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Essay: How do Cognitivism and Behaviourism contrast, & which theory may be most useful

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This essay examines the extent to which my chosen learning theories of Cognitivism and Behaviourism contrast with each other, and which of these theories may be most useful to me within my teaching context.
My educational setting thus far has been in a small, disadvantaged secondary school on the edge of the West Midlands. The school has 700 pupils, of which approximately 80 are in 6th Form and the rest are spread quite evenly between Year groups 7-11. My subject specialism is Geography, and so is compulsory for Key Stage 3, and a widely chosen option subject for both GCSE and A Level. Approximately 40% of the students are in receipt of Pupil Premium, and a high proportion of pupils are EAL. There is a wide gap between the highest and lowest achievers, and the pupils most likely to underperform (through showing a negative Progress 8 score at GCSE) in this school are white working-class boys.
For over one hundred years, psychologists have put forward theories about how both adults and children learn. Most of these theories fit into several defined schools of thought, known as Behaviourism, Cognitivism (including branches known as Constructivism and social Constructivism) and Humanism. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on comparing and contrasting the schools of Cognitivism and Behaviourism, showing the ways in which they are different, and assessing how far each set of strategies can be used in relevant ways within the education system, and within the school setting that I have experienced myself so far. I intend to critically evaluate the two theories, by performing a literature review of both, stating the perceived value of each, and then comparing both to the ways of working that I have experienced within my first placement.
While various Behaviourist theories were first put forward as long ago as Aristotle, the term is thought to have been coined by John B. Watson in around 1912 (Pritchard, A. 2009). Watson proposed that the brain could only be studied with total objectivity and that anything less would be worthless. For this reason, people who subscribed to the Behaviourist school of thought studied only what could be seen or measured such as physical responses or changes in behaviour. The basic premise of Behaviourism is that learning takes place as a result of stimuli to either reinforce or dissuade a desirable or undesirable behaviour type, and this is known as ‘conditioning’ of which there are two major types known as ‘classical’ and ‘operant’ conditioning.
Early Behaviourist studies linked a behaviour type with either a positive or negative effect. Pavlov, working in the 1890s, discovered that by ringing a bell every time dogs were offered food, the dogs would become conditioned to commence salivation when they heard the bell, even after the food was withdrawn. (Aubrey and Riley, 2018). John Watson, too, studied this behaviour, by creating a loud noise when a small baby (known as ‘Baby Albert’) saw a rat, which induced fear in the child. From these studies, theorists concluded that learning of new behaviours did not come from any free will on behalf of the learner, but was a direct result of the stimuli causing either a preference for, or an aversion to a specific action.
Later theorists, such as Burrhus F Skinner, who was heavily influenced by Watson, fleshed out these ideas. Skinner believed that by altering the environment of animals, that the behaviour of those animals would also change (Aubrey and Riley, 2018). He tested rats and pigeons with both food and electric current within a box. In both cases, the creatures could work out that using a lever in the box would create a more comfortable condition, either by dispensing food, or by turning off the current. The rats would continue this behaviour once they had learned it. This type of learning style became known as Operant Conditioning and is linked with learning taking place through the use of rewards and punishments, both positive and negative. In the case of the rat, a positive result would occur if food dropped, and a negative effect would be removed in the case of the electric current. Both effects cause the rat to press the lever, and Aubrey and Riley (2018) describe that in Skinner’s experiments, it soon became habitual for the rats to try the level on entry to the box, regardless of whether electrical current was flowing.
In terms of education, Behaviourist approaches are linked with a very teacher-centric model, in which the teacher will decide what needs to be learned and how it will be taught. The classroom environment can be manipulated in order to make this more likely (Torre, Daley, Sebastian and Elincki, 2006). Torre (Torre et al, 2006) states that a behaviourist approach is most useful to inform the pupil what they will be learning, by which method and explaining the method of evaluation. In this way, the creation of the National Curriculum could be argued to be a Behaviourist policy in its own right (The Open University, Undated). Thorndike, in the early 1900s, proposed that Behaviourist learning styles, such as learning by rote, either with or without an offered reward, is helpful for such activities as learning poetry, lines for a play, or multiplication tables. This is more effective with a reward, however and Thorndike called this The Law of Effect (Benson, 1998). It has also been suggested that rote learning of this nature can be useful for some students who are on the Autistic spectrum, who may find it easier to learn this way (Blakemore and Frith, 2005) although, on the other hand, it can be less useful for pupils with dyslexia.
