Learning Theory and Conditions of Learning


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J. B. Watson, the father of Behaviorism, defined learning as a sequence of stimulus and response actions in perceptible cause and effect relationships, thus the focus of Behaviorism is on the training of observable human behavior. Major scholars associated with this learning theory are J. B Watson, E. L Thorndike, and B. F Skinner. According to the last, voluntary or automatic behavior is either reinforced or weakened by the immediate presence of a reward or a punishment, he claimed that, “The learning principle behind operant conditioning is that new learning occurs as a result of positive reinforcement, and old patterns are abandoned as a result of negative reinforcement". So we can easily track the applied character of this theory to the learning/teaching process as teaching is the arrangement of possibilities of reinforcement under which students learn. They learn without teaching in their natural environments, but teachers arrange special incidents which advance learning, speeding up the appearance of behavior which would otherwise be acquired slowly or making certain of the appearance of behavior which would probably never be realized. Another behavioral theory example could be the use of exams to measure observable behavior of learning, the use of rewards and punishments in our school systems, and the breaking down of the instruction process into “conditions of learning".

The concept of the directed instructions made by teacher is where he/she provides knowledge (information) directly or through some set of episodes is a Behaviorist model of teaching, and consequently, learning. Another important learning theory is Constructivism model, which was mainly introduced by John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, and Jean Piaget. Constructivists believe that all humans have the ability to construct knowledge in their own minds through a process of discovery and problem-solving, through acquiring knowledge from experiences of trials and errors rather than in the classroom. The extent to which this process can take place naturally, without structure and teaching is the defining factor amongst the followers of this learning theory. According to Constructivists children and learners have a natural curiosity for new information, but schools are too structured and overall designed unnaturally, which in turn shifts natural desire to learn. Children perceive their roles as of passive spectators rather then of participants, and this fact lowers their motivation in constructing meaning from the information instructed. To Constructivist point of view children should be given an opportunity to become motivated learners, critical thinkers, problem-solvers. It could be achieved through educational reform that provides the learner with the necessary tools to participate in learning process. According to Papert (one of the Constructivism researcher), the computer is suitable method to come to desired results. Constructivists believe that a lot of changes should take place in our educational system in order to change people’s understanding of learning and what’s essential to make people motivated to learn. They suggest to make learning a life long process, to make it a fun process instead of a torture (as most children perceive it), and to make it so called “customized" learning, which would not necessarily fit all students.

As one can conclude the two theories are very different from each other. In essence the Behaviorists theory means a systematic approach to learning, with a reward/punishment structure. It has served North Americans for a long time a good deal, but it is now believed that it became outdated with the emergence of Constructivists, more liberal theory. I personally believe a Constructivist theory to be much more meaningful in modern schools and colleges as it implies a free will approach and a possibility of choice. It also says that if a teacher motivates children in a correct manner, they will be willing to learn and information will stay longer with them as it will be a result of logical and creative thinking.

Both theories nowadays suggest to apply computers as the major learning tool; and I would suggest to use games and groups projects to facilitate desire to learn. I also think that a reward/punishment system be used in extreme case when it is absolutely needed, otherwise it is not necessary as it does not usually motivate anyone. Moreover, teachers would succeed more when employing multiple approach system, thus combining different theories on practice, which will make the learning process more natural and easy going.

Certainly many theories exist, all focusing on different aspects of our composition as humans. And each theory attempts to explain how we learn, act and behave: Sigmund Freud focused on our sub-conscious, Skinner on our observable behavior (as a Behaviorist), cognitive psychologists on our mental processes and thinking, humanistic psychology on our social and interpersonal development. I believe that all of known theories are more or less dependent on the empirical evidence each one of us acquires throughout life no matter which theory we support.

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