Teaching the Brain to Learn

March 12th, 2017

As we progress through life, our behavior in certain situations changes. We may do most of those behaviors without even thinking about it. For example, when I get in my car, I instinctively put my seat belt on. Why? Today, I would like to introduce you to two perspectives that might explain how I learned this behavior: behaviorism and cognitive processes. Behaviorism is the idea that external events are the cause of changes in observable behaviors (Woolfolk, 272). This theory believes that thing like conditioning, punishments, and reinforcements shape people’s behavior.

According a behaviorist, I probably put my seatbelt on to avoid hearing that annoying bell that won’t stop until I buckle my seatbelt. However, from the cognitive perspective, I might put my seatbelt on because I saw my parents putting their seatbelts on as soon as they sat down in the car and I remember their behavior and want to model my own behavior after their behavior. This behavior was learned through what cognitive psychologists would call modeling-learning by imitation. This is because the cognitive view of learning focuses on the internal mental processes of acquiring, remembering, and using knowledge (Woolfolk, 312).

This clip from a 1947 classroom does a great job showing the difference between a classroom using behaviorist thought to shape student behavior and appealing to student cognitive processes. The first half of the video, the teacher uses positive punishment on students for doing poorly by sending them to detention and negatively reinforces behavior by having students stay after school until work is completed. However, in the second half of the video, the teacher appeals to students’ cognitive processes by modeling a positive attitude and behavior towards the schoolwork.

A prospective teacher, I hope to utilize both perspectives of learning in my instruction. Understanding how to externally and internally motivate my students to perform academic tasks will be key to helping them learn. However, there are limitations to both theories. In behaviorism, some psychologists fear that the practice of positive reinforcement “will cause them (students) to lose interest in learning for its own sake” (Woolfolk, 302). This poses the question that if students are only performing educational tasks to receive a reward, are they truly learning? Behaviorism leaves teachers trying to instill intrinsic or self-motivation practices in students after rewards are no longer given. On the other hand, cognitive psychologists may find that there is too much emphasis placed on internal processes and not enough of the external circumstances such as environment or individual experiences into account.

As a future teacher, I probably agree more with the social cognitive theory proposed by Albert Bandura than I do with the behaviorist theory. I believe my job as a teacher is to be a facilitator of learning and to guide students as they apply information to the world around them to construct a base of knowledge that they can understand and relate to their life and personal experiences. As a future teacher, I hope to do exactly that by providing students with opportunities to apply learning to real-life situations around them and by creating a classroom space where students have the resources and guidance to discover their passions.


Woolfolk, A. (2014). Educational Psychology: Active Learning Edition. Pearson.