I currently teach high school seniors in a large public school in Alvin, Texas. While this is my main job, my secondary job is helping with educational strategies through professional development for the other five high schools in my district regarding the development of astronomy content for Alvin ISD. Additionally, I have an unofficial job at my school to assist my fellow colleagues in the use of technology, typically in the form of troubleshooting problems or instruction on computer programs. I entered high school the same year that AOL opened the country to wide-spread internet access. I spent a significant amount of time growing up understanding all aspects of computers from software, hardware, and coding. Currently, I mentor primarily Generation X and Millennials, as both of these generations’ comprehensive use of technology is actually quite limited: mostly emails, text messages, and simple use of applications/programs. I look at these instructor deficiencies in technology and see that mirrored in my own high school seniors. The educational system has not truly integrated technology into the classroom and therefore Zoomers will have but a cursory knowledge of technology, yet be expected to be experts. This will not do.
“Not having heard of it is not as good as having heard of it. Having heard of it is not as good as having seen it. Having seen it is not as good as knowing it. Knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.”
–Chinese Confucian philosopher Xun Kuang(McWlliam et al., 2018)
I did not grow up wanting to be a teacher, but I have a servant’s heart. As a dietician, I worked with my clients and staff to become more knowledgeable in health and state requirements. The hours were long, I needed to be home with my then three small children, so I opted out of the health industry as a corporate trainer and moved into the realm of K-12 education. I have learned a lot over these ten years. As the Chinese Confucian philosopher Xun Kuang stated, “Not having heard of it is not as good as having heard of it. Having heard of it is not as good as having seen it. Having seen it is not as good as knowing it. Knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.” What I have seen is a lot of apathetic kids that have no motivation or incentive to complete the majority of their work since, if I am being honest, a 70 is easy to obtain. Without motivation to accomplish more, the majority of my students are happy with a C average to just pass the class and move on. I did not think I could change this behavior, but I did realize that we are churning out young people who are trained into procrastination and laziness. Through my master’s work at Lamar University, I experienced a number of learning theories, but found the constructivist theory particularly appealing. I created and implemented the concepts I have learned in these courses and have given students the motivation to try a little bit harder. Their success has improved, but their capabilities are not yet fully realized.
What are the Main Learning Theories?
There are three different types of main learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, all which all have overlapping concepts and share an ultimate goal for the learners which is to learn, understand, think, and apply (Bednar et al., 1991).
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 beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.
–John Watson,(Pierce et al., 2014)
The first theory to flourish was behaviorism which had a heavy influence on the educational system. Especially in the 1950’s as instructional design (ID) was in its founding years. The Theory was woven into ID’s principals (Ertmer & Newby, 2013). With theorists, Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike, in the late 1800’s animal studies paving the way for John Watson and B.F. Skinner to become influential psychologists advocating for behaviorism. However, the roots of this philosophy precede this time period by centuries in the works of John Locke (1632–1704) and David Hume (1711–76) (Graham, 2023). Many men are responsible for contributing to the theory, yet a quick internet search will show you that John Watson is credited with founding the behaviorism learning theory, with some opposition arguing that Watson was more of a model and driving force of the behaviorist movement rather than the founder (Malone, 2014).
Behaviorism is a theory of learning based around a simple concept: conditioning. Conditioning in this context means that individuals’ actions respond to and are shaped by stimuli from the surrounding environment. In other words, the focus of the so-called behaviorist involves the external sources of influence on a learner’s behavior (Krapfl, 2016). Said another way, this theory of learning, sometimes referred to as behavioral psychology, only regards the readily observable and objectively characterizable behavior as worthy of study, excluding internal mental states (Abramson, 2013). Behaviorism’s fixation on only observable behavior is the direct result of treating cognition, emotions, and mood as far too subjective. Any internal state worthy of mention will manifest in some outwardly observable behavior, and can be defined and studied and cataloged in terms of that outward observation.
When applied to a learning environment, behaviorists fixate primarily on the behavioral outcomes that result from the environment provided to the learner. Behavioralists ask “what outward skills do I want to see in my students?” Behaviorists dismiss the obfuscating subjectivity of learning styles, learner enthusiasm, personality traits, and the like, in favor of controlling the environment to steer the learner towards a preferred outcome. As with Pavlov’s now-infamous experiment, some behaviorist educators train their learners by associating desirable stimuli with unrelated stimuli in order to shape the learners into likening what was naturally desired with a new behavior or concept. In other words, a behaviorist teacher can have learners stop doing a particular behavior by simply punishing said behavior, or rewarding contrary behavior, or both. The “why” is never a concern of the behaviorist, since the internal thoughts of the learners is too opaque to observe and determine anyway.
