Tertiary teaching in New Zealand/Educational culture in New Zealand/How do people learn?/Behaviourism

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One of the detractors of behaviouristic educational methods has said: "It's great if you want robots!"

The basic tenet behind this psychological theory is that our behaviour is based on our environmental stimuli, and so any changes in behaviour can be conditioned by appropriate, and often repetitive, stimuli. This school of thought suggests that only observable behaviors should be studied, since internal states such as cognitions, emotions and moods are too subjective.

The famous exponent of Classical conditioning, Dr. Ivan Pavlov, showed that a neutral stimulus (such as a bell ringing) could be conditioned to be associated with a behaviour like salivation (in readiness for eating) in dogs. Operant conditioning, first described by B.F. Skinner, takes this further to describe learning associated with reward or punishment. This is often used for training of animals, and the positive reinforcement of desired behaviour is particularly effective.

Training for routine tasks where thinking is not required, or perhaps for responses which need to happen quickly, may benefit from a behaviourist approach. In cases where safety is at risk, especially with children, this may be a useful approach. Dr. Albert Bandura has developed his Social Cognitive Theory, which takes the behaviourist approach away from its simplistic origins towards an understanding of learning from modelling. Any parent will be familiar with this - and sometimes our children model behaviour which we recognise with embarrassment! This website has a very concise but accurate description of Bandura's theory, and is also worth looking around for careers information.

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What is the difference between training and education? Can you give an example of each from your own experience? In your own current teaching work, or in a learning session that you have observed, can you describe one topic in which the behaviourist approach to learning may be useful? Post your thoughts on our Moodle forum, and reply to at least one other posting explaining why you agree, or why you disagree, with it.