Perspectives on Learning

Behaviorist and Cognitive Perspectives

Educational psychologists generally agree that learning happens "when experience causes a relatively permanent change in an individual's knowledge or behavior" ( Woolfolk- Hoy, 2004, p. 198).

Behaviorists assert that behavior is shaped through reinforcement, practice and drilling for the desired behavior. They consider learning to be sequential and hierarchical.

Cognitive field psychologists view learning as "transforming significant understandings we already have, rather than simple acquisitions written on blank slates" (Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996, p. 18). These researchers found that students are engaged "in the process of expanding their personal conceptions about data-bases, sorting in databases, and data types while establishing new connections among their schemas" (Niess, Kajder & Lee, p43).

In the simplest terms, behaviorists look to external stimuli and outward behavior. Cognitive psychologists look inward at the mental process and at changes in knowledge.

From the behaviorists to the cognitive psychologists and beyond to the constructivists -- views about student learning have shifted from passive to active student engagement.


In the objectivist view, knowledge exists outside of individuals and can be transferred from teachers to students. Students learn what they hear and what they read.
The term, constructivism, refers to the idea that learners construct knowledge for themselves. Each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning as he or she learns. Constructing meaning is learning; there is no other kind. The dramatic consequences of this view are twofold; (1) One must focus on the learner in thinking about learning -- not on the subject/lesson to be taught): (2) There is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner, or community of learners.

As a philosophy of learning, constructivism can be traced to the work of eighteenth century philosopher, Giambattista Vico, who maintained that humans can understand only what they have themselves constructed. A great many philosophers and educationalists have worked with these ideas, among them, Jean Piaget and John Dewey.


Some guiding principles of constructivist thinking 
for educators to consider -- from the Institute of Inquiry.

1. Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning out of it. Learning is not the passive acceptance of knowledge which exists 'out there.' Learning involves the learner engaging with the world. Dewey described the hands-on experiencing of the active learner.

2. People learn to learn as they learn. Learning consists both of constructing meaning and constructing systems of meaning. For example, if we learn the chronology of dates of a series of historical events, we are simultaneously learning the meaning of a chronology.

3. The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental. It happens in the mind. While physical actions and hands-on experience is necessary for learning, it is not sufficient. Educators must provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands. Dewey called this reflective activity.

4. Learning involves language. The language we use influences learning. On the empirical level, researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. On a more general level, there is a collection of arguments, presented most forcefully by Vigotsky, that language and learning are inextricably intertwined.

5. Learning is a social activity. Our learning is intimately associated with our connection with other human beings -- our teachers, our peers, our family as well as casual acquaintances A progressive education recognizes the social aspect of learning and uses conversation, interaction with others, and the application of knowledge as an integral aspect of learning.

6. Learning is contextual. We do not learn facts and theories through an isolated, abstract "mind" separate from the rest of our lives. We learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe -- our prejudices and our fears.

7. One needs knowledge to learn. It is not possible to assimilate new knowledge without having some structure developed from previous knowledge to build on.  The more we know, the more we can learn. Therefore any effort to teach must be connected to the state of the learner -- it must provide a path into the subject for the learner based on that learner's prior knowledge.

8. It takes time to learn. Learning is not instantaneous.

How Behaviorist and Cognitive Psychologists'
Views of Learning Influence Today's Classroom

Educational psychologists consider that the process of learning happens "when experience causes a relatively permanent change in an individual's knowledge or behavior" (Woolfolk- Hoy,2004,p.198).

Behaviorists see the process of learning as an external and observable behavior. Also, Behaviorists emphasize that learning is "shaped and strengthened through reinforcement or practice" (Niess, 2008,p.41). Cognitive psychologists point out that a change in knowledge is transformation. For this reason they believe that learning is an internal mental process. On the contrary, Behaviorists see learning as both sequential and hierarchical.

Moreover, both views of learning influence teaching and learning today in a major way. These views have helped and guided educators to develop effective teaching strategies and to reach many different styles of learners.

The combined effect of the Behaviorism and social learning theory, with Piaget's cognitive development theory, along with many others (psychoanalytic, information processing, Vygotsky's sociocultural, etc) is the evolution of the Dynamic Systems Perspective.

In Infants and Children (2008) Laura Berk says about the dynamic systems theory "the child's mind, body, and physical and social worlds form an integrated system that guides mastery of new skills." This perspective, which draws heavily from the behaviorism theory and the cognitive development theory, is now one of the primary tools that educators use in analyzing and facilitating the learning of children.

Knowing reality means constructing systems of transformations
that correspond, more or less adequately, to reality" 
-- Jean Piaget

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