Behaviourist models are often considered to feed directly into behaviour management within a classroom, with Pritchard (2009) stating that the use of sanctions and rewards can create a safe classroom environment which is conducive to learning. The Teaching Standards mentioned by Pritchard have been altered by the Department for Education in the time since his book was written, but this still links with Standard 7, especially sub-standard b, which states: “have high expectations of behaviour, and establish a framework for discipline with a range of strategies, using praise, sanctions and rewards consistently and fairly” (Department for Education, 2012, p12).
There are several problems with Behaviourist theories, not least that early experiments focus on animals or small babies, and are now considered deeply unethical. They assume that humans have the same level of free-will as animals, and that there is no intrinsic motivation for learning. This means that human learners are expected to only learn in order to either gain praise or reward, or to avoid punishment (discounting learning purely because a student is interested in a subject) and much theory discounts how different humans are from most animals, and how much more complex the human world is than the animal one. In addition to this, discussion of Behaviourism centres only on a small number of theorists, at set points in their careers, for example, discounting Watson’s later theories which differed from his earlier works. (Abramson, 2013).
Cognitivism, and a branch thereof, Constructivism, are very different models of learning to behaviourism. Cognitivist thinkers such as John Dewey, generally argue that people must learn how to learn and that learning is part of the goal, not just the method of getting to the goal. Dewey was one of the earliest cognitivists, and was working at a contemporary time to many behaviourists. Along with other notable cognitivists, such as Piaget and Vygotsky, Dewey argued that education should be child-centred, active rather than passive and that learning should be for its own sake, not purely to prepare them for future work (Garhart, 2013). Dewey also believed that while learning should be fun, it should not be without aim and that it is helpful for the teacher to understand the motivations of children in his or her classroom in order to promote the best learning outcomes.
Phycologist Jean Piaget argued that children’s motivation for learning is neither completely extrinsic (as the behaviourists believed) or intrinsic, but instead is formed by the environment with which they interact. Therefore, learning by doing is far more valuable than just reading about a subject, especially if the subject matter is already one which has sparked the child’s interest (Garhart 2013). His belief was that if a pupil’s curiosity about a subject is completely satisfied, then the pupil will cease learning. Therefore, he argues for an enquiry based curriculum, in which the teacher facilitates students gaining their own knowledge. Piaget believed that all children go through certain stages of development that are outlined in the table below, and taken from Piaget’s original work. (Garhart 2013, p52))
Table 1: Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Piaget also discussed ways in which children of all ages learn about learning. His theories suggest ways in which small children learn through experience and are initially only able to use their own experiences in order to construct their understanding of the world around them, until learning becomes more abstract in the years a child reaches the ‘concrete operational’ stage. He argued that we hold ‘units’ of knowledge, or ‘schemata’, and that the way in which children organise these informs their view of the world. In order to take on new knowledge, we must either accommodate or assimilate that knowledge into our existing understanding. Through accommodation, new knowledge can be slotted in to existing scripts (McLeod, 2018, a). When that is not possible because the new schema does not fit, then the scripts can be moved and altered until there is a new space available for this knowledge. This process takes learners into a sense of disequilibrium which is uncomfortable. The learner uses either accommodation or assimilation to embed the new knowledge, and can again reach a sense of equilibrium (McLeod, 2018, a).
Lev Vygotsky put forward a key theory of cognitivism, the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD), which explains that there is a gap between what a child can do on their own, and what they can learn to do with assistance. Interestingly, although Vygotsky discussed the concept of the ZPD, he didn’t coin the terminology. This was first mentioned in 1976 by Wood, Bruner and Ross (McLeod, 2018, b) Vygotsky used the term ‘scaffolding’ to explain the ways in which teachers can bridge this gap. It should be noted that his aim here is not for the teacher to do the work for the students but to offer enough assistance so that they can learn to do more than they would have been able to do without that help (Garhart 2013). In educational settings, there are many ways in which scaffolding takes place. Examples of these may be as simple as sentence starters for written answers or modelling an activity prior to students beginning it. Scaffolding can also be peer-to-peer, with the student who has a better understanding of the subject matter providing the scaffolding.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is an example of how cognitive theory allows for learning to be scaffolded, with different levels of the taxonomy asking for increasing levels of recall, understanding, application of current knowledge and then evaluative thought. Later versions of Bloom’s Taxonomy included creativity as an alternative to evaluation, which is more appropriate in some subject areas than others. Yet another method of scaffolding is proposed by Bruner, in his Spiral Curriculum Model (Bruner, 1960). He proposed that pupils benefit from going over the same ground multiple times throughout their school careers in order to deepen understanding and increase the likelihood of retainment. At younger ages, or lower stages of cognitive development, the information given is more basic, but as the same topic is reached again in later years, there is more scope to deepen that knowledge as students will already have a good grounding. He states that in order to fulfil learning potential, “A curriculum as it develops should revisit these basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the Student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them” (Bruner, 1960 p13).
