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Friday, September 01, 2006

Behaviourist Approach

B.F Skinner (Operant Conditioning)

Skinner defined operant behavior as that behavior that is instrumental in achieving a desired goal. In fact, operant behavior also is known as instrumental behavior. Operant behavior refers to how people change or operate upon their environment to meet their needs. Operant conditioning is a learning process that is based on the consequences of behavior. Rewarded behaviors are likely to be repeated while punished behaviors are not.

Skinner's approach is centered in the operant conditioning method (also own as instrumental conditioning). Basically, the method is directed toward increasing or decreasing the frequency of certain existing behaviors. It also is used to teach or condition new behaviors and to unlearn old behaviors. Basically the method works by applying one of four possible consequences following the currence of a specific behavior:

Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Two of the consequences are designed to initiate or to increase the frequency of behavior: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Just remember that the term reinforcement always refers to building up or strengthening a behavior. Positive reinforcement refers to the presentation of a positive or rewarding consequence following a desired behavior. For example, students could be granted free time for accumulating points for academic achievement and on-task behaviors. Negative reinforcement refers to the removal of a negative consequence following a desired behavior. For example, if students do well on their class project, they could be excused from taking the final examination (a definite negative consequence). To summarise; reinforcers can be either positive or negative. A positive reinforcer is a stimulus that increases the probability of a response occurring when it is added to a situation. A negative reinforcer has the same effect as a result of being removed from the situation. Negative reinforcers tend to be aversive stimuli (such as an electric shock or detention). Their effect, when removed or discontinued, is an increase in behavior. Positive reinforcers tend to be pleasant stimuli.

To understand these principles of learning Skinner used rats and pigeons in small boxes that allowed limited behaviours to occur and reinforcers or punishment given. In the Skinner box, food pellets are pleasant stimuli that serve as positive reinforcement when a lever is pressed. However, if a mild current were turned on in the electric grid that runs through the floor of the box, and if this current were turned off only when the rat depressed the lever, the current would be an example of an aversive stimulus serving as a negative reinforcer.

Reinforcers can be primary or generalised. A primary reinforcer is a stimulus that is naturally reinforcing—that is, that the organism does not have to learn that it is reinforcing. Primary reinforcers are ordinarily related to an unlearned need or drive: food, drink, or sex. Stimuli that satisfy these drives tend to be highly reinforcing for most organisms. They are referred to as positive stimuli. A generalized (secondary) reinforcer is a previously neutral stimulus that, through repeated pairings with other reinforcers in various situations, has become generally reinforcing for many behaviors. Prestige, money, and success are examples of extremely powerful generalized reinforcers.

Punishment and Extinction: The other two consequences are designed to stop or decrease the frequency of a behavior. Punishment refers to the presentation of something negative or the removal of something positive following an undesired behavior. For example, students could be required to repair damage they did to their school building. Extinction refers to the withholding of a reinforcing consequence following an undesired behavior. For example, when a student is seeking attention through disruptive behavior, attention can be withheld by ignoring the student or by removing the student's audience by isolating the student in a time-out room until the student is finished doing the disruptive behavior.

Skinner preferred to focus his attention on reinforcing appropriate behavior than punishing inappropriate behavior. He believed that punishment served to bring about short-term suppression of the misbehavior but did little to extinguish it on a permanent basis. Skinner also was concerned about the undesirable side effects of punishment, which include deteriorating relationships, revenge, anger, aggressiveness, anxiety, and fear.

To conclude, a classroom is in many ways like a gigantic Skinner box. It is engineered so that certain responses are more probable than others. For example, it is easier to sit at a desk than to lie on one, and it is easier to remain awake when sitting than when lying down. And at the front of a million classrooms stand those who are among the most powerful dispensers of childhood reinforcement—teachers. They smile or frown; they say "cool" or "thats awful"; they give high grades or low grades; occasionally they grant special favors; at other times they withhold or cancel privileges. By means of their use of reinforcement and punishment, sometimes deliberate and planned and sometimes quite unconscious, teachers shape the behavior of their students.

