Friday, September 01, 2006

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.


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