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Behavioral Learning Theories Applied

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Behavioral Learning theories Applied Education is quite the central focus in our current society. As the economy advances, education becomes of greater importance and our student’s future is strongly dependent on their educational opportunities. As many theorists have proven, there is no one way of teaching that targets an entire audience. Instead, every child has their own unique learning style that they respond best to. Any educator that takes on the responsibility of teaching must familiarize themselves with the different approaches so they observe the “No child left behind” act and fulfill their duty as a teacher.

The many different approaches to learning include Behavioral, Social Cognitive, Information Processing, Constructivist, and Brain-based. The behavioral approach is concerned primarily with measureable and observable aspects of human behavior (Good & Brophy, 1990).

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Behavioral learning theories focus on the ways in which pleasurable or unpleasant consequences of behavior change individuals’ behavior over time and ways in which individual model their behavior on that of others (Slavin 2006). The emphasis is put on responses to experiences, especially reinforcement and punishment, as determinants of learning and behavior.

The 4 prominent behaviorist and key players in the development of the behaviorist theory, that I like to relate to, were Watson, Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner. Pavlov’s main interest was physiology but it was the Classical Conditioning theory that made him so famous. Classical Conditioning is a learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus. Both Thorndike and Skinner- although differently expressed- delved into the formulation of Operant Conditioning.

Operant conditioning is a learning methodology that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. An association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior through operant conditioning. Skinner’s theory of Operant conditioning basically explains how we acquire our range of learned behaviors that we exhibit. If an individual’s behavior is immediately followed by pleasurable consequences, the individual will engage in that behavior more frequently (Slavin, pg. 137). The relationship between the behavior and its consequences is what later a learned behavior becomes.

Skinner mentions reinforcement, punishment, extinction and rewards as the mechanisms for his theory. All of these responses have a time and place where its effectiveness is at its peak. Knowing our students, knowing ourselves, knowing the situation, and knowing what we want our outcome to be will help us determine which approach to use. As maintained by the above behaviorists, our behaviors change in accordance to the immediate reaction/consequence. These immediate reactions are the secret weapon that teachers should master for optimal success in the classroom.

A teacher can observe and take note of the various responses her students respond best to. A teacher should constantly be asking herself “What serves as a motivation or reinforcement for this particular student to do well”? “Does the student utilize the Expectancy Theory”? The theory of motivation is based upon the belief that people’s efforts to achieve depend on their expectations of reward, or do they lean towards achievement motivation; the tendency to strive for success and to choose goal oriented, success/failure activities? There are countless responses that can work to motivate our students.

Although some students seem naturally enthusiastic about learning, many need that extra motivational factor to help them with their studies. Psychologists define motivation as an internal process that activates, guides, and maintains behavior over time (Murphy & Alexander, 2000; Pintrich, 2003; Schunk, 2000; Stipek, 2002. ) As a student, I was often motivated to do especially good work when I felt the teacher doubted my capabilities. I practiced the quote “I do it because I can, I can because I want to, I want to because you said I couldn’t”. That really pushed me to do well.

It may have been a childish but it worked for me. Personally, I had a hard time doing well under reinforcements be it negative or positive. The lack of consistency and the time lapse between the action and response never worked for me. If I were to utilize a token system or any other system (I. E. praise, charts etc.. ) I would review the pros and cons very carefully. I feel that employing such methods carelessly can produce destructive results. Observing a second grade class, I noticed the teacher exercising very harsh consequences to eliminate behaviors.

Indeed, her classroom was always spotless, and quiet. The student did not dare misbehave or not know their work for fear of punishment. Ultimately, these students lived in fear. They disliked the teacher, they disliked learning, and whatever they did learn was just to avoid punishment. Were they motivated to behave? Indeed. They were afraid of the consequences. Was the atmosphere an optimal learning environment? Most definitely not! It was at that point that I understood that employing Behavioral Learning Theories do not always produce favorable results.

When I was a short term substitute teacher, I had the opportunity to visit many classrooms over the period of a few months. When I entered the classroom with an air about myself and dressed well, the students automatically received the initial dose of motivation to behave and to please. I then continue to hold their interest by teaching in an unconventional manner or in any way that they are unaccustomed to. Teaching unconventionally is fairly simple in one of the schools I substitute. The simplicity of the teaching style has not changed from 20 years ago.

The teachers use the same old text-books, they practice “one teaching style fit all” methodology, just one teacher for the entire class, etc. When I enter a class, I ask them to rearrange their chairs so they are sitting in a semi-circle or in groups depending on the lesson. As the lesson continues, I try to avoid giving extrinsic motivation unless I feel the absolute need. I try to make the actual lesson the incentive. I praise after inquisitive questions and seem genuinely happy with correct responses.

It’s an aura that a teacher needs to create that will infuse a sense of ‘wanting to do well’, most frequently by the desire to please. I have frequently observed many teachers successfully pair less desired behavior with desired behaviors for