Practical Applications

Programmed Learning:

Dembo (1981) derives the following practical advice for teachers from Skinner's work. First, in teaching a new task, teachers should act so as to reinforce immediately rather than allowing a delay between student response and reinforcement. Secondly, reinforce appropraite learning behaviours in the early stages of a task. When learning is seen to occur, teachers should insist upon a more correct response before reinforcement and move gradually, but methodically, to intermittent reinforcement. Thirdly, teachers should not expect a perfect performance of a task by the student on the first occasion; rather teachers should attempt to reinforce students' steps in the direction of mastery. Finally, teachers should not reinforce in any way undesirable behaviour.

Establishing a schedule of reinforcement: Once a teacher has decided that s/he wishes to change the behaviour of their students using operant conditioning techniques, they have to establish a schedule of reinforcement. For example, continuous reinforcement means that a reward is given every single time the child exhibits the 'correct' response. This has the advantage that the child will learn very quickly to behave in a particular way. However, the fast rate of learning is balanced out by a fast rate of extinction, when the rewards are stopped, then the child very quickly ends the behaviour. An alternative technique is partial reinforcement, in this, the rewards are not given every single time, but maybe every other time or every third time, or even at random intervals in response to the correct behaviour. With this schedule, the rate of learning is much slower, but so is the rate of extinction; because the child has not got used to receiving a reward every time, when the rewards stop, they persevere with the behaviour in the hope that the reward will eventually come. In practice, formal reinforcement schedules often use a combination of continuous and partial reinforcement, by starting with rewarding every correct behaviour so that learning takes place quickly, then expecting more and more instances of the behaviour before offering the reward so that the child comes to depend less on the reinforcement.

Humanistic Approach

The major focus of humanistic education is the development of the whole child with a primary emphasis on emotional (affective) aspects of the child. Humanist approaches to learning concentrate upon the development of the child's self-concept. If the child feels good about him or herself then that is a positive start. Feeling good about oneself would involve an understanding of ones' strengths and weaknesses, and a belief in one's ability to improve. Learning is not an end in itself; it is the means to progress towards the pinnacle of self-development, which Maslow terms 'Self-actualisation'. A child learns because he or she is inwardly driven, and derives his or her reward from the sense of achievement that having learned something affords. This differs from the behaviourist view that would expect extrinsic rewards to be more effective. Extrinsic rewards are rewards from the outside world, e.g. praise, money, gold stars, etc. Intrinsic rewards are rewards from within oneself, rather like a satisfaction of a need. This accords with the humanistic approach, where education is really about creating a need within the child, or instilling within the child self-motivation. Behaviourism is about rewards from others. Humanism is about rewarding yourself.

As described by Gage and Berliner (1991) there are five basic objectives of the humanistic view of education:

  1. Promote positive self-direction and independence.
  2. Develop the ability to take responsibility for what is learned.
  3. Develop creativity.
  4. Curiosity.
  5. An interest in the arts.

According to Gage and Berliner (1991) some basic principles of the humanistic approach that are used to develop the objectives are:

  • Students will learn best what they want and need to know. That is, when they have developed the skills of analysing what is important to them and why as well as the skills of directing their behaviour towards those wants and needs, they will learn more easily and quickly.
  • Knowing how to learn is more important than acquiring a lot of knowledge. In our present society where knowledge is changing rapidly, this view is shared by many educators from a cognitive perspective.
  • Self-evaluation is the only meaningful evaluation of a student's work. The emphasis here is on internal development and self-regulation. Most educators would likely agree with this emphasis, but would also advocate a need to develop a student's ability to meet external expectations.
  • Feelings are as important as facts. Much work from the humanistic view seems to validate this point and is one area where humanistically oriented educators are making significant contributions to our knowledge base.
  • Students learn best in a non-threatening environment. This is one area where humanistic educators have had an impact on current educational practice.The orientation espoused today is that the environment should by psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically, non-threatening.

Practical Applications

Open Education

There are a variety of ways teachers can implement the humanist view towards education, which is often refered to as 'open education'. Some of these include:

  • Allow the student to have a choice in the selection of tasks and activities whenever possible.
  • Help students learn to set realistic goals.
  • Have students participate in group work, especially cooperative learning, in order to develop social and affective skills.
  • Teacher acts as a facilitator for group discussions when appropriate.
  • Teacher being a role model for the attitudes, beliefs and habits you wish to foster.

