There’s nothing that will teach you about operant learning as well as being handed a rat and told to get it to press the lever only when the green light is on.
In a post a few years ago, I noted that today’s students learn the basics of operant learning from textbooks (Johnston, 2016). I argued that this was worrisome because reading about operant processes and procedures inevitably falls short of creating the depth of understanding of operant behavior that is called for when providing professional services. The standard for my assessment is set by the alternative experience of instruction in an animal laboratory setting using your very own rat.
This kind of training circumstance has a number of strengths, such as creating a simple environment in which a naïve animal can behave in relatively limited ways. This allows the student to observe with a high degree of clarity the effects of carefully managed contingencies that reveal the basic features of operant learning. The simplicity of this scenario creates the opportunity to see the relationship between behavior and environment as if magnified and in slow motion.
Although working with humans in field settings has valuable benefits, under these circumstances the organism’s behavior is too complex, the environment is too messy, the sessions are too brief, and the reinforcers are too weak – among other limitations. Another difference between these hands-on alternatives is that the animal laboratory discourages casting about for mentalistic explanations of the organism’s behavior. Yes, you can complain that the reason your rat isn’t learning what you want is because it’s confused, but your lab instructor will not be impressed.
The required course in research methods that doesn’t seem very interesting to you is very important to the field.
In spite of the fact that I’ve spent much of my career writing about research methods, I’m willing to admit that only a minority of students slogging their way through a training program would put the required course in research methods near the top of their favorite courses list. I get it – courses that involve learning how to change behavior, which is why most ABA students signed up, are usually far more appealing. Fortunately, the contingencies associated with getting good grades and eventually passing the BACB exam at least assure a decent level of study and minimum competency in research methods.
Personal preferences aside, it’s easy to argue that acquiring a solid understanding of such topics as how to define and measure target behaviors, design comparisons that will provide meaningful data, and figure out what conclusions the results allow are exceedingly important for our field. The obvious reason for this assessment is that methodological skills are the foundation for the utility of our research literature, the ability of practitioners to interpret these results, and the impact of experience on the accumulating improvement of practitioner skills. However, a post on this topic (Johnston 2017) pointed out a more subtle benefit of practitioners having a sound understanding of research methods. They serve as a sieve through which otherwise ordinary observations of behavior must pass in order to clarify the focus of our curiosity. Although radical behaviorism guides us toward the phenomenon of behavior, scientific methods guide us to take full advantage of this focus and make our way of talking about behavior fully operational.
You don’t know nearly enough about radical behaviorism, and it’s going to cost you every day in your work.
Given that my blog is about how we talk about behavior, more than a few of my posts have argued on behalf of this point. To many students, our field’s philosophy of science probably may seem even less relevant than research methods. Besides, it hurts your head to wrestle with the issues, and it can seem nearly impossible to abandon our everyday dialect for the awkward tongue of radical behaviorism. However, those students who persevere – and who have a great instructor – break through the barrier of mentalism and discover the clarity of focusing on behavior as it really is, rather than as we have been told it is.
Once a certain level of competency is reached, the implications of this way of talking about behavior for the delivery of practical services become obvious. Practitioners who understand how to talk about behavior without getting lost in a morass of mentalistic rationalizations will not be distracted or misled by everyday allusions to fictional processes that, to the uninitiated, seem reasonable accounts of behavior. In their place, radical behaviorism encourages a focus on relations between behavior and environmental variables, not to mention consistency with the field’s research literature.
ABA program curricula more often than not leave radical behaviorism well down the list of training priorities, and BACB guidelines have only recently encouraged giving this topic a higher status. The effects of this shortfall are exacerbated by a shortage of instructors who are themselves well trained in this area, not to mention the unavoidable burden of overcoming students’ lifelong familiarity with everyday dialect and its assumptions about the nature and causes of behavior. We have a long way to go.
Too much of what you think the literature tells you is probably wrong, and your textbooks pass too much of that along.
From their first day in an ABA program, students are taught that the field’s technology is based on a research literature, especially studies that focus on applied scenarios. Assigned textbooks extensively reference this literature, and students are soon reading these studies for themselves. In spite of the cautions of a methods course about how to evaluate studies in deciding their results might mean, however, it’s hard to avoid reading the literature without a bias in favor of finding the answers you want.
