Sunday, 17 July 2011


To what extent do Behaviorists and cognitivists influence classroom learning and practice today.

Behaviorism is a school of psychological thought that rejects the study of the contents of consciousness and focuses on describing and measuring only what is observable either directly or through assessment instruments Lefton (2000)
Behaviorism is also defined as an approach to psychology that emphasizes the study of objectively observable behavior and the role of the environment as a determinant of human and animal behavior .Wade and Tavris (1993)
Generally speaking, behaviorism is a school of thought that emphasizes that learning takes place when a new observable and measurable behavior (response) has been elicited after presenting stimulus.
Cognitivism is a school of psychological thought that studies the overlapping fields of perception, learning, memory and thought with a special emphasis on how people attend to, acquire, transform, store and retrieve knowledge Lefton (2000).
Cognitivism is also defined as an approach to psychology that emphasizes mental processes in perception, memory, language, problem solving and other areas of behavior (Wade and Tavris 1993).
Generally, cognitivism is a school of thought that examines the mental processes of a human mind and how it encodes, processes and retrieves information.
Learning is a relatively permanent change in an organism that occurs as a result of experience in the environment Lefton (2000)
Learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior as a result of past experience Hockebury and Hockebury (1997)
Generally, learning can be understood as the process of acquiring new knowledge behaviors, skills, values or preferences or modifying the existing one.

Behaviorists’ school of psychological thought has had an outstanding influence on education today. The prominent figures behind the theory include Watson, J. Bandura A, Pavlov, I. Thorndike E, and Skinner B.F. These have conducted different experiments and have developed different perspectives as far as learning is concerned. This paper will chiefly examine the contributions made by Bandura’s Observational learning, Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning and Skinner’s Operant conditioning.

Briefly speaking, Classical conditioning is the basic learning process that involves, repeatedly paring a neutral stimulus with a response-producing stimulus until the neutral stimulus elicits the same response. Hockebury & Hockebury (1997). Operant conditioning on the other hand is the basic learning process that involves changing the probability of response being repeated by manipulating the consequences of that response. (ibid). While social learning theory is an approach that emphasizes the role of modeling or observational learning in the development of behavior. Berk (1989)
Their perspectives will collectively be discussed as to how they have greatly influenced the classroom learning and practice today in the following views.

Behaviorism has helped teachers in setting behavioral objectives, selection of teaching methods and setting exams to measure observable behaviors. Behaviorists are interested in what the learners will be able to do. This helps the teachers in setting the objectives describing what learners are expected to be able to do at the end of the lesson. So, teachers direct their learning activities towards helping their learners to do as teachers would like to see them doing. Santrock. (2005:291) comments that;
Observational learning also called imitation or modeling is learning that occurs when a person observes and imitates behavior. The capacity to learn by observation eliminates trial-and-error learning. Often observational learning takes less time than operant conditioning.

Behaviorist theory helps the teachers in choosing effective reinforcers. It should be noted that, not all reinforcers have the same reinforcing value to every child. Teachers can then explore what reinforcer works best with which student. In a more precise way, teachers should individualize the use of reinforcers to learners. Santrock observes that;
For one child it (reinforcer) might be praise, for another it might be getting to spend more time in favorite activity for another it might be getting to be a hall monitor for a week and for another it might be getting to surf the internet. (ibid: 290)

Behaviorist theory helps teachers to recognize learners’ goals and help them to achieve these goals. Psychologists believe that much of our behaviors are goal-directed. Teachers therefore need to study the entire behavioral sequences in order to understand why their students engage in particular actions. If we know their goals we can easily help them to reach these goals. This is supported by Schunk (2004) in Santrock who says;
High school students whose goal is to attend a leading college or university study hard in their classes. If we focus only on their study we would miss the purpose of their behavior. The students don’t always study hard because they have been reinforced for studying in the past rather is a means to intermediate goals. (2005:293)

Behaviorist theory helps in classroom management and control. It is our expectation that our learners will sometimes show unexpected behaviors in the classroom during the lesson. Interestingly enough, depending on how the teacher approaches the behavior, determines whether it will extinct or strengthen. Applying the principle of punishment or reinforcement will help in the classroom management. Teachers should be careful in applying any of the above principles. Effectively administered punishment helps to stop bad behaviors as Berk (1989:210) says:
Positive and negative reinforcement are processes that strengthen the behavior. The opposite effect is produced by punishment. Punishment refers to the presentation of an event or stimulus following a behavior that acts to decrease the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated.

