Instructional Design

Beyond Behaviorism: Theories of Consciousness and the Philosophy of Education

By Zachary Fruhling

Theories of Consciousness

As a philosopher, educator, and instructional designer, I find it worthwhile to explore competing theories about the nature of consciousness and their consequences for education and instructional design.

Very quickly, the major categories of theories of consciousness are as follows:

  • Mind-Body Dualism: The mind is nonphysical and distinct from the body or brain.
  • Identity Theory: Mental states are identical with brain states.
  • Behaviorism: Mental states are defined in terms of external behaviors.
  • Functionalism: Mental states are defined in terms of input/output relations.

There are naturally many different variants of each of these broad categories of theories of consciousness, but the broad distinctions between these theories of consciousness should suffice for the purpose of this discussion.

The first theory, mind-body dualism, is distinct from the other three theories because it rejects the notion that consciousness is grounded in anything physical, the brain or otherwise. In contrast, identity theory, behaviorism, and functionalism are all materialist theories maintaining that consciousness is, in some way, grounded in the material or physical world. Although mind-body dualism is enjoying something of a resurgence in 21st-century philosophy of mind, undoubtedly materialist theories remain the most fruitful from a scientific approach to understanding consciousness, whether from a psychological or from a neuroscientific standpoint. So this article will focus mainly on the three materialist theories of mind: identity theory, behaviorism, and functionalism. Let’s look at these materialist theories of consciousness and explore their consequences for education and instructional design.

Identity Theory

The heart of identity theory is that mental states are analyzed in terms of brain states. A classic example is “Being in pain is C fibers firing.” In the most radical form of identity theory, any descriptions about mental states (thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc.) could be replaced by descriptions of brain states, thereby eliminating the need for mental descriptions altogether. Rather than saying “I am in pain today,” you might instead say, “My C fibers are firing today.”

Applying identity theory to education, mental descriptions such as “having knowledge” or “learning” would correspond to specific brain states or processes (albeit complex ones only partially understood currently). Achieving these mental states in students would be a matter of using whatever educational processes help them achieve these specific brain states in relation to the material to be learned. So the challenge for education under identity theory is twofold: (1) determining which brain states or processes correspond to the relevant mental states in education, and (2) determining which methods of instruction (or any other methods, for that matter) best promote the formation of those brain states.

Behaviorism and Functionalism

Although behaviorism and functionalism have important differences (for example, behaviorism de-emphasizes internal mental states and emphasizes external behaviors), both behaviorism and functionalism emphasize the outputs of consciousness. The difference is that in behaviorism these outputs are always external and visible (and, by extension, measurable), whereas in functionalism the outputs of consciousness may be either external behaviors or other internal mental states.

Both behaviorism and functionalism seem to entail that we can produce certain outcomes in students if we understand the relevant functional relationships (input/output relationships) at play in the development of those outcomes, whether through conditioning (as in the case of behaviorism) or through a better understanding of the antecedent conditions that produce the desired outcomes (i.e., which inputs produce the desired outputs):

Functionalism in Education - Inputs and Outputs (Inputs: Teaching Methods, Operant Conditioning, Antecedent Conditions; Outputs: Educational Outcomes, Desirable Behaviors, Educated Mental States)

Because both behaviorism and functionalism emphasize outcomes, it’s no accident that philosophy of education in the 20th century became intertwined with the development of behaviorism as a psychological theory, largely due to the work of B. F. Skinner. Skinner noticed that traditional classroom teaching methods were often ineffective for two main reasons: (1) the learning experience is either too fast or two slow for many students, and (2) students do not receive the instant feedback or correction they need to learn from their mistakes. Skinner became preoccupied with devising a teaching machine that would provide learning at an individualized pace and provide timely feedback and error correction for students. It is worth noting that finding the optimal way to provide these two qualities in an online learning experience, self-paced/customized learning and instant feedback, is an ongoing effort in the development of online course materials and educational technology.

There is something appealing about the focus on external educational outcomes, specifically the behaviorist interpretation of those outcomes. After all, in behaviorism those outputs are always external behaviors that can be measured in order to gauge the effectiveness of various instructional and conditioning methods in producing those outcomes. This has the effect of rendering education quantifiable, which is handy from the standpoint of demonstrating success (and for procuring funding!). Behaviorism seems to have an advantage over functionalism from the standpoint of measuring outcomes, given that behaviorism disallows (or at least de-emphasizes) consideration of mental states that do not have corresponding outwardly manifested behaviors.