Any curriculum will be pedagogically ineffective if it consists of a lecturer yammering in front of a blackboard, or a textbook that students highlight with a yellow marker. People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems.
–Steven Pinker(Pinker, 2018)
The history of cognitive psychology and the cognitivism theory of learning came about as a response to the development of behaviorism. As previously noted, behaviorism practically denied the existence of any internal, unobservable mind, thought, or motivations (Thagard, 2023). This proved unworkable thanks to a summary of numerous studies by George Miller. Using short-term memory, Miller showed that people could only retain a limited number of objects in mind; however, with mental techniques of decoding and encoding information, far more could be retained (Id.). This combined with the new research into artificial intelligence by John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, and Herbert Simon, and linguistics by Noam Chomsky, led to the founding of the theory of cognitivism.
Cognitivism can be described simply by stating that how a learner thinks affects how a learner learns and behaves. Like behaviorism, cognitivism recognizes environmental stimuli as a critical element of learning, but unlike behaviorism, cognitivism treats such stimuli as influential on the internal mind of the learner (Lilienfeld et al., 2010). From these external stimuli, learners can produce both knowledge and skills by absorbing, incorporating, organizing, and using the stimuli. Learners are not merely trained animals responding to the sound of a bell and associating it with food, but rather regarding stimuli mindfully, sorting the stimuli into computations and mental structures, and producing a result.
Cognitivism can be applied in the classroom by focusing on how the learner takes in, uses, and remembers the information provided, rather than seeking specific mechanical performance. The cognitivist asks “how do my students think?” Rather than train learners to perform specific tasks only, a cognitivist approach allows an educator to focus on the ability to acquire new knowledge to eventually assist learners in transferring skills and knowledge to other tasks and concepts. For example, a math teacher using cognitivism theory will not merely mandate strict memorization of multiplication tables with rewards and punishments, but rather teach learners how multiplication works conceptually so that learners can find multiplication solutions of any kind by applying the newly acquired skill.
Being able to “go beyond the information” given to “figure things out” is one of the few untarnishable joys of life. One of the great triumphs of learning (and of teaching) is to get things organized in your head in a way that permits you to know more than you “ought” to. And this takes reflection, brooding about what it is that you know. The enemy of reflection is the breakneck pace – the thousand pictures.”
― Jerome S. Bruner(Bruner, 1997)
The history of constructivism follows a similar path to that of cognitivism, being a response to the prominent dismissal of the mind by behavioralists. Enrichment of what children were thinking, rather than merely identifying what they were doing and how to modify it, was the goal of the earliest constructivists (Seifert, Kelvin & Sutton, Rosemary. Educational Psychology: Second Edition Archived 2017-08-29 at the Wayback Machine. Global Text Project, 2009, pp. 33–37). Constructivism is primarily attributed to the work of Jean Piaget and his work regarding how to make, or literally construct, meaning from the interaction between experience and ideas. Piaget, and others, considered not just the inner space of the mind as important, as the cognitivists do, but also the past experiences uniquely tailored to each and every learner.
Constructivism, simply put, focuses entirely on the internal mind of the learner and how they construct new knowledge and skills based upon past experiences and memories alongside new stimuli. A far cry from the external-only focus of the behavioralists, constructivism places the mind as the center of all knowledge growth and acquisition, with outward behaviors being mere manifestations of that knowledge, not the sole proof nor the only thing that matters. Constructivist education is individual based, with each learner taking center stage with their unique combination of memories, experiences, and biases shaping the terrain of their mind for new information to build upon.
Instructors can utilize constructivism by asking themselves “what background does each student have” before attempting to teach. Lessons are then tailor made to build upon the best foundations found within each student, while also considering the negative experiences that inhibit or harm the learning process. As no two students are like in their experiences, no two lessons or teaching methods for these students can be entirely alike to fully embrace their unique histories. This poses logistical challenges when teaching a classroom of twenty to thirty children at once. Furthermore, some life experiences and biases are often too strong or too unique for the average educator to effectively accommodate or utilize to facilitate healthy learning, leaving the educator in a slump attempting to meet an objective that cannot be met. Therefore, it is critical that an instructor have a masterful command of their skill domain such that the content flows naturally as these unique backgrounds are managed and utilized.
