Thursday, June 22, 2023

Techniques of Teaching :Behaviorism Learning Theory: Theoretical Overview


These articles on "Learning Theories" might seem too theoretical and distant. It feels like knowledge that we would only encounter in our distant student years. Most people may have come across them during their educational pursuits, such as Pavlov's drooling dog, the relationship between food and the bell, known as conditioned response. However, once we enter the teaching field, these topics seem to be rarely discussed! At least from what I know, most teachers have developed their teaching methods through practical experience and trial and error, with little mention of “Learning Theories”. Taking a more radical perspective, some might say, "Theory is theory, and practice is practice," as if the two are unrelated. However, the reason we may not effectively utilize learning theories could be due to studying for exams or being forced to learn without gaining a deep understanding. It is indeed regrettable for an educator.

Let's first look at some practical issues that we encounter in teaching. Have you ever thought about the following questions?

1. In corporate training sessions, a group of engineers who are considered unresponsive by HR eagerly volunteer to come to the stage.

2. We have discussed gamification in teaching, but why are the three key elements of gamification (PBL: points, benefits, leaderboards) effective? What are the underlying principles?

3. If a participant's phone rings during class, should we temporarily confiscate the phone or punish them? Are the effects of rewards and punishments the same?

These phenomena actually have theoretical explanations behind them, but very few people consider these fundamental aspects during teaching.

The Value of Theory

To put it simply, learning theories aim to explain one thing: "How do people learn new things?" This question was raised by Plato over 2,000 years ago. Scholars throughout history have invested countless hours in research and experimentation to provide answers to this question. In essence, a theory is an explanation of a "phenomenon" that is derived from "knowledge or experience" and follows a logical inference through scientific methods (refer to Wiki for more details). In simpler terms, a theory uncovers the explanations behind observed phenomena. Therefore, learning theories seek to understand how learning actually occurs, the key factors or influences on learning, and the deeper aspects of the learning process. By gaining a deeper understanding of learning theories, educators can view the occurrences in the learning process from a more fundamental perspective. It allows them to see beyond individual teaching details or surface-level techniques and approach their teaching from a more comprehensive standpoint. By standing on the shoulders of countless educational researchers in the past, educators can reevaluate their teaching practices with a higher level of insight and a solid foundation.

Understanding learning theories is not difficult, but grasping them quickly and knowing how to apply them in instructional practices can be challenging. Many learning theories are based on centuries of research and have accumulated a substantial body of knowledge. Even contemporary theories, such as Pavlov's experiments with dogs and classical conditioning, have been around for over 100 years (Pavlov received the Nobel Prize in 1904 for this research). If you have the time, you can delve into papers and books to explore further. However, as educators or professional instructors, what matters most to us is: "How can we apply these theories in instructional practices?" Therefore, allow me to provide a condensed overview of these complex instructional theories. It will give you a general understanding, and if you are genuinely interested in conducting in-depth research and exploration, the wealth of references and related studies behind instructional theories will not disappoint you.

So, where should we start? Let's begin with the three core learning theories and their instructional applications! These three core learning theories are Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism.


The core idea of behaviorism is the connection between "stimulus" and "response." Simply put, behaviorism believes that the purpose of learning is to produce the correct "response" under the right "stimulus." For example, a student sees a question (stimulus) and provides the correct answer (response). Furthermore, when a student encounters a situation or problem (stimulus), they know how to solve it (response). The central focus of behaviorism learning theory is on how to effectively establish this process.
Prominent researchers associated with this theory include Pavlov, whom we mentioned earlier. He observed that if a bell rang before feeding a dog, after a while, even without the presence of food, the dog would still salivate in response to the bell ringing (stimulus and response). This connection between the bell sound, food, and salivation is known as classical conditioning.
Then, influenced by Pavlov's research, American psychologist Watson began applying this research to human learning. He believed that humans and animals are similar in their learning processes, and that shaping human learning only requires controlling stimuli and responses. According to Watson, the focus of research should be on observable external behaviors, while internal mental processes that cannot be observed are not subject to study. Watson can be considered a more radical master of behaviorism. He once stated, "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar and thief." He also conducted a highly controversial experiment in 1920 called the "Little Albert experiment," using infants as subjects. In this experiment, a furry toy was presented as a stimulus while simultaneously frightening the infant with a loud noise. As a response, the infant would cry. After several repetitions, just the sight of the furry toy would evoke fear and crying in the child, associating it with the loud noise. This experiment was deemed cruel, unethical, and received substantial criticism from many individuals.
There is also the experiment conducted by Thorndike with cats, where he placed the cats in cages with switches and observed how long it took for the cats to figure out how to escape. He found that with repeated attempts and practice, the cats became faster at escaping. Hunger or the presence of enticing food outside the cage also improved their performance in escaping. Thorndike later proposed the three laws of learning: the law of effect, the law of exercise, and the law of readiness. According to these laws, learning is effective when it leads to positive outcomes, involves repeated practice, and occurs when learners are prepared and ready. He also believed that rewards strengthen learning performance, while punishments have negative effects.
Another prominent behaviorist is Skinner, whose experiment with pigeons is also a classic example in textbooks. He designed a box where rewards (food) could be delivered at any time. When the experimental animals exhibited desired behaviors, such as spinning or pressing a lever, they would receive an immediate reward. Through this process, Skinner demonstrated how behaviors could be strengthened using rewards and even shaped new behaviors gradually (e.g., continuously spinning in the case of pigeons). This is known as operant conditioning.
After reading about the research related to behaviorist theories, you may have wondered, "Oh... these masters conducted their research with animals like dogs, cats, mice, and pigeons. How does this apply to human learning?"
As usual, that will be discussed later... ^^ (I'll write about it in my book XD)

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