Facilitative Teaching

One of the models included in the overall review of open education was facilitative teaching developed by Carl Rogers. Aspy and Roebuck (1975) studied teachers in terms of their ability to offer facilitative conditions (including empathy, congruence, and positive regard) as defined by Rogers (1969) and Rogers and Freiberg (1994). Teachers who were more highly facilitative tended to provide more:

  • Response to student feeling.
  • Use of student ideas in ongoing instructional interactions.
  • Discussion with students (dialogue).
  • Praise of students.
  • Congruent teacher talk (less ritualistic).
  • Tailoring of content to the individual student's frame of reference (explanations created to fit the immediate needs of the learners).
  • Smiling with students.

Cognitive Approach

Jean Piaget

Piaget (1896-1980) described himself as a genetic epistemologist indicating his interest in growth (genetics) and his concern with the understanding of knowledge (epistemology). His research was conducted by using a system of observation, description, and analysis of behavior. Generally, his conclusions were that children are not merely uninformed adults. Rather children have distinctly different ways of viewing the world than adults do. For Piaget, intelligence is the process of actively constructing an understanding of reality. Interactions with the world are the foundation of that understanding. The basic assumptions of this theory of development are as follows:

  • When they are born, children have some primitive strategies for interacting with the social world. These primitive ways of interacting are the starting point in developing thinking.
  • As the child encounters new experiences, changes in these beginning strategies are gradually produced. These changes are the result of assimilation and accommodation. An active interaction with the environment is essential in the developing processes.
  • During childhood and even adolescence, the child constructs a series of theories, or ways of thinking, which are based on the level of understanding that has been achieved so far. According to Piaget, children have consistent ways of changing the abstractions and complexity of thought. Evidence of this consistency, he says, is that all children seem to go through a series of discoveries about the world, make similar mistakes, and arrive at the same solutions. Piaget's theory of cognitive development is founded on these sequences of change. His theory is an explanation of stages in which children pass through one period before moving to another.
  • Learning skills, maturation, and social interaction are important parts of the developmental process, but the essential ingredient is the child's construction of reality. This construction involves the child actively exploring and experimenting with the environment.

This whole process of cognitive development and learning occurs in ways that are common for all children. Piaget found it useful to write about this process as stages of cognitive development. You may be familiar with these from the AS level course (Samuel and Bryant's study). Below is a table which summarises the main aspects of the 4 stages of cognitive development -

Stage Approximate Age Major Characterisitcs
Sensori-Motor 0-2 Years Learning to co-ordinate motor actions and sensing (e.g. see and pick up objects). Child is Egocentric. Begins to make use of imitation, memory, and thought. Begins to recognise that objects do not cease to exist when they are hidden. Moves from reflex actions to goal-directed activity
Pre-Operational 2-7 Years Can not conserve. Reason is dominated by perception. Egocentrism declines. Difficulty in performing cognitive operations (addition, subtraction, etc). Gradual language development and ability to think in symbolic form. Able to think operations through logically in one direction. Has difficulty seeing another person's point of view.
Concrete Operational 7-11/12 Years Can conserve. Can perform most cognitive operations when using concrete examples. Able to solve concrete (hands-on) problems in logical fashion. Understands laws of conservation and is able to classify and seriate. Understands reversibility.
Formal Operational 11-14/15 Years Ability to deal with the hypothetical. Ability to perform cognitive operations without concrete examples. Able to solve abstract problems in logical fashion. Thinking becomes more scientific. Develops concerns about social issues, identity.

According to Piaget, all children progress through these stages in the order specified, though the age boundries are approximate. The stages are inevitable and in this order because of how the human organism, in particular the brain, develops over time. We can not expect a young child to learn what an older child knows because they are not maturationally ready yet to do so. It is worth noting that Piaget recognised that not all adults reached Formal Operational thinking in regards to all of the mental operations they perform.

Practical Applications

Providing Opportunities for Physical and Mental Actvity: Activity, argued Piaget, is fundamental to buiding concepts and understanding the world. For example, children's ability to deal with classes, relations, and numbers results from the activities of combining, separating, and setting up correspondences among real objects during the preoperational stage. Internalized mental activities are constructed from these actual physical activities. It follows, then, that teachers should provide children with many opportunities to engage in meaningful activities with real objects, as well as opportunities for mental activity (thinking).