Teaching, Learning, and Evaluation
I believe that teaching is a process in which a person of knowledge passes instruction to a learner. This process is not limited to the traditional teacher-student relationship but can be accomplished through facilitating learning or coaching. Further, teaching a learner can be accomplished even if the learner is unaware of their knowledge acquisition. Unlike a teacher that requires a student to learn, a learner does not require a teacher to learn. A learner is one that acquires knowledge or skills with or without realizing their acquisition. As a learner myself, I much prefer learning through others’ mistakes rather than making the same mistakes myself. I think at times I like learning in a constructive way, but lean towards cognitivism as I feel it is necessary to have a concrete, albeit entirely mental, foundation to build from. And yet, I sometimes still needed the simplicity of behaviorism learning. From time to time that basic learning method may still be best as I learn how to complete a mechanical process or skill. Other than mechanical learning, I feel that I personally learn in the realm of cognitivism but work on applying my previous knowledge on constructing an enriched environment where I learn. Learning ultimately takes place in the mind, thus I must always consider the foundations upon which to construct new knowledge while keeping a close watch on how the mind sorts and processes that information.
Learning Philosophy vs a Teaching Philosophy
As we move from the concept of learning philosophy, educators must then apply these theories to a teaching philosophy through the creation of an instructional design. A great deal of time was spent explaining the learning theories and their history and use. Of note was that all of these theories have overlapping characteristics. This tells me that all of them arose out of a need to improve how we teach, but each method is only useful depending on the circumstances. Should educators start with behaviorism, move to cognitivism, and end with constructivism? What is the research on successful learning regarding this procession? My personal experience tells me that constructivist and cognitivist learning works for people who are already self-motivated and is awful for the students that are not. It is utter nonsense that students will memorize multiplication tables if merely exposed to them in the environment. All we ended up with was a cohort of students that could not do math without a calculator always in hand. Scholars have stated that knowledge acquisition in a constructivist environment is best left to those who are at the level of advanced knowledge acquisition. This level of applying critical thinking to the learning concepts is difficult for learners that are still grappling with misconceptions and biases (Jonassen & Duffy 1991)(Ertmer & Newby, 2013). Overall, I feel that I am most suited to utilizing the cognitive theory of learning because this simple model of acquiring memory and storing it for longterm recall seems like a very foundational learning theory that I am most familiar with and comfortable learning and teaching, notably for my domain of astronomy. However, since we are in an age where knowledge is doubling every year and a half, I feel that I must work on my ability to become a stronger constructivist instructional designer (Ertmer & Newby, 2013). Knowledge is simply changing too fast, too rapidly, and in too many directions for young students to be left with just the ability to sort and categorize facts without context or connection to what is and what was.
Abramson, C. (2013). Problems of teaching the behaviorist perspective in the Cognitive Revolution. Behavioral Sciences, 3(1), 55–71. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs3010055
This article sheds a tremendous amount of light on the behaviorist perspective and takes great pains to detail the numerous positions within behaviorism. Additionally, Dr. Abramson is sure to note the misunderstandings and misconceptions associated with behaviorist theories. While the set-the-record-straight tone is perfect for any fans of the theories within, the real value of the article is showing just how much the lines blur between the theories. As such I still do not consider myself a behaviorist or neobehaviorist, as the labeling is entirely secondary to utilizing the strategies that have proven effective, such as teaching and enforcing mechanical skills.
Bruner, J. S. (1997). The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press.
The book by Dr. Bruner is a very optimistic perspective shift on how and why we educate students in the first place, moving teachers from mere fact memorization to a set of learning skills that are adaptable to everything. The book has proven so far to be more aspirational than practical in helping instructors improve, and the information within is by no means without use. However, discussions of the overall culture and adapting to it can be daunting when the classroom we are given is only fixated on a simple topic like astronomy that is often culturally disconnected.
Duffy, T. M., & Jonassen, D. H. (1991). Constructivism: New Implications for Instructional Technology?, 31(5), 7–12. https://doi.org/https://www.jstor.org/stable/44427513
In this paper the theories of constructivism are put to the test by using the unique learning and teaching scenario of remote classrooms and distance learning. A major issue noted in the paper is that such teaching scenarios are formulaic and one-size-fits-all with learners just expected to figure it out, much like how many face-to-face professors treat undergraduate classrooms. This article proved useful as it focused heavily on the use of technology and how technological advancements can better assist and support students by tailoring to the individual student foundations. This article was particularly useful.
Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43–71. https://doi.org/10.1002/piq.21143
This article was fantastic in providing a broad overview of the three general schools of learning theory. Notably, this article translates each theory from learning to instruction such that the practicality and use of each makes sense. It is from this article that I realized how much each overlap and that I inevitably utilize all three, making celebrating any one particular theory less than ideal or useful to my profession. It is also from here that behaviorism shone out as the least useful compared to cognitivism and constructivism.