This understandable focus pushes methodological considerations into the background, but the price is high. Few studies are so well done that they have no weaknesses, and far too many have flaws that can be quite serious. Failure to recognize and accommodate methodological problems results in accepting the author’s conclusions on their face, even though they may be partly or even entirely wrong. In other words, routinely depending on a study’s results working for you may lead to disappointment.
At least textbook authors have vetted these studies, right? Well, not necessarily. Textbook authors are also looking for clear and straightforward results, which saves the messiness of critiquing each study’s potential weaknesses when the purpose of a discussion is to offer solid and dependable guidance about principles and procedures. In other words, it’s risky to assume that a textbook’s characterization of individual studies or even whole research topics can be trusted to provide assurance that applying described findings will result in satisfying outcomes for practitioners.
Rules are for amateurs; experts know better.
As ABA progressed beyond adolescence and textbooks have been forced to accommodate its increasingly large and multifaceted research literature, there has been a natural tendency to reduce some of the complexities to general rules. There is simply too much accumulated research literature to detail all of its findings. This trend has been further encouraged by the need to reduce our technology to simple rules when involving personnel with limited training in ABA and caregivers with no training at all in implementing treatment programs. After a while, these general rules or accepted practices can substitute for understanding their origin, underlying justification, or limitations.
Such general rules or practices are not the best we have to offer. They may be useful under specific circumstances, but they are woefully short of the level of expertise that a BCBA certificate should represent, which goes way beyond summaries and rules. As a field, we expect credentialed practitioners to approach their responsibilities with a deep reservoir of knowledge and skills. They should draw on this background in making highly specific and well reasoned decisions about how intervention procedures should be designed and implemented in each unique case. Well-trained BCBAs should be able to go beyond the simplicity of procedural rules and be able to explain where a rule came from, why it is an imperfect guideline, and when it should be broken. To quote my post on the subject, “Rules are for amateurs, not BCBA professionals, who should bring rule-breaking expertise to treatment decisions” (Johnston, 2018).
Learning to be a good behavior analyst requires more than learning to be a good practitioner.
Students usually enroll in ABA programs in order to learn how to provide effective services to particular populations in certain settings, such as children with an ASD diagnosis, students struggling in academic programs, individuals with traumatic brain injuries, or managerial personnel in business environments. Programs are often defined by those interests, and required coursework naturally accommodates such priorities. After all, there is much to be learned about the characteristics of targeted populations and the details of intervention procedures.
There is more to being a good behavior analyst than being a good ABA practitioner, however. In the Venn diagram of this relationship, the circle representing ABA practitioners is smaller than and fully enclosed by the circle representing good behavior analysts. Becoming a competent practitioner serving a particular population involves a specialized set of behavior analytic skills, but being a behavior analyst encompasses a broader range of competencies. A behavior analyst is able to look in a particular way at any instances or aspects of behavior, not just at the characteristics and needs of a particular population.
This capability is based on an admixture of our science-based understanding of operant learning, the philosophical perspective that comes from that science, and our methodological understanding of how behavior must be observed and studied. Although programs focused on graduating good ABA practitioners certainly involve training in these areas, the risk is that this material can sometimes be no more than faint background for more professional priorities. The comprehensive approach that defines a behavior analyst is best learned through a programmatic focus that does not leave becoming as a behavior analyst a side effect of acquiring the competencies for being a skilled ABA practitioner.
You won’t pass the BACB exam by memorizing flashcards. You actually have to understand this stuff.
On line discussions about how to prepare for the BACB certification exam often focus on study techniques and commercially available preparation materials. Some kind of special preparation may be a good idea if the qualifications for taking the exam can only be met a year or more after completing coursework.
It’s understandable that an undergraduate academic history leads students to assume that preparing to take the BACB examination should involve little more than taking a typical final exam in a course. All that would seem necessary is reviewing what they supposedly learned during the term, perhaps with the help of some special focus on terms and so forth. However, the BACB exam is far more sophisticated than any test created by a professor. Even though the items are “multiple guess,” candidates actually need to understand the content specified by the BACB. Memorizing terms, making lists, crafting mnemonics, and other study techniques are unlikely to drag students over the finish line if what they learned the classroom or even as part of their experience training was insufficient. This is why roughly one third of the examinees fail to pass the BCBA exam on the first try, not to mention that some who do pass only barely squeak by. Word to the wise: Attend a strong program and be sure to thoroughly understand what each course is trying to teach.