Providing Optimal Difficulty: Cognitive growth, argued Piaget, arises from a tendency toward equilibration—that is, maintaining a balance between assimilation and accommodation. Recall that assimilation and accommodation are children's two ways of interacting with the world; all activity involves both. Assimilation occurs when children can react to new objects or events largely in terms of previous learning; accommodation involves modification or change. Assimilation requires that a situation be somewhat familiar; accommodation will take place only if the situation is also somewhat different. If schools are to encourage equilibration, a minimal discrepancy between new material and old learning is required. Learners need to be provided with experiences that are familiar enough that they can understand them (assimilate them); they also need to be challenged so that they will be forced to accommodate. The result, ideally, will be the construction of new understanding (accommodation) on the back of old learning (assimilation). Providing learners with an optimal level of difficulty presupposes that teachers know their level of functioning, their interests, and their capabilities—hence the fundamental imporance of understanding how children think.

Understandinq How Children Think: Although it has always been recognized that there are some important differences between children and adults, Piaget, more than anyone, has demonstrated precisely what some of these differencescer are. When a child says that more water is in a tall container than in a short, flat one, they truly believe what they are saying. These and other discoveries about the world of young children should help teachers both to communicate more effectively with children and to understand and be sensitive to the limitations of their thinking.

Providing Social Interaction: One of the chief factors in making thought more objective, claims Piaget, is social interaction. The egocentric point of view of the young child is essentially one that does not recognize the views of others. Children become aware of the ideas and opinions of peers and adults largely through social interaction. Piaget contends that the socialization of thought, the development of moral rules and game rules, and even the development of logical thought processes are highly dependent on social interaction. One implication for teaching is that instructional methods should provide for learner-learner as well as teacher-learner interaction.

Assessing Students' Readiness: Detailed accounts of Piaget's experimental procedures and findings provide teachers with many informal and easily applied suggestions for assessing students' thought processes. It is not particularly difficult or time-consuming, for example, to ascertain whether a child has acquired conservation of numbers or the ability to seriate. Both abilities are important for early instruction in mathematics.

An Alternative Overview of the Perspectives on Learning.

Behaviourist Approach


The two main theorists in this tradition are Pavlov and Skinner. Pavlov showed how learning is often achieved through association and Skinner emphasised the importance of learning through the consequences of our behaviour. This approach was a reaction to the seemingly unscientific fashion in which psychology had been conducted in the late 19^ and early 20th centuries; Thus behaviourists set out to establish the laws of behaviour and most importantly of how we learn. The vast majority of the early work was conducted with animals and it was assumed that the results obtained would apply equally to humans. This assumption is obviously flawed, but still this approach was extremely popular, especially in the U.S.A. though more recent theories are now dominant in educational practice and psychology in general.


Classical conditioning is learning through association', thus Pavlov showed how a dog could be conditioned (trained/taught) to salivate to the sound of a bell, which of course is an unnatural behaviour for the dog. This type of learninq is often hard to extinguish (get rid of) with many trials being required. Common examples of such learned behaviours are phobias. An educational example would be that of the student who learns to dislike a subject due to who teaches it rather than the subject matter itself, and vice versa.

Operant conditioning is learning through the consequences of our behaviour. Skinner showed how a rat could be conditioned into performing many bizarre behaviours through three main processes

Positive reinforcement: This is when a positive consequence occurs soon after a performed behaviour so as to increase the likelihood of that behaviour being performed again, i.e., a rat was given food after pulling a lever (the behaviour was not important, it was used to exemplify a process of learning) which led to a higher probability in the rat displaying the desired behaviour again.

Negative reinforcement: This is when a negative/aversive stimulus is threatened, or occurs, prior to the performing of a desired behaviour, i.e., a rat would be given a mild electric shock which could be turned off by pulling a lever. Thus to avoid the aversive stimuli the rat performs the same desired behaviour as in the last example, but the motivation is different.

Punishment: This is when an aversive stimuli is threatened, or given, to stop/prevent an undesired behaviour, i.e., a rat would be given a mild electric current whenever it pulled the lever. Thus the previously learnt behaviour can be extinguished.

