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Behaviourism and Humanism as Psychological Learning Theories

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Learning theories “date as far back as 500 BC” (Bates, 2016, p.3), which shows the continued importance of these throughout the years, and how it is essential for teachers and educators to be aware of these for effective teaching. Therefore, the focus of this essay is around the way different learning theories can have an impact on learning. It will explore differences and similarities between factors which can influence learning, which include psychological theories such as behaviourism and humanism (including the application of these), as well as how neuroscience and motivation have an impact.

The theory of behaviourism is centred around having a stimulus and observing the response, as well as the effect that a punishment or reward has on the behaviour. Thorndike is thought to be “the first pure behavioural psychologist” (Bates, 2016, p.28), however his work is not what defined it as the term ‘behaviourism’. One of the most known behaviourists is Pavlov who used dogs to show how an unconditioned stimulus can produce an unconditioned response, then adding a neutral stimulus (which produces no response) can be paired with the unconditioned stimulus to produce the unconditioned response. The neutral stimulus was then said to become the conditioned response and the unconditioned response became the conditioned response. This process of learning was named classical conditioning by Pavlov because his dogs had been conditioned to associate two unrelated things together (Bates, 2016).

The behaviourist approach focuses around environmental factors of learning, which is backed up by how Watson stated: Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select–doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. – John Watson, 1930 (Pierce, 2014).

John Watson also carried out research into behaviourism, however unlike Pavlov, Watson focused on how a child (Little Albert) could be conditioned to produce a response to a stimulus that was chosen and manipulated by him. This means his work could be considered more generalisable than Pavlov and some other behaviourists due to the fact that his participant was a human compared to using animal studies, however it was also criticised for being unethical. During the experiment Watson’s aim was to investigate whether he could create a phobia of an object, which means that he had to make the boy feel fear and be afraid, causing psychological harm. This ethical issue was planned to be rectified by attempting to “[show] the child the rat far away in the distance while the child felt very secure and slowly building up his tolerance for seeing the rat” (Cohen, 1979, p. 144). Watson was not able to do this because Albert was adopted by a new family in another state, meaning he could still have the fear and phobia of the rats.

Watson has assumed that an individual’s genetic and biological factors have no influence on learning, which is something that many other psychologists would disagree with. This is because, in terms of the nature-nurture debate that is held within psychology, behaviourism focuses too much on the nurture side. This is reminiscent of the humanist approach, which is known as the third force in psychology, and is based around individual human issues such as hope and self-actualization. The basic assumption for humanism is that effective learning takes place when an individual has an interest and relevance to what they are learning. It is very much based around learner-centred teaching: teacher as a facilitator, relevance to sense of self, friendly environment and teaching should be non-threatening and unforced. This type of teaching has been compared to many things, including a coach, a guide and a maestro, however the most accurate is the link between a teacher and a midwife. This is because the midwife gives the mother instructions, advice and support, with the mother taking the responsibility to master the skill (Weimer, 2013). Maslow created the prospect of the hierarchy of needs, which indicates the different factors an individual needs, and said that their response to learning differed depending on which need was the priority (Bates, 2016). The needs that he identified ranged from basic/physical (such as food, warmth, water, shelter) to self-actualisation (reaching your full potential).

Despite the fact that humanism is considered more ethical due to not using animal studies, it has been suggested that behaviourism is much easier to replicate and incorporate into learning in the classroom. For example, a learner-centred environment of the humanist approach is quite difficult for teachers to consistently follow; all pupils will have different needs within a classroom thus it would take a long time to be able to target and meet all of them individual. In addition, behaviourism can be applied as simply as using sticker charts as rewards within a classroom. This allows them to be rewarded for behaviour, and acts as a reinforcement for desirable behaviour to continue. On the other hand, exact replications of some of the studies within behaviourism such as Skinner’s, would not be possible now due to changes in ethics. The fact that behaviourism emphasises more scientific and objective methods of investigation within the many studies that have been carried out makes it easier to maintain the methods. Behaviourism also incorporates the idea of repetition, which is known to result in more effective learning. This importance of repetition derived from Watson: “The more frequent a stimulus and response occur in association with each other, the stronger that habit will become.” (as cited in Pritchard, 2013, p.14).

Humanism has developed the focus of behaviour onto the individual and the whole person, rather than looking at the unconscious mind. In terms of psychological study, this would be considered a positive, however when considering the approach in a learning environment, it is more of a criticism. This is due to the fact that within a classroom, group work is actually much more common than individual work, and so using a behaviourist approach is much easier to do with group work than humanism which is all focused on the individuals.

