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Thorndike’s Law of Effect and Its Influence on Modern Behaviour Management

Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect remains pivotal in today’s behaviour management strategies, offering actionable classroom and policy insights. This article unpacks Thorndike’s key theory and provides practical steps for enhancing modern educational settings.


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There have been many contributors to educational theory over the decades. And when it comes to our understanding of intelligence, Edward Thorndike plays an influential role. 

You might recall our previous discussion on Understanding Educational Theorists: The Foundations of Modern Pedagogy, where we took a broader look at key figures in educational theory. This article focuses on a specific contributor, Edward Thorndike, whose insights have profoundly impacted modern educational settings.

This influential thinker was an American psychologist whose work in the late 19th and early 20th century laid much of the groundwork for contemporary educational psychology, and his contributions have shaped how we understand learning and intelligence. Of particular renown was his description of the law of effect, a cornerstone of behavioural psychology.

This law has had practical applications in teaching and learning. Behavioural theories like Thorndike’s offer actionable, evidence-based strategies for more effective classroom management and fulfilling learning experiences.


Introducing the Law of Effect

Thorndike’s law of effect posits that actions followed by pleasant outcomes are likely to be repeated, whereas actions followed by unpleasant outcomes are less likely to recur. To simplify: positive reinforcement encourages the repetition of good behaviour, and the lack of it—or negative consequences—discourages it. The principle seems intuitive, but its implications for influencing behaviour in educational settings are significant and far-reaching.

An understanding of theories such as the law of effect helps educators to create a more resilient, evidence-based approach to behaviour management.


Defining the Law of Effect

The law of effect is a straightforward yet impactful idea: actions that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again. Conversely, actions that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur. Rewarding outcomes increase the probability of repeated behaviours, while adverse outcomes discourage them.


Experiments and Findings

Thorndike’s law of effect, though basic, wasn’t born out of thin air; it’s backed by rigorous scientific experimentation. He conducted experiments using a puzzle box. A cat would be placed inside the box and needed to perform specific actions, like pulling a lever, to escape and obtain a food reward. The time taken for each successive attempt decreased, lending empirical weight to his theory: actions followed by positive outcomes (like escaping the box to get food) were learned and repeated more swiftly.

Subsequent psychologists like B.F. Skinner helped to solidify and develop the findings, which became a cornerstone in educational psychology.


Simplified graph illustrating the decrease in time it took for a cat to escape Thorndike's puzzle box over multiple trials.
This graph illustrates the key findings of Thorndike’s cat puzzle box experiment, highlighting the decreasing time needed for the cat to escape — a core concept in Thorndike’s Law of Effect.


Historical Context

Edward Thorndike was born in 1874, and the world he lived in impacted his work.

When Edward Thorndike advanced the law of effect in the late 19th and early 20th century, the academic climate was ripe for change. Psychology was stepping out of the shadows of philosophy to carve its own path. 

Educational theories at the time were primarily influenced by structuralism and classical conditioning, which often disregarded the complexities of human motivation and behaviour. Thorndike’s approach stepped outside of this and was both psychologically rigorous and experimentally grounded. It set the stage for behavioural psychology to become an integral part of educational science.

Thorndike’s research included controlled experiments, often with animals, to explore learning mechanics. The law of effect emerged from this and swiftly moved from an intellectual novelty to a fundamental principle in psychology and education.

Evolution of Behaviour Management in Education

Behaviour management in educational settings has come a long way since Thorndike’s era, and his work spurred a lot of the change. Early 20th-century classrooms were often authoritarian in nature, with punishment as the chief tool for maintaining order. The law of effect introduced the merits of positive reinforcement. A more compassionate, practical approach to classroom management was planted and began to grow.

Fast forward to today. Positive reinforcement is now integral to modern education, from token economies to merit systems. Understanding Thorndike’s law is a solid foundation. Although his work took place almost 130 years ago, the insights from those years continue to guide classroom management and long-term educational strategies.


What Thorndike’s Law Means for Educators Today

Understanding the law of effect brings insights that can be applied in classroom management and pedagogical strategies. Equally, many of the natural actions that teachers take are in line with the theory. For instance, using praise or tangible rewards to motivate positive student behaviour can be traced back to Thorndike’s findings. Those interested in expanding their toolbox of classroom management techniques should not underestimate the potency of this seemingly simple law.

Law of Effect and Positive Reinforcement

The law of effect provides the theoretical bedrock for positive reinforcement in educational settings. “Behaviours followed by positive outcomes will likely be repeated” as a principle has been incorporated into classroom management strategies, where teachers use rewards or positive feedback to encourage desirable behaviours. Positive reinforcement can manifest in verbal praise, tangible rewards, or privileges like extra leisure time. Essentially, by rewarding positive behaviours, we help to create a virtuous cycle that enhances both learning outcomes and classroom dynamics.


Criticisms and Limitations

Any scientific theory, particularly one that is over a hundred years old, will have faced challenges and change over the years. Here are a few of the most pressing.

Academic Criticisms

Some scholars argue that the law oversimplifies complex human behaviours by reducing them to mere responses to stimuli. This reductionism has been challenged for not considering the influence of individual cognition, emotional states, and social interactions.

Limitations in Diverse Settings

Several limitations surface when applying the law of effect in diverse educational settings. Notably, what constitutes a ‘reward’ can be culturally specific. In some educational environments, using material rewards like stickers or tokens may not have the desired positive reinforcement effect. Additionally, the law can become less effective when the behavioural responses are complicated by conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or other learning differences. It’s crucial to be mindful of individual differences and adapt strategies accordingly.

Considerations for Educators

Educators should approach the law of effect as one tool among many. A nuanced, multi-faceted approach to behaviour management often proves to be most effective in accommodating the complex needs of a diverse student body.


Beyond the Classroom: Applications in Educational Policy

Thorndike’s law of effect has uses in education beyond the four walls of a classroom; it also has a broader influence on educational policies. His insights have impacted governing policies revolving around behaviour management, school discipline, and teacher training. The essence of the law of effect—rewarding desired behaviours—has provided a theoretical basis for the positive reinforcement strategies commonly advocated in educational directives.

Tangible Steps for Schools

Schools interested in bolstering behaviour management effectiveness can implement several strategies rooted in Thorndike’s law of effect:

  1. Positive behaviour support programs
    Create or adapt programs that encourage positive behaviour through a structured system of rewards.
  2. Teacher training modules
    Educate staff on the principles of the law of effect and how to apply these principles in a classroom setting practically.
  3. Data-driven analysis
    Utilise behavioural analytics to measure the effectiveness of your strategies, adjusting as necessary for optimal outcomes.
  4. Parental involvement
    Share your behaviour management approach and expected outcomes with parents to create a more unified and effective strategy.


In Summary

Thorndike’s observations back in the 19th and early 20th centuries were simple but enduring!

 The effects of his work are still evident in the field of education: by rewarding desired behaviour, schools encourage academic excellence and foster social and emotional skills critical for a student’s long-term development. The law of effect is a theoretical underpinning for positive reinforcement strategies, data-driven behavioural analyses, and effective teacher training programmes.

Want to know more about this and other topics? Our CPD courses for teachers equip educators with all kinds of tools and strategies for effective pedagogy, classroom management, and more.

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