Advance Organizer

Advance Organizer

An advance organizer is an introduction or table of contents to a course. It can also refer to an abstract, a general overview, preliminary instructions, topics to be covered, course outline, or a study plan. Philosophers have long used the Greek term propaedeutic (pre-pedagogical or preteaching comments) for this concept, but educator David Ausubel came up with "advance organizer" in 1963, and it has remained a stock term in certain instructional design circles ever since. Note that the concept of an introductory overview represents the first of Herbart's standard four-step process for building any course.



David Ausubel: Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning

See also Herbart


A man of fact and calculations, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature!

—Description of Mr. Gradgrind in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, 1854

All human performance, when objectified in units of space and time, follows certain laws.

—E. L. Thorndike, Behaviorist, 1901

Behaviorism is a twentieth-century movement in psychology away from the nineteenth century's descriptive studies of inner states of consciousness toward a scientific study of outward behavior and physical actions. Strongly influenced by nineteenth century laboratory science, behaviorism prides itself on being logical and precise, studying behavior in terms of absolutely observable and measurable acts. Only what people are observed to be doing counts; it is off-limits for behaviorists to talk about "thinking" or about the head. Instead of stating quite simply that they are "training an employee in a new habit," for instance, behaviorists state that they are "conditioning a reflex response associated with a specific environmental stimulus." Behaviorism prides itself in being the "pure science" of habit formation.

How does behaviorism inculcate new habits (or help us unlearn bad ones)? The answer is that it conditions, modifies, and shapes new behavior patterns through reinforcement, meaning through either reward or punishment. Early behaviorism claimed, in fact, that all emotions (except fear, love, and anger) could be conditioned or habitualized by simply reinforcing the desired emotion.

Influenced by Pavlov's "classical conditioning" of dogs in Russia around 1900 (see Fastpaths 1900, Pavlov), behaviorism was introduced into the United States in the early 1900s by John B. Watson. By the 1940s it was the only learning theory around, being the major force behind all skills training during World War II. During the 1950s it was promoted heavily by B. F. Skinner, who came up with the variant of behaviorism called process-oriented or "operant" conditioning (see Fastpaths 1938, Skinner), which was a refinement on Pavlov's classical conditioning methods. Using the newly developed teaching machine with its "programmed instruction," Skinner stated that skills should be taught in small steps. In this version, even very complex behaviors were viewed as simply a series of observable, mechanically linked (or "chained") events, each subevent being appropriately "associated" with the next. The only task was to "condition" (habitualize) the employee to the desired sequence of these steps. In this fashion, behaviorism held sway virtually unchallenged in corporate training departments until the 1990s (when cognitivism started to make its first inroads).

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Ninety percent of hitting is mental, the other half is physical.

—Yogi Berra, 1958

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Behaviorism has been an enormous force in the training, learning, and performance world over the past century, and in spite of often overstating its case, it has provided a constantly healthy corrective to more abstract theories of learning. In fact, many of its learning principles, including those of "programmed instruction," still hold true for today's Web-based courses (small steps for small screens). Today, however, most trainers and performance consultants embrace what could be called a blended form of learning, or "cognitive behaviorism," rather than either behaviorism or cognitivism. (See Cognitivism section for a chart contrasting behaviorism with cognitivism.)

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"Behaviorism" Is Often a Blanket Term for "Effective Training"

In the real world "behaviorism," because it has reigned unchallenged in departments of training for fifty years, is often used as a blanket term to mean simply "training with impact" (as in "our course results in real behavior change."). It does not always convey the precise meaning and the academic differentiation from cognitivism that we are making here. Often, in fact, it is referring to what is actually "cognitive behaviorism."

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The modern discipline of psychology is born when the English philosopher John Locke comes up with the theory of association, which will dominate the beginnings of psychology in the 1700s and 1800s and be revived yet again in the twentieth century by the behaviorists. The psychologist's task, according to Locke, is to discover how the units of experience (perceptions, memories, impressions, reflexes, and habits) are connected with one another, and how these in turn become combined into complex chains of ideas and actions.


Wilhelm Wundt's Physiological Psychology appears in Germany, announcing the arrival of experimental psychology—as a scientific discipline separate from philosophy. Much like the modern behavioral-cognitive psychology, which was to come 100 years later, Wundt stakes out a claim to a scientific field that will "examine the points of contact between external AND internal life."


William James establishes an experimental psychology laboratory at Harvard. Formal birthdate of modern psychology in the United States. James had studied with Wundt.