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As well as theories, learning can be impacted by various factors within neuroscience, one of these being neuroplasticity of the brain. Neuroplasticity is concerned with how the brain remodels itself based on experiences, where neurons, their networks and their functions change, due to experiencing new actions and involvement in different tasks. Within learning, this change is the development of neural pathways, which can be more effectively formed by learning in an authentic environment. There have been differing opinions and evidence to whether this is completely effective; Alessi (1988) argues that it does not lead to the maximum effectiveness of learners, even when used with maximum fidelity. On the other hand, some argue that it is in fact impossible to design environments that are fully authentic for learning, such as Barab, Squire and Dueber (2000) who stated that authenticity does not stem from “the learner, the task, nor the environment” but instead places it “in the dynamic interactions among these various components” (pp. 38).

An individual who is attempting to learn basketball is going to learn more effectively when practicing in the authentic environment of a basketball court compared to how they can simply learn rules and terminology within a classroom. Learning within this environment will allow the skills to develop more practically, allowing the brain to form the neural pathways that are required to remember this skill. To apply this into a classroom setting, an individual learning a maths equation is going to learn the information more effectively by repeatedly attempting questions involving the equation, than what they would if they were just looking at it.

There is also evidence that the emotion and feeling that an individual has while learning can change how effective it is. It has been said that if an individual has an initial bad feeling about an experience, they are likely to want less of it, compared to if they found pleasure in it then they would be likely to want more of it. (Jensen, 1995) For example, if a child leaves a classroom after a lesson where they were bored, they are less likely to want to go to the lesson again and learn that topic, whereas an individual who enjoyed the lesson is more likely to want to return.

The emotion of the individual, in terms of their feelings not related to the topic in a classroom, such as if they are stressed or worried about something external of education, there learning will also be affected. This is because when feeling threatened, the brain releases cortisol and adrenaline which change the way you think, feel and behave – making it very difficult to concentrate (TheLearningPod, 2010). It is thought that in order to learn effectively, humans need to learn to relax their nervous system because it will increase the brain’s ability to remember new information (Goldstein, 2016).

Motivation is a factor which affects individuals in most aspects of life, especially in regard to learning. According to Bates (2016), to be a successful teacher, one must understand that people will only learn if: they realise they need to, believe they have the potential, and can put it as a priority. Individuals all have different levels of motivation that affects the way they learn, therefore, to be effective, it is important to establish the optimal level of arousal for them. This is called arousal theory and was identified by Yerkes and Dodson; if an individual’s optimal level of arousal is not met, and there is too much, it will result in stress and discomfort. If there is not enough arousal, it will result in boredom. For example, a student with a relatively high arousal optimal level trying to complete a series of maths questions may become bored, because there is not much interactivity. This theory around motivation can also be linked to humanism due to the fact it talks about considering the individuals’ different arousals needs for motivation.

Not only are there different amounts of motivation that individuals need, there are also different types; these have been named as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is where an individual will do a certain activity or thing because they have an interest in it and will get personal gain from it, unlike extrinsic motivation where it can be influenced by external prods, pressures or rewards (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation is associated with humanism because they’re both based around the individual meeting their own needs and goals, however it can range with different activities. For example, an individual might have intrinsic motivation for a painting activity because they get joy from it and can see what they have achieved but might not have intrinsic motivation when it comes to writing a story. This is also where extrinsic motivation differs because an individual would not do it for the joy, they might do it to avoid a different outcome. For example, the same student previously mentioned may have extrinsic motivation to write the story because they do not want to get a detention from not doing the work. This type of motivation is more closely linked to behaviourism than humanism because the student would be negatively reinforced. Both types of motivation will have different effects on how an individual learns depending on which type they are associated with more strongly. Due to the curriculum, it is unlikely that there will be large amounts of intrinsic motivation because students have to participate in subjects and do exams in things that they might not always get a sense of satisfaction from.

To conclude, education and the effectiveness of learning is impacted by many different factors and theories. This essay concludes how behaviourism could be considered more realistically effective in assisting learning compared to humanism which has been proved to be more difficult to consistently apply in teaching. It is also obvious to conclude that neuroscience is a major factor in the way that individuals learn, and that in order to teach effectively it is important to consider the factors of the brain that have an impact. Each student’s motivation within a classroom will also affect the learning and teaching. This means that for an all-round effective learning environment there are many different factors which must be taken into consideration.


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