In contrast, some forms of functionalism allow that some of the outputs of a functional input/output relation might be other mental states in addition to outwardly manifested behaviors. In education this might mean that mental states such as “having knowledge,” “learning,” “or “having mastery” do not necessarily have directly observable associated behaviors. (Although these inner mental states might themselves serve as inputs to functional diagrams for other mental states and behaviors, in a complex network of functional input/output relationships that define or analyze a person’s overall consciousness.) If there is a substantive meaning to the inward mental states of having knowledge, learning, and mastery (and other related concepts in education) beyond their outwardly manifested behavioral and measurable aspects, the challenge lies in determining what exactly those other aspects are and how they can be demonstrated or brought to light.

Functionalism and Artificial Intelligence

At a glance it might seem that behaviorism has an advantage over functionalism because of its emphasis on outcomes that are external and measurable (perhaps at the expense of the importance of non-public inward mental states). However, because of functionalism’s emphasis on complex networks of input/output relationships, the truth of some form of functionalism (i.e., that mental states can be defined in terms of inputs and outputs) has become the implicit assumption behind much of the science of artificial intelligence. It’s easy to see why. After all, computers function by means of inputs and outputs, too. So perhaps sufficiently complex computers could be constructed or programmed in terms of the very same input/output relationships that define consciousness and our many varied human mental states (at least according to functionalism).

A common critique of this functionalist approach to artificial intelligence is that it merely emulates or simulates consciousness or mental states without producing genuine consciousness or mental states. In other words, there is a problem in knowing for sure that a supposedly artificially intelligent computer system has genuine consciousness and not simply a very clever illusion of consciousness.

A similar criticism applies to the behaviorist’s emphasis on student learning outcomes. How can we as educators be sure that measured student outcomes (test scores, grades, behaviors, and so on) are indicative of genuine learning from an inward mental standpoint? In other words, how can we be sure that students have achieved genuine knowledge or mastery without faking their way through the system (just as a supposedly artificially intelligent computer might merely simulate the behaviors of consciousness without actually being conscious)? After all, we do not yet have any sort of brain scanning device that would tell us definitively whether a student has internalized the educational outcomes that we attempt to measure externally. But in theory, if something like identity theory is true, and as neuroscience continues to progress, perhaps someday we can look to neuroscience and brain scans instead of test scores and grades to tell us whether students have achieved genuine knowledge and mastery!


So what does all of this mean for educators and instructional designers? We sometimes take for granted our own implicit assumptions about the nature of consciousness that we inherited from 20th-century psychology and philosophy of mind, and the subsequent philosophy of education riding on their coattails. Our emphasis on educational outcomes over inward mental states is a direct consequence of behaviorism in psychology and education, and we face the ongoing problem of how best to foster and measure those outcomes to this very day. The more we can understand the complex functional (input/output) relationships at play in education, the better we can create learning experiences that provide the right conditions to reliably produce the desired outcomes.

Functionalism, as a theory of consciousness, provides a useful schema for analyzing the complexity of any particular mental state, including the outputs we think of as desirable educational outcomes. But we should not emphasize outcomes at the expense of the inward mental states we associate with educational success. Or at least we should continue to find novel ways of rendering those inward mental states external and measurable, in the interest of ensuring that those outcomes accurately reflect the internal mental transformation that we associate with education and not just clever ways for students to fake their way through the system externally.

As instructional designers, we should ensure that course materials and assignments provide learning experiences and antecedent conditions that reliably produce the behaviors and outcomes that are reflective of genuine learning and mastery, not mere simulations of learning. Thinking of the course materials and learning experiences we create as inputs to an educational function, of which student learning outcomes are the output, can provide a useful conceptual framework to think through the likely outcomes of any particular assignment or activity in terms of student learning. We should make sure we’re providing the right inputs to that educational function, with the right outputs in mind, and we should make sure that the outcomes we are attempting to measure (however imperfectly) are as reflective as possible of the inward aspects of knowledge, learning, and mastery, and not just their external, performative aspects.

Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at

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