The application of reinforcement and rewards helps to raise students` performance. The behaviorists emphasize the use of reinforcement in motivating learners` behaviours. This has been used regularly in our classrooms where learners who get correct responses are reinforced through clapping, praises, smiles, head nodding or sometimes, those who perform well are reinforced during their graduation. This helps very much in raising students’ performance in aspiration of getting rewards. Even those subjects though difficult can get a different but positive altitude.
If two stimuli are repeatedly paired; eventually the neutral stimulus elicits the same reflexive response as the natural stimulus even in the absence of the absence of the natural stimulus. (Berk 1989:119)

Behaviorists emphasize on the immediate provision of reinforcement (feedback). When students sit for a test or examination they should be provided with the feedback as soon as possible. Researchers have found that the reinforcer becomes effective if it immediately follows the behaviour it reinforces. Students are particularly motivated by the word of praise attained now that a university degree that is many years to come. In this, Santrock (2005:286) has the following to say:

As is the case with classical conditioning, learning is more efficient in the operant conditioning when the interval between behaviour and its reinforcement is a few seconds rather than minutes or hours. Also Hockebury (1994) supports this by saying “There are several ways you can enhance the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement should ideally be delivered immediately after the preferred behaviour occurs”.

The theory provides the best ways of applying reinforcement (preference of partial reinforcement to continuous reinforcement). Researchers have found that if the behaviour is continuously reinforced, a reinforcer may loose its value. The suggestion is that, the teachers should use partial reinforcement especially in variable ratio and variable interval which are very resistant to extinction. The classroom teacher may therefore provide rewards or reinforcement at unexpected time and ratio to keep the students actively participating. Hockebury and Hockebury (1994:211) say:
The positive reinforcer should initially be given every time the preferred behavior occurs. When the desired behaviour becomes well established gradually reduce the frequency of reinforcement hence try to use the variety of positive reinforcement such as tangible items, praise, spiral privileges, recognition and so on.

Behaviorists show how effectively to apply punishment to enhance learning. If punishment is not effectively administered it may reinforce the undesirable behavior or create aggressive behavior to the recipient. However, psychologists do not completely agree on whether or not, punishment is needed in the process of learning. They propose other alternatives to be used where possible and punishment should be the last resort when other means prove failure. Eron Et al (1974) in Berk (1989:479) observes that:
Research shows that children punishment promotes only momentary compliance, not lasting changes in children’s behavior. Children who are frequently criticized, shouted at, or slapped are likely to display the unacceptable response again as soon as adults are out of sight and they can get easy with it.

Turning to cognitivists’ school of thought, among other things they have developed theories like Multiple Intelligence (Gardner, H), Intelligent Quotient-IQ (Binet A) Stages of Cognitive Development (Piaget J.) and Discovery Learning by Brunner J. Their contribution has chiefly been manifested in different scenarios including the following;

Cognitivism helps the teachers in individualized learning experience or precisely speaking, it calls for acceptance of individual differences. Considering that learners in our classroom today differ significantly in their cognitive ability, teachers are argued to use a variety of learning strategies that will help to reach each learner in his or her own right. Gardner put forward seven different intelligences which signify individual differences in learning.
There are considerable individual differences in almost all complex cognitive activities. Accordingly, theories based on the assumption that every one comprehends texts in the same way are likely to be incorrect. Just and Carpenter (1992) assumed that there are individual differences in the capacity of working memory by which they meant a system used for both storage and processing. Eysrick and Keane (2005)

Cognitivism has helped in the development of learner-centered curriculum. In the classroom today, teachers are advised to use the teaching methods that are learner-centered like discussion, since cognitivists view the learner as the information processor thus learners should be given chances to explore their learning and the teacher acts as facilitator. According to them learners are not tabura lasa or programmed animals. Ormrod (2006:37) asserts by saying;
In addition to co-constructing meaning with adults ,children often talk among themselves to make sense of their experiences .Schools provide an ideal setting in which young learners can toss around ideas and perhaps reach consensus about how best to interpret and understand an issue or problem.

