How the Work of Pavlov Influenced Education

Pavlov was born on the 26th September 1849 in Ryazan, Russia. Ivan Pavlov devoted his life to the study of physiology and sciences, providing us with remarkable discoveries which led to him being awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1904. However, Pavlov began as a man of religion before turning his attention to the sciences for which he is now known.

During his career Pavlov held many scientific/medical positions such as the chair of pharmacology at the Tomsk University and then at the University of Warsaw. However Pavlov was invited to the institute of Experimental Medicine in 1891 to organize and direct the Department of Physiology and, over a 45 year period, he was credited with it becoming one of the most important centres of physiological research.

Pavlov was a physiologist and is famous for his research into “Conditional Reflex,” this research signalled the start of behaviourism. His work referred to his study of how dogs salivate and how he could change their behaviour through reinforcement: he found that when a bell was rung in a particular sequence in relation to the presentation of food he could get the dogs to salivate before the food was consumed. Pavlov built upon this theory and as time went on he was able to get the dogs to salivate upon hearing the bell, even if there was no food present. The bell began as a neutral stimulus as it had no bearing on whether or not the dogs would salivate but once the bell could cause salivation regardless of the presence of food it became a condition stimulus. The dogs had made a connection between the sound of a bell and receiving food, so a new behaviour had been conditioned. Pavlov was the first person to study the laws of conditioning which paved the way for others, such as John Watson, to develop the idea further. Watson, in his paper “Psychology as the behaviourist views it”  (1913), presented the idea of “Classical Conditioning” which was based upon the observations conducted by Pavlov. It explained that the idea of conditioning was to teach the subject to associate an unconditioned stimulus, which causes a particular reflex, with a conditioned stimulus, which will cause the same reflex.

Pavlov carried out a lot of research proving that conditioning applied to animals, however, would such a process affect a human? The Journal of Experimental Psychology Watson & Rayner (1920) proved that conditioning would in fact work on a human by conducting the controversial “Little Albert Experiment.” This experiment involved striking a metal bar with a hammer behind a baby names Albert’s head, this startled him causing him to cry, over a period of seven weeks a white rat was presented to Albert with the bar being struck immediately afterwards and, by the end of this period, showed fear and cried whenever he saw the rat regardless of whether or not the bar was struck. Watson & Rayner had managed to repeat Pavlov’s work on dogs using a human beings; relating a conditioned stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus so that the same reflex. This experiment is often “cited as the first exemplary case of behaviour conditioning,” (Mackenzie, 1977) Watson named the theory “Behaviourism” and it is based upon Pavlov’s theory.

Below is a video showing the “Little Albert Experiment” – watch from one minute.

Another man who built upon the theory of classical conditioning was B.F Skinner who is known for his behaviourist views and his work regarding “Operant Conditioning.” It is best defined as the changing of behaviour through the use of reinforcement; this being positive or negative. Skinner had few people that influenced his work but none more so than Pavlov, in fact he stated, “Russell and Watson had given me no glimpse of experimental method, but Pavlov had: Control the environment and you will see order in behaviour’’ (Skinner, 1967, p. 399). Throughout his writings Skinner openly expresses his affection for Pavlov, whether this is hanging a signed photograph of Pavlov on his office wall or mentioning in his biography that Pavlov ‘‘Is a star which lights the world” (Skinner, 1976). We have no doubt that Pavlov influenced the research conducted by many people such as Skinner and as his ideas have been manipulated and built upon we have seen how they have motivated behaviour management in schools today. Positive and negative reinforcement is a common practice seen in the classroom. Many teachers make their children aware of what is expected of them from the beginning of the year so that there is a clear indication of what good behaviour is; actions that break these expectations are often considered to be bad behaviour. In order to encourage good behaviour, teachers will provide rewards for the children, these may include stickers, games the children like and other nice things. The aim of this is to motivate the children to behave well and work hard in the hope that they will receive a reward. On the other hand teachers will also have punishments that are used in the hope of discouraging negative behaviour. Examples of punishments may be the removal of free time, a telling off or excluding a child from an activity they enjoy. Punishments are used to weaken a particular behaviour whereas rewards are used to strengthen or reinforce a particular behaviour. Skinner (1968) argued that learning is a result of the reinforcement or punishment of behaviours within a context that is deliberately manipulated by the teacher. Therefore a teacher may structure their teaching in order to receive the correct response, or even use punishers to ensure the incorrect response is not given.

As teachers we want to encourage children to generate their own ideas about their learning and learn in a way that suits them best. However, it is important that the style in which they choose to learn does not affect the learning of others. This does not necessarily mean that they must be silent and restricted from discussing their ideas as a group, but it would mean that whilst learning children are behaving appropriately, whether or not their behaviour is deemed appropriate would be at the discretion of the teacher. However the consequences of the behaviour are important as this will determine whether the behaviour will recur. There is so much to think about regarding classroom management and how to get the best out of all our children; behaviourism is one theory to consider as Atherton (2010) stated, it has been “undermined” by the “cognitive revolution.”

As people began to recognise Pavlov and his work became well known, the idea of conditioning branched out to become a key concept in the developing specialism of comparative psychology. Pavlov’s work with classical conditioning had a huge influence on how humans perceive themselves, their behaviour and learning processes. His worked encouraged many others such as Watson and Skinner to delve deeper into his original idea. The result was a theory that was constantly challenged and developed; the idea of behaviourism.

Sources, Referencing and Further Reading.

  • Gray, J. (1979) Pavlov. Glasgow: Fontana Paperbacks
  • Mackenzie, B (1977) Behaviourism and the Limits of Scientific Method. London: Routledge.
  • Pavlov, I. (1927) Conditioned Relfexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 11th January 2013)
  • Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The Work Of The Digestive Glands. London: Griffin.
  • Pavlov, I. P. (1928). Lectures On Conditioned Reflexes. (Translated by W.H. Gantt) London: Allen and Unwin.
  • Pavlov, I. P. (1955). Selected Works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1967). B. F. Skinner. In E. G. Boring & G. Lindzey (Eds.), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 5, pp. 385–413). New York:  Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1976). Particulars of my life. New York: Knopf
  • Watson, J. B. & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1, pp. 1–14.
  • Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: People’s Institute Publishing Company.
  • Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158–177
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7 thoughts on “How the Work of Pavlov Influenced Education

  1. Vic Goddard says:

    This takes me back to teaching PE A level! Seems to be very thorough, well researched and referenced. I think that there is another influence from Pavlov and that is the ages of the learners when schools have had to formally carry out assessments e.g. SATs and GCSEs

  2. […] Click here to read the original article on the author’s site where you can also comment. […]

  3. How odd! I was thinking about learning theories this morning. I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and it occurred to me that we often teach kids to look for patterns that trigger memory. I found myself questioning whether a side effect of using positive reinforcement (derived from Pavlov, Skinner etc) could be embedding a tendency for causal thinking that undermines objectivity? #Duecredit to @timbuckteeth Steve Wheeler for linking me to this blog and making me think more – that’s the great thing about learning theory – it keeps you learning! (Emma)

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  5. […] these topics have influenced how we teach and educate today. I began my learning by researching “How the work of Pavlov influenced education” this was the first step into the world of how psychology has influenced education for me and […]

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