Bruner also advocated for discovery learning, giving a geographical example of children who were taught reasons in which settlements developed in certain places, due to topography, water supply, fertile soils, and then given a physical map of the United States of America and asked to propose the possible locations of cities. Discussion between the pupils led to some accurate suggestions, backed up by sound reasoning, for where cities were likely to expand.
Bruner points out the different ways in which pupils of different ages experience the world, through the example of bouncing a ball against a wall. How the child analyses that action depends on the age of the child, with young children being unable to equate the angle at which the ball hits the wall with the angle at which it moves away, a hypothesis which comes easily to older children (Bruner 1960). Bruner relates this directly to Piaget’s work on the intellectual stages of child development.
The point of learning theory is to discover the best ways in which to help children learn, whether this is through behaviourist, cognitivist, or other means, such as humanistic theories. While humanist theories have not been discussed here, they are important to note as being one of the other major works into learning theories, and centre on work by psychologists such as Maslow and Rogers, who believe that students will learn best when given free agency and choice over what and how they study, and when their other needs (such as hunger, warmth, and a sense of belonging) are met. Behaviourist tend to focus on the environment which is external to the child, to see how alterations can affect change in how a person or animal learns, while cognitivist theorists look instead at aspects intrinsic to child development and memory to predict what a pupil may be able to learn at each stage of their education (Weegar and Pacis, 2012). Proponents of behaviourist theory tend to put forward that learning is passive, and that the mind of the individual is not really as important as the environment in which learning takes place. Skinner stated that all learning could be measured through changes in the behaviour of the subject (Weegar and Pacis, 2012). Cognitivists put a much higher emphasis on the importance of experience, prior learning and the ability to fit new knowledge amongst the student’s existing ideas about how the world works. Constructivism is a branch of cognitivist thought which places great importance on social interaction as a basis for learning. This was discussed by Vygotsky in detail, who felt that the instructor or teacher was very important in facilitating learning, as well as the peers of the student.
In terms of the reasons for learning, Cognitivists place more importance on learning for understanding and meaning, while current behaviourists believe that committing information to memory (not necessarily with understanding) should occur before tackling the next stage of learning (Weegar and Pacis, 2012). Cognitivists place active learning at the forefront, which rules out many types of behaviourist teaching, such as rote learning, which is passive absorption and repetition, sometimes without expectation of real understanding. Piaget argued that students must take responsibility for their own learning in the classroom, that learning should be less teacher-centric, more pupil-focussed. (Weegar and Pacis, 2012). The activities of the students should be defined by their developmental stage and cogitative abilities.
Within my own placements, I have seen elements of both styles of teaching. Behaviourism forms not only some of the methods of teaching and learning but also the cornerstone of the school behaviour policy, which functions as a set of rewards and sanctions.
One teacher (Mr B) creates a behaviourist environment by choosing to stand in different areas of the classroom in order to obtain certain types of behaviour from students. For example, standing up beside the whiteboard leads quickly to silence among his pupils, as they have learned that his standing in this position replaces other teachers’ calls for silence. Mr B explained that initially, when pupils were in younger years of the school, this was prefaced by a “3, 2, 1” countdown, until it was possible to remove the countdown in favour of the quiet change in position. This is an example of classical conditioning, whereby pupils associated their silence at the teacher’s signal with the praise that followed. In the early years of Key Stage 3, Mr B also awarded Classchart points for the resulting silence to positively reinforce their behaviour. When Mr B is walking around the classroom, it is a signal that pupils should be getting on with their work. Again, they have become aware that at any point he may be close to them and be able to peruse their task.
Classchart awards are a major way in which my placement school use a behaviourist technique. The Classchart system is used to keep track of seating plans and award points, which take the place of merits, and these can be given instantly because the school uses iPads. Points are given for any number of aspects, dependent on the teacher. My own mentor (Mr S) awards a point to each pupil as soon as the whole class are seated and ready to listen. In this way, all students feel that they have received praise, and start the lesson in a good frame of mind. Points can then be awarded for correct answers to questions, which was an aspect I was beginning to use in my own practise. Through choosing random pupils, and awarding them a point for a correct answer, all pupils knew that there was a possibility that they could be called on the answer a question. If they had retained the information, they would get a point. If they had not, then there was a chance that the pupil would feel embarrassed, which would be a ‘positive punishment’ as incorrect behaviour had resulted in an uncomfortable situation. This would make it more likely that the pupil would try harder for the next attempt.

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