When using positive reinforcement the reinforcer must be desirable enough to act as a good incentive, also when using negative reinforcement or punishment the aversive stimuli must be of such an undesirable nature that the person will want to avoid it. Unfortunately prolonged exposure to such stimuli lead to desensitisation and hostility in the person. For these reasons, and others, Skinner believed that positive reinforcement is the better procedure to use when conditioning/teaching humans.


  • Behaviourism's major downfall has been that it tends to ignore the connection between stimulus and response. Between the stimulus and the response is cognition. For example, if you were to hit someone, that is the stimulus, but what will their response be? It certainly will not be very predictable since a number of factors will influence their response, such as why they think you hit them, how they feel about you, what they think your next response will be, etc. Thus we can not assume a direct link between stimulus and response; rather the response is mediated through cognition.
  • Another problem is that this approach can not explain all forms of learning, such as the processes of acquiring language and creativity. Perhaps we should not expect one theory to be able to do this, but radical behaviourists like Skinner did claim that this approach could do so.
  • Finally, are we sure that all we are, our personality, attitudes, behaviours, etc, is just a collection of conditioned responses? Most of us feel ill-at-ease with such a thought and for good reason, as the next theories will show.

Later Developments:

Given the above limitations of strict behaviourism, later theorists such as Bandura, have argued that not only do we learn through classical and operant conditioning but also through observation, imitation and identification. This is seen as especially true for children. This led to much research on the importance of role models and how they influence the learning of those around them. Both parents and teachers are obvious examples of such role models.

Cognitive Approach


The cognitive approach in psychology developed out of a reaction to radical behaviourism which was found wanting due to its inability to explain the mental connections between stimulus and response. The main theorists in regards to education in this area are, Piaget, Bruner and Vygotsky. They all firmly believed that a child has an innate desire to learn and that human thought processes develop qualitatively overtime, meaning, a child will think differently to that of an adult. The mental processes will develop in stages or phases as the individual matures. Later theorists have focused on how the adult brain works in regard to memory, attention, perception, language, problem solving, and thought in general.


One of the basic assumptions of this approach is that humans are not all at the same level of cognitive development, this can be due to maturational factors, which are biologically constrained, and also to the influence of environment and early experience. This was a major theoretical leap from approaches already existing, which tended to view the differences between child and adult in terms of the quantity of mental processes rather than the quality. (Adults had learnt more than children, rather than there being different types of thinking between childhood and adulthood).

Another area of interest for such theorists as those named above was in regard to modes of thought. Piaget argued that humans are born with basic cognitive frameworks, which he called schemata. These are ways of organising and processing information, which develop and expand overtime through two processes. The first process is that of assimilation, which is when new information is placed within an existing schema, the second is that of accommodation, which is when new information will not fit into an existing schema and so a new schema must be constructed. It may help if you imagine schemata as boxes in ones mind. When new information is available to us we store/file the information in the appropriate box so that we can process it further, this is the process of assimilation. Accommodation needs to occur when new information can not be stored/filed in an existing box because of the nature of the box, thus a new one must be created to store and process this information further.

Vygotsky was also interested in the development of different modes of thought. He developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); this is the transitional period between not being able to perform a task unaided by another and then being able to perform a task without anyone's assistance. Vygotsky argued that we all learn to perform any new task with the aid of others, they guide and teach us, but as we become more familiar with the task the less help we need, until eventually we can manage on our own. Thus the skill in teaching is to know when assistance is required and when to let the leaner get on with it themselves and thus develop at their own pace. Probably one of the most influential principles has been that cognitive development is largely biologically based and environmentally influenced. In other words, a teacher can not force an individual to learn something they are not developmental mature enough to learn; though environment can also lay a substantial part in fostering cognitive maturity. The weakened influence of teaching that this perspective implies is corroded further when theorists such as Piaget promoted the belief that children learn best through their own experience at their own pace.


For educators the main concern with this approach is that teachers do not seem to have much of a role to play in the education of others. For example, Piaget hardly ever referred to teaching and teachers in his work. At best teachers may be viewed as aids (like a pencil or sheet of paper) in the persons cognitive development. Given some of the unsatisfactory outcomes of the application of this approach to education we may be justified in our reservations. That said, we should still recognise that the learner centred approach to education, which developed from this perspective has, and still is, massively influential and is at the heart of most good practice.