Wilhelm Wundt establishes a psychology lab in Leipzig, Germany.


William James's Principles of Psychology appears. A groundbreaking textbook in the new field of psychology by one of the founders of modern psychology.


The American Psychological Association (APA) is founded, with an initial membership of thirty, including William James.


Edward Thorndike (1874–1949) publishes Animal Intelligence, which helps found Behaviorism in the United States. Thorndike, a student of the pragmatism of William James as well as of the empirical psychology of the German Wundt, postulates a theory of learning that will dominate all others for almost a century, namely the notion that actions (responses) can be associated or causally "connected" with sense impressions (stimuli). Example: a bell rings and you do nothing; second step: a bell rings and your favorite dessert is brought in; the third time, when the bell rings, you salivate (even though the dessert has been withheld). You have "learned" something (how to salivate at the sound of a bell) through a "stimulus response" process. The behaviorists were off and running to their labs and their largely "transhuman subjects" of white mice, city pigeons, and rats, and a movement was born: Behaviorist Psychology.

Thorndike also postulated what he called the law of readiness, namely the notion that the learner must be motivated if he is to learn (an insight as old as Plato, and still valid). This will lead directly to all current problem-centered and goal-centered design in adult learning. Thorndike also postulated the law of exercise: practicing a response, with reinforcement, it essential if we are to acquire a new skill.


Pavlov's revolutionary experiments in Russia prove Thorndike's theories. The process went as follows: Meat was placed in a dog's mouth and caused the dog to salivate, exhibiting an instinctual (un-conditioned) response. Next a bell was rung at the same time as the meat was brought, until eventually the dog salivated on simply hearing the dinner bell (a "conditioned" response). Pavlov distinguished this conditioned response from such "innate" responses as a dog avoiding a flame. Thus the dog's behavior was "shaped and modified"—and this finding of classical conditioning would give rise to a century of human learning viewed as behavior modification and conditioning. Behavioral studies would be contributed by Watson (1913) and Skinner (1938 and 1954). The "conditioning" aspect of classical behaviorist training carries right down through Robert Gagne's Conditions of Learning (1965).


The term "industrial psychology" appears for the first time, in an article.


Hugo Munsterberg, father of industrial psychology, publishes Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Munsterberg, a German teaching at Harvard, takes psychology out of Wundt's lab and into the street, launching "applied psychology (applied to everyday human life instead of merely lab rats). He also launches industrial-organizational psychology (I/O psychology, the psychology of the workplace), which subsequently sparks the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1917 and cadres of Ph.D.s in industrial psychology in the 1920s. Urging a powerful blend of cognitive and behaviorist (mind-body) psychology, Munsterberg studies the attitudes towards work of Boston streetcar drivers as well as of factory workers in the nascent telephone industry. Urging managers to be concerned with everyday workplace "questions of mind such as monotony, interest, and work satisfaction," he analyzes everyday tasks on the job with reference to "the mental qualities behind them," pointing ahead to what we today call "job satisfaction."


John Watson officially founds academic American behaviorism with his manifesto "Psychology As the Behaviorist Views It." Rejecting the subjective introspection of a William James and other psychologists, Watson prides himself on his objective "scientific" view (modeled on nineteenth-century science), accepting only what could be "observed and measured." For Watson, internal activities such as thinking, remembering, and feeling do not exist for the scientific observer. Watson's opening remarks are programmatic for the entire movement: "Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no part of its methods nor does interpretation in terms of consciousness." (Freud's studies of mental illness, with their mental ramifications and stress on introspection, was obviously an entirely different movement in psychology at the time, one that, in the eyes of the behaviorists, was entirely "unscientific.")


John Watson: Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. Building on Thorndike, Watson creates the first textbook to extend behaviorism beyond rats to human beings. Despite inroads by Freud and the Gestaltists during the 1920s and 1930s, behaviorism will reign supreme for much of the twentieth century, particularly in training and development. The third member of the behaviorist triumvirate (along with Thorndike and Watson) was Skinner (see Fastpaths 1938 and 1953). Watson believed that we are born with only three instincts (fear, rage, and love) and that all the rest of our activities are based solely on habit, which can be "conditioned"—shaped, trained, modified, and developed—by behavioral psychologists through reinforcement.


Morris Viteles publishes Industrial Psychology, the first book to carry this concept in its title.