Cognitivism helps classroom teachers to select content based on the cognitive level of learners. Spiral curriculum, or learning from simple to complex basing on Piaget`s stages of cognitive development, learners of different cognitive abilities is recommended. So this will help teachers in selection of content relevant to the cognitive level of learners. Supporting Piaget`s perspective, Ormrod says;
Overtime children’s` schemes are modified with experience and become increasingly integrated with one another. For instance children begin to recognize the hierarchical interrelation of some schemes. They learn that poodles and cocker spaniels are both dogs, that dogs and cats are both animals and so on. Children’s progressively more organized body of knowledge and thought processes allow them to think in increasingly complex and logical way.(2006:25)

Cognitivism has also influenced the current paradigm of discovery learning. This is the most current and acceptable paradigm, which puts the learner at the centre of the learning process. Teachers should not give ready made materials to learners but always help them to develop the cognitive structures they already possess through discovery method as propagated by Bruner J. In supporting this view Ormrod paraphrases Piaget`s assumption on cognitive development stages that;
Children construct knowledge from experiences. Children’s knowledge is not limited to collection of violated pieces of information instead children pull their experiences together into an integrated view of how the world operates. This is sometimes known as constructivism.

Cognitivist theory has helped teachers to guide learners on the way to improve memory retention. As cognitivists concentrate on studying human mind and mental processes they also examine the different ways through which human memory operates. Teachers try to organize their content in a way that it will help learners, keep memory and remember easily. Some of the ways suggested by cognitivists are chunking, rehesal, mnemonic devices, relearning and the like. Santrock (2002) supports the idea thus;
You will remember information better if you consciously organize it while trying to absorb it. Arrange information, rework materials and give it a structure that will help you to remember it. To help more information from working memory to long term memory regularly review what you learn. You will also benefit distributing your learning over a longer period rather than creaming for a test at the last minute. Santrock and Halonen (2002)

Cognitivism has influenced teachers to focus on what learners know and not necessarily what they can do. Teachers in a cognitivist school, focus on developing learners’ ability to think and solve real problems. They do not only give instructions geared at passing examinations and/or tests. Teachers provide guidance; hints and clues that help learner accomplish their tasks on their own. This rhymes with what at times Vygotsky called A Zone of Proximal Development. As Ormrod (2006:39) says
Theorists have given considerable thought to the kinds of assistance that can help children compete challenging tasks and activities. The term scaffolding is often used here. Adults and other more competent individuals provide some form of guidance and structures that enables children to perform tasks in their Zone of Proximal Development.

Cognitivists have also influence the education of exceptional children. As they explore human mind they discover that some children are gifted and talented while others have different levels of mental retardation. The cognitivists have had a great influence in the provision of the special education that meets the needs of these learners depending on the nature of their exceptionality. This also helps teachers to grade students into different areas of specialization as Gardner (1983) observes that:
There is clear evidence that outstanding performances in particular area such as literature, mathematics, science, art, athletics and leadership have roots in specialized skills that first appear in childhood

Generally speaking, although cognitivism emerged as critique to most of behaviorists assumptions, both of the two theories have been very influential in the education system of many countries today. While some teachers still believe on the effectiveness of behaviorism in teaching and learning process, some embrace the cognitivist theory as being effective over behaviorism. However in recent years a new theory has emerged which seems to be more effective learner-centered theory advocating on the learner as the constructor of knowledge. This is known as constructivism. All the three theories need to be encompassed to enhance optimal learning.

Berk L (1989) Child Development (3rd Ed) London: Allyn and Bacon.

Eysrick M, W and M,T Keane(2005) Cognitive Psychology: A students Handbook (5th ed)
USA: Taylor and Francis
Gardner, H (1983) Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books

Hockebury, D & Hockebury, S (1994) Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers

Lefton, A (2000) Psychology (7th ed) London: Allyn & Bacon.

Ormrod, J. E (2006) Education Psychology: Developing Learners (5th ed) New Jersey:
Pearson Education, Inc.

Santrock J & Halonen J, A (2002) Your Guide to College Success (2nd ed) Beltmont, CA:
Santrock, J .W (2005) Psychology (7th ed) New York. McGraw-Hill.

Wade, C & Tavris C (1993) Psychology (3rd ed) New York: Harper Collins College Publishers

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