Your peers are going to help make your reputation.
Freshly minted ABA practitioners might assume their professional reputation is entirely what they make of it. This is only partly true, however. The reputation of each BCBA is colored by the actions of their peers – not just colleagues they know or work with, but the entire cohort of credentialed ABA practitioners. This assessment should be worrisome, but it cannot be helped. Everyone who interacts with BCBAs will have accumulated convictions about what ABA practitioners are like, both in their professional skills and in their interpersonal style. For better or worse, you cannot avoid being tainted by the actions of everyone else in the field.
In other words, it is not enough to be the best ABA practitioner you can be, you also have to encourage your peers to do likewise. This means that you bear some responsibility for the skills they bring to their work, the ethicality of their behavior, and the interpersonal skills they exemplify. Turning this responsibility into action might involve intervening as necessary with colleagues, but it also means accepting some accountability for the field as a whole. This obligation includes activities such as attending regional and national meetings as a way of staying in touch with your profession, earning meaningful CEs that really teach you something, keeping up with the research literature, and arranging some form of peer review for yourself and others? How will you work to optimize not just your reputation, but also the reputation of the field?
The field is changing, and you’re going to need to keep up.
My career happened to coincide with the birth and development of applied behavior analysis. As a result, I’m especially aware of how much it has changed over the past 50 years or more. It would be understandable if today’s students failed to appreciate not only the nature of these changes, but also their implications for how the field will change over the course of their careers.
It’s not just that the research literature will continue to accumulate. As the field’s history suggests, it will move our understanding of behavior and behavior change procedures in directions we cannot now anticipate. Other changes will not directly involve the research literature, but will instead reflect changes in professional training, laws and regulations, funding for services, and influences from other disciplines. Most of these changes will be good for the field, but some may involve uncomfortable compromises and others may be worth resisting. In any event, what programs teach today will gradually need to change, but what about today’s students? Once out of school, how will they keep up?
This is what the BACB’s continuing education requirements are about, of course, but let’s not pretend that they will be sufficient guidance and motivation for each practitioner. Some will energetically sign up for the most meaningful sessions and workshops at conventions, but others will prefer the pajama style of compliance. Meanwhile, five years post graduation will become ten and then twenty. Will you then be twenty years behind? What are you going to do to keep pace with the field’s evolution?
If becoming a credentialed behavior analyst doesn’t make you feel different from everybody else, you aren’t yet finished becoming a behavior analyst.
Every profession is defined by knowledge and skills that are not shared by others. Our specialized knowledge about how behavior works easily sets behavior analysis apart from other areas of expertise, but there’s more. We have a way of talking about behavior that is not only unique, but also overwhelming in its implications for the nature of human affairs. Radical behaviorism is an extension of our science that insists on a comprehensive departure from the everyday assumptions and implications about behavior that everyone learns from their verbal communities.
Students who are being well trained in this area – and who accept the responsibility of integrating radical behaviorism not only in their professional work but in their personal intellectual life – reach a point at which they realize there is no turning back. Just as the child who learns that Santa Claus isn’t real can never again believe, students who have mastered at least the core elements of radical behaviorism can never again go along with the casual insinuations of everyday dialect.
This outcome doesn’t mean behavior analysts can’t ever fit in, but it does mean that they can’t talk about their understanding of human behavior without risking social penalties. (Remember, everyone else is perfectly happy with ordinary convictions about human nature.) In other words, in any social circumstance, behavior analysts are well aware they are different from others in some fundamental and inescapable ways. If you don’t feel different as a result of your training, you aren’t yet finished becoming a behavior analyst.
Johnston, J. M. (2016, June 16). How well do you understand operant learning?
Johnston, J. M. (2017, February 28). Research methods as a way of talking about behavior.
Johnston, J. M. (2018, January 22). Rules are for amateurs.