Problem Solving from a Behavioral Perspective: Implications for Behavior Analysts and Educators

Abstract

The nature of problem solving has been a difficult one to pin down, with much of the focus placed on hypothetical cognitive structures based on technological metaphors that change as quickly as the currently popular technologies after which they are modeled. While behavior analysts have made use of several effective instructional methodologies to produce reliable and impressive convergent learning outcomes, mainstream education has increasingly shifted toward divergent learning outcomes. Educators desire instructional models that are free flowing, spontaneous, and creative, producing students capable of solving problems in a wide array of domains. The analysis provided by a science of human behavior, combined with the aforementioned effective instructional strategies, reveals problem solving to be an area ripe for behavior analytic dissemination and interdisciplinary coordination. Behavior analysis offers a distinctly selectionist account of problem solving that focuses on the interaction between the learner and the environment. This paper serves three functions. First, the authors present a detailed and comprehensive account of human problem solving from a behavior analytic perspective, with a special focus on the role of verbal behavior. Second, research that supports this conceptualization is thoroughly detailed. Lastly, the authors describe effective problem solving curricula and instructional methods derived from a behavior analytic framework to assist educators as to how to create optimal learning environments to promote and nurture cultures of successful problem solving.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Readers are encouraged to thoroughly review Tiemann and Markle’s (1990) discussion of complex cognitive learning for a behavioral approach to such learning.

  2. 2.

    There are no doubt additional variables at play. The concept of response strength is one that has attracted criticism and merits further investigation (see Shahan 2017). Nonetheless, response strength serves as a useful tool for making sense of the other processes that may be involved in problem solving.

  3. 3.

    A principle called extinction (Skinner 1953).

  4. 4.

    In 1957, Skinner produced the first, comprehensive analysis of verbal behavior from a behavior analytic perspective—Verbal Behavior. He defines his subject matter, verbal behavior, as behavior that is reinforced not through direct contact with the environment (as is the case with non-verbal behavior); rather, verbal behavior is reinforced through consequences that are mediated from another individual who has been explicitly conditioned by the verbal community to reinforce verbal behavior (Skinner 1957, pp. 224–226). In essence, verbal behavior consists of a set of interlocking contingencies between a speaker (the one engaging in verbal behavior) and the listener (the one who reinforces the speaker’s verbal behavior) in which the listener functions as a discriminative stimulus for the verbal behavior of the speaker; the verbal behavior of the speaker serves as the discriminative stimulus for the listener’s behavior that subsequently serves as the consequence for the speaker’s behavior.

    Skinner (1957) contrasts the subject matter of verbal behavior with the foci of disciplines such as linguistics whose emphasis is on the general trends of groups of people (such as all of those who speak Swahili) or the features of the language itself (e.g., differentiating transparent from non-transparent languages—such as Italian and English, respectively) by emphasizing that verbal behavior focuses on the behavior of the individual speaker and the meaning of what is communicated is found through the analysis of the environmental controlling variables.

    Skinner (1957) outlines several verbal operants—or classes of verbal responses that are defined by their antecedent and consequence controlling variables—such as the mand, tact, echoic, and intraverbal. Each of these verbal operants specify not the exact topography of the response; instead, they predict the environmental conditions under which a number of potential responses, both verbal and non-verbal, might be strengthened and therefore be more likely to be emitted depending on the individual’s past history of reinforcement under similar conditions. The notion of the verbal operant is particularly helpful in designing interventions that support language acquisition (as is evidenced by a large body of empirical support; see for example, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior—1982 to present). Skinner (1957) purports that a specific topography of verbal behavior (i.e., a word or words) may serve many different functions for the speaker and therefore may need to be taught (i.e., reinforced) in a number of different situations. The individual who says “coffee” may do so when they “want” a cup of coffee (mand), when they see a cup of coffee (tact), after someone else says coffee (echoic), or when someone asks, “what do you drink every morning before going to work” (intraverbal).

  5. 5.

    Authors selected to include the terms “memory” and “memory strategies” as these terms are consistent with the literature cited throughout this section of the manuscript.

  6. 6.

    Skinner (1957) defines the autoclitic as, “[verbal] behavior which is based upon or depends upon other verbal behavior” (p. 315).

  7. 7.

    TAPS is available at http://www.talkaloudproblemsolving.com/.

  8. 8.

    Several studies did not meet the search criteria used for the current paper. However, a number of researchers have explored problem solving from a behavioral perspective (e.g., Foxx et al. 1988, 1989; Martella et al. 1992). These papers were excluded from this literature review but should be acknowledged given their contributions to our work (and that of others) on problem solving from a behavior analytic perspective.

  9. 9.

    Sequelic behavior was defined as a subtype of intraverbal responding, where the form of the responses did not match the form or the order of the preceding verbal stimulus (Vargas 1986).

  10. 10.

    Verbal operants not identified. Likely a combination of intraverbals and other operants under multiple control.

  11. 11.

    Verbal operants not identified. Likely a combination of intraverbals and other operants under multiple control.

  12. 12.

    Isawa (2002) described the request for further information as a mand; however, it was more likely a multiply controlled verbal operant consisting of stimulus controls associated with both mand and intraverbal operants.

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Kieta, A.R., Cihon, T.M. & Abdel-Jalil, A. Problem Solving from a Behavioral Perspective: Implications for Behavior Analysts and Educators. J Behav Educ 28, 275–300 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10864-018-9296-9

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Keywords

  • Behavior analysis
  • Creativity
  • Problem solving
  • Verbal behavior