquired from the environment as a child matures in the company of other people. This is known as the nature/nurture debate (Eysenk, 1997, 305-309) and a number of psychologists have devised experiments to try and work this out, so that more can be understood about how a child learns to interact with others, absorbing the rules of society and finding ways to adapt to the demands of school. Clearly if scholars can understand how behaviour is acquired, then they have more chance of finding ways to intervene if problems arise in this process.
Behaviourism is one of the most well-known theories of child development. The Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) conducted some very famous experiments on animals to research the way that learning takes place. He was primarily interested in physiology and his experiment with dogs showed that a random connection between a certain sound, and a reward of food, meant nothing to a dog at first, but with repeated association of the two, the dog could be trained to respond to the tone, in anticipation of the food, so that when the tone sounded, for the dog would salivate, even though there was no food in the room. Pavlov noted that this reflex action occurred spontaneously in the dog, whenever the stimulus was given, and this was called conditioning and it provided the basis for the theory of behaviourism. An example of the enduring truth of these theories can be observed in some typical behaviours in the context of education: “… our actions may condition inappropriate as well as appropriate behaviours, such as the automatic lack of attention to the lesson the moment the bell rings.” (Woollard, 2010, p. 12) Further work on this line of thinking was done by American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949), based on the way that cats learn to solve puzzles. Thorndike focussed on repetition of tasks, showing that the more frequently an action is required, and the more often a reward is offered for completion of this action, the more likely it is that the animal will learn the action. The implications for child behaviour are that learning should be provided in well structured, rather repetitive ways, with consistency in the reward system so that the child over time learns to fit in with what is expected of him. The psychologist John Watson (1878-1958) used the tools of scientific experimentation to demonstrate the validity of behaviourism: “Based on his research on higher order animals, Watson strove to bring to psychology the same measure of objectivity that marked some of the other traditional sciences such as physics and chemistry.” (Hart and Kritsonis, 2006, pp. 2-3) The empirical method, based on experiments and data analysis were a major part of Watson’s behaviourism and he is credited with establishing the credibility of Psychology as a discipline. Continuing in this same vein, B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) developed these ideas using rats initially, and then drawing parallels with child development. He devised experiments in which rats were required to push levers to obtain food, and this was called operant conditioning, because the rats had to actively operate the equipment to achieve the desired result. The important factor which he applied to child behaviour, was that rewards and punishments could be used to condition children to behave in certain ways. Skinner’s behaviour modification theories hold that positive reinforcements, such as praise and encouragement will work more effectively than negative reinforcements, such as punishment, because the associations of past experiences will gradually persuade the child