Carl Hughes


Some reasons why behaviour analysis is not good for education


We could divide education, as a practice, into two areas; one that focuses on child behaviour, the other on academic learning. In both of these areas, behaviour analysis has made significant strides in generating research, developing knowledge and promoting good practice. We have decades of quality studies that demonstrate a significant impact across diverse settings that tackle many serious and important issues. As a scientific field, we have developed highly effective approaches that have the potential to improve the outcomes for all children within our school systems, now. These approaches include: cultivating responsive learning environments that support classroom management of behaviour and promote social skills, such as School-wide Positive Behaviour Support; powerful instructional and teaching methods, such as Direct Instruction and Precision teaching; and more recently, sophisticated computer aided learning targeting complex academic skills, such as Headsprout Early Reading® and Headsprout Reading Comprehension.

These approaches are readily available, can be cost effective, and can have significantly positive effects on important outcomes. We have much to celebrate as a field. However, despite this innovation, despite this evidence, despite this impact, we continue to struggle to get coverage in mainstream and maintained special education settings. Most teachers do not know these methods and most don’t want to know them. Worse than that, proven theories that promote human development are misunderstood and can misrepresented as controlling and cruel.

These approaches still survive in islands of good practice but struggle to maintain in the absence of significant external impetus. Despite powerful technologies of teaching, we struggle to disseminate our practices for the benefit of most children. Even in fields where behaviour analysis has had a significant impact, like early interventions for children with autism, most children with autism do not get the opportunity to be supported by practice informed by behaviour analysis. In fact, the interventions remain controversial, despised by some and supported by others.

Good innovation, evidence and impact are clearly not good enough. Education just doesn’t seem to want us. In this talk I discuss some of the reasons why I believe behavioural approaches are not good for education, and why they are not being readily adopted at scale in educational settings – and perhaps offer suggestions as to ways we can get good.


Professor Carl Hughes, BCBA-D, is Professor of education research at the School of Education, Bangor University, Wales. He is Director of the Collaborative Institute for Education Research, Evidence and Impact (CIEREI). His research interests include behaviour change in education settings, evidence-based educational interventions with children, reading instruction, and educational application of behavioural science. Professor Hughes has recently been honoured as the first European to be given the Distinguished Contribution to Behaviour Analysis award from the international Society for the Advancement of Behaviour Analysis (SABA). Professor Hughes has over 50 peer-reviewed publications, many of the leading international journals both in behavioural psychology and the field of disability and education, including the The American Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, and the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.