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Behaviorist and Cognitive Views of Learning

There are a healthy number of views on the way learning occurs in the mind. In this blog post, I will be focusing on two major ones that can easily be applied to the classroom. These views are Behaviorism and Cognitivism.

Behaviorists believe that people have specific behaviors that can either be reinforced to increase the behavior, or punished to to lessen or stop the behavior. To apply this to learning, the idea is that you can alter the what happens before or after a behavior in order to change how a person acts. The major experiment related to this is Pavlov’s dog experiment. In it, Pavlov saw that dogs would salivate when food was presented. He then began ringing a bell before food was brought to the dogs and eventually, the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell without any food being present. This relationship between stimulus and behavior was known as classical conditioning. This view arose from the idea that psychology should be scientifically based on empirical evidence.

On the other hand, the cognitive view theorizes that the mind is the result of mental processes, and focuses on the ways information “flows” through the mind, such has how it is received or organized. Therefore information should be presented in a way that is logical and meaningful to the learner. This theory emphasizes applying meaning to certain topics, such as applying a easy to remember mnemonic device in order to improve recall of a more complex subject.

One of the major differences between these two is the basis of their theories. Behaviorism based on empirical, easy to identify variables whereas cognitive theories are much more philosophical. Because of this the application of cognitive psychology can be more varied, whereas behaviorism is much more straight forward. In addition, cognitive psychology emphasizes the teaching of strategies in order to assist learning, such as the mnemonic device idea stated above. Behaviorism focuses more on strict transmission and then drilling and practice of information, or in other words just presenting or telling the information.

Because of these differences these psychological concepts should be applied to learning in different ways; they do not always overlap. Behaviorism is especially useful in maintaining classroom order and student etiquette. For example, students may enter into a reward system where they are given a school currency when good behavior is displayed, such as being ready when the bell rings. They may also be punished for poor behavior by taking away these rewards, such as when a student begins to misbehave during a lesson.

Cognitive views of learning are helpful for preparing how a lesson is going to be organized. If the teacher uses the ways students process and remember information, then he or she can organize that information into a way to that is meaningful to students. It can also be helpful in coming up with ways to retain information by applying meaning to otherwise meaningless (at least to the learner) information.

I know that as a teacher I will be using both of these models in shaping my classroom. I will often be tasked with teaching a student an instrument from the ground up, and will have to organize the basics of the instrument into an easy to consume format, so I will apply cognitive views to my instrumental lessons. On the other hand, I may have difficulty keeping my class in order during a lesson period, so I may begin applying behaviorist views to both reward good behavior and punish negative behavior to promote a healthy classroom environment.

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