Graham, G. (2023, January 13). Behaviorism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/behaviorism/#RootBeha
This article serves as a very deep dive into the history, development, and usage of behaviorism. Despite being aimed at philosophy students and teachers alike, the article is very approachable for even less savvy readers. However, the information is exceedingly well detailed and full understanding requires a lot more cross-referencing than this article demands. I approached this article specifically because I found behaviorism not to my liking as a theory and I wanted to be sure I was disliking components of the theory for the correct reasons.
Krapfl, J. (2016, April 25). Behaviorism and Society. The Behavior analyst. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27606191/
This article attempts to describe and answer the question as to why behaviorism is unfavored socially and within academic circles. It does so by suggesting solutions to the problem, notably by simply creating a better image for the theory and showing the results. The reputation associated with behaviorism is likely to never be fully rehabilitated thanks to the numerous terrible experiments performed under its banner. However, for sheer mechanical ability outputs, the successful results can be positive and remarkable.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S., Woolf , N., & Namy, L. (2010). Chapter 1. In Psychology: A Framework for Everyday Thinking (pp. 24–28). essay, Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.
The textbook is a general psychology text that teaches a wide variety of basic and intermediate psychology concepts and theories that then attempts to particularize each into a practical setting for students to understand. As such, this resource proved to be a useful broad spectrum survey of information needed for this article.
Malone, J. C. (2014, March 15). Did John B. Watson Really “Found” Behaviorism? The Behavior analyst. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4883453/
This article discusses the history of behaviorism and its many contributors. Notably, the history shows the state of the world regarding science and philosophy in general, which in turn explains and supports the ideas behind behaviorism writ large. The fixation on objective and measurable outcomes within behaviorism is owed in no small part from the scientific community’s strong desire to remain firmly within the bounds of so-called real science. Combine this with the resurging interest in eugenics and genetics and it is no wonder that an unobservable thing called a mind would be rejected by so many, all contributing to a new theory of human thinking and behavior.
McWlliam, N., Yeung, T., & Green, A. (2018). Law students’ experiences in an experiential law and research program … https://search.informit.org/doi/pdf/10.3316/aeipt.223652. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/352688946_Law_Students’_Experiences_in_an_Experiential_Law_and_Research_Program_in_Australia
This article focuses on a very small-scale study in which law students were subjected to a more experiential pedagogy while learning about the law. Rather than the usual case-study recitations used in virtually every law school, these students were subjected to alternative dispute resolution scenarios that required them to actively problem solve with clients. Of note these students were actively collaborating to simultaneously learn the law and put it into immediate practice. Many law schools currently utilize special courses known as clinics where professors guide already knowledgeable students to assist specific client situations, but these are frequently solo endeavors and end up being little more than a rebranded research paper between teacher and student. This study was useful to me because even something as complex and theoretical as the law can be put into immediate practical use and it makes already enthusiastic learners become even more so.
Pierce, K. A., Pierce, K. A., & 13, G. M. S. F. (2014, February 4). Introductory Psychology Blog (S14)_C. Introductory Psychology Blog S14C. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://sites.psu.edu/intropsychsp14n3/2014/02/04/behaviorism-give-me-anyone-and-i-can-make-them-into-anything/
This article is primarily fixated on giving a broad stroke introduction into behaviorism overall. It does not add any new information that the other sources provide and the others provided in this bibliography are significantly better overall. However, the quotation attributed to John Watson in the article was simply too strong to pass up. The bizarre concept that people are just very complex little balls of clay to be molded into whatever we please is very antiquated and yet is still used today. Worse still, many coaches and teachers alike take this a step further and declare so many of their students as a form of ‘bad clay’ if they cannot jump through the hoops teachers set, and just discard them entirely. This is exactly the kind of instructor I refuse to be and I felt strongly that it should be highlighted what behaviorism was and often continues to be at its core.
Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Viking.
Dr. Pinker is an avid cognitivist and prolific speaker and writer on the subject, while being enjoyable to read as well even as a novice to psychology or philosophy. I have not yet completed this entire book on the subject, which is generally a call-to-arms to the educational culture at large to ground itself firmly in the principles learned in the Enlightenment. However, the quotation used was a perfect representation of not only the animus of cognitivism but mirrors my own position regarding learning quite closely.
Thagard, P. (2023, January 31). Cognitive Science. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cognitive-science/
This article serves as a very deep dive into the history, development, and usage of cognitivism. Despite being aimed at philosophy students and teachers alike, the article is very approachable for even less savvy readers. However, the information is exceedingly well detailed and full understanding requires a lot more cross-referencing than this article demands. Because I view myself as primarily a cognitivist as I currently stand, I found this article particularly interesting to read and pursue, despite its complexities.