B. F. Skinner publishes The Behavior of Organisms. Helps further promote behaviorism in the United States, laying foundations for later transference from animals to the human domain. Where Pavlov had studied dogs answering dinner bells, U.S. behaviorists tended to study rats navigating mazes. Learning was connected to the rat's ability to "associate" learning maze-pathways with getting food. Centuries earlier the English philosopher John Locke had erected a theory of learning through "association" in human beings, but his writings from the early 1700s were largely ignored by educational psychologists. Skinner's views would strongly influence the world of training, including Robert Gagne.


Ernest Hilgard: Theories of Learning. A clearly written summary of the two central trends of early twentieth century psychology: Behaviorism (association theory of Skinner) and Gestalt(which focuses on patterns or habits of present experience in order to change them, as in the field theory of Kurt Lewin).


B. F. Skinner: Walden Two. Skinner describes how the principles of conditioning might be applied to create an ideal planned society.


B. F. Skinner's Science and Human Behavior. Skinner turns from his 1938 work on organisms (a.k.a. rats) to take a look at human beings. Skinner's work will be introduced into the training and development world by the "Four Horsemen of Behaviorist Training," namely Gilbert, Harless, Mager, and Rummler. Skinner's programmed instruction, much like modern Web-based training, advises chunking learning into bite-sized "frames" and giving immediate feedback that reinforces the action.


Skinner's article "The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching" appears in the Harvard Educational Review. The article is a report from the front lines on the first teaching machines of the 1950s, which were implementing programmed instruction and were early forerunners of today's Web-based training. A teaching machine is a box about the size of a small record player. On the top surface is a window through which a question or problem can be seen on a moving paper tape underneath. The learner answers the questions by moving a slider and then turning a knob ("as simple as adjusting a knob on your television set"). If the answer is correct, the knob moves forward freely (and can "ring a bell to provide a conditioned reinforcement"). If wrong; the knob won't turn and the student has to re-set the sliders to the correct answer. A counter keeps a running tally of all answers for purposes of scoring. Unlike flash cards, "the teaching machine reports wrong answers without giving away the right answer," and the student can't proceed until the correct answer is given; hence the mastery learning involved.


Skinner's Verbal Behavior, which still maintains a heavily behaviorist agenda.


Skinner's article "Teaching Machines" appears in Science magazine.


Skinner's article "Reflections on a Decade of Teaching Machines," appears in Teachers College Record. Lucid summary of his views on machine-enabled learning, plus an interesting attempt to broaden behaviorism's domain to include many aspects of its rival, cognitivism.


Karen Pryor: Don't Shoot the Dog. A light-hearted but instructive study of behaviorism.


John O'Donnell: The Origins of Behaviorism: American Psychology 1870–1920.

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The birth of psychology lays the foundation for organizational development and instructional design.

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No learning can take place without motivation.

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In 1916 Hugo Munsterberg publishes the first psychological study of the new medium of film—from the standpoint of the viewer—thereby inventing the new field of viewer or user psychology.

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Behaviorism rejects introspection and consciousness.

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Operant Conditioning: Reinforcing Results, Not Worrying About Causes

In 1938 Skinner promotes a new concept in behaviorism, which he calls "operant" conditioning. When Pavlov's dog responded to the ringing of a Russian dinner bell by salivating, it was part of a "classical" conditioning program where the learning event had been triggered by a specific stimulus—the ringing of a dinner bell. In the world of human learning, however (although Skinner still used pigeons for his experiments), things are much more complex, and it is not always possible to discern which stimulus triggers a response. Consequently Skinner introduces the bridging word "operant," meaning "influencing the operation," and thus shifts the researcher's focus from the cause of the action (stimulus) to the effect (response). Operant conditioning reinforces the operational results by means of rewards and incentives rather than trying to root out the "original cause" or "stimulus" for the action.

To take an example, let us ask the question of why you are reading this paragraph right now. The answers are probably multiple—in fact, if you look backwards in time you can no doubt come up with an endless series of connecting reasons or stimuli. Since it would be hopeless to start "reproducing" these multiple stimuli to get you to repeat the action, Skinner would completely ignore the "why" questions and concentrate instead on the "shaping" or "reinforcing" of the response—reading this particular paragraph in an encyclopedia. He would simply reward you for having done it, rather than trying to initiate it, and encourage you with rewards, such as patting you on the back, giving you three gold stars, telling you how intelligent you are, or saying that you're going to get a promotion. This is "operant" conditioning, or "behavior modification"—reinforcing and rewarding a specific action or behavior.

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