Later Developments:

Although this approach has been highly influential, especially during the 1960's-70's, which led to the use of what has been called Discovery Learning, it has been found that wholesale application of this approach has not always brought the results expected. So more formal educational methods are now seen as an essential part of teaching. This is certainly true in regards to literacy and numeracy. So we are at the point of working out where this approach is best applied and has the greatest effect. One area that has definitely benefited from the cognitive approach to education has been the development of learning aids and the understanding of student cognitive processes.



Some of the most famous humanist psychologists are Rogers, Maslow and Dewey. Strictly speaking this is not a psychological discipline but rather a philosophical perspective, which views humans as innately good and desiring to achieve perfection, without recourse to a God. This viewpoint became stronger in psychology as a reaction to the seemingly dehumanising behaviourist paradigm and the sterile computer based approach of cognitivism. In regards to education Humanists have always been against traditional pedagogy which is seen to stifle the progression of individual growth and development. Formal education is often viewed with suspicion from this perspective since motives other than individual betterment seem to be at play in such systems, and thus are going against our 'human nature.'


Both Rogers and Maslow emphasised the need for individuals to grow and develop in their own fashion; Maslow termed this the drive towards self-actualisation. Self-actualisation is understood to be a basic human motivator and that when this drive is thwarted in some way then imbalance occurs within the individual's life, both physical and mental. Thus education which limits rather than empowers learners is not only unwanted but also destructive.

Rogers was also a great advocate of a student centred approach to teaching, though he developed the ideas of honesty, empathy, and respect, which had been lacking from the Piagetian approach. Rogers argued that openness and empathy between others is fundamental to facilitate learning and development, if these factors are missing then distorted learning occurs and neither the facilitator nor the client learns to the extent that they could.

For Rogers the teacher's role is seen to be as a facilitator of learning. By this he meant that a teacher should aid the student in their own learning rather than see themselves as the sole source of knowledge and agent by which all learning takes place. The facilitator of learning does not preach, nor do they try to convert others to their way of thinking, rather they act in ways that promotes individual learning. There are two main reasons why this approach has become popular. One is that students are not so much learning as receiving information if we use traditional methods. Secondly the learning that results from facilitative education is more permanent than by other approaches, and is more useful to the individual. But by learning Rogers meant notjust academic qualities but also non-academic factors. This has later been seen as the whole person, or holistic, approach to teaching. Comorehensivisation was somewhat based on this perspective.

Linked to the above point is Rogers argument that students need to take more responsibility for their learning than has historically been given to them. If they see themselves as autonomous agents they will hopefully take more interest in their studies, develop greater motivation and not be as greatly dependent on others to achieve what they desire. With the choices given to people today they must also be given the freedom and responsibility to make decisions, and mistakes, for themselves.

The last major point that the Humanist approach has empnasisea is wat learners should not be viewed as pupils, or even students, but rather as clients. This entails a change in the type of relationship we have with learners, and a transformation in how they perceive their rights and responsibilities.


  • Overall this approach is often viewed as too vague to be of any major importance. But such critics have not understood the radical transformation in thinking and behaviour required if one were to follow such guiding principles.
  • Another related problem is that humanism is hard to systematically implement and evaluate. This is true, but theorists like Rogers never intended their ideas to be scientifically tested, rather they offered a framework and guiding principals for teachers.
  • A particularly relevant concern at present is the debate over how to measure non-academic abilities that have been acquired through education influenced by humanistic principles. But just because a phenomena is hard to measure does not mean to say that it is worthless.
  • Finally, has this approach become a justification poor discipline within education? It is much easier to claim to be iplementing humanistic principles than it is to systematically test out and refine other, more traditional, approaches to teaching.

Later Developments:

The Humanist approach has significantly influenced how teachers in Further, Higher and Adult education view their role and also how they treat the people they teacn. Although little practical advances can be seen, this perspective has helped reflective practitioners to improve their skills and relations with others. Given that education is a social interaction, this can only be for the better. Unfortunately the terminology and concepts of Humanism can be easily hijacked and appropriated by those who have not understood the importance of what people like Rogers have argued for, and in turn end up abusing the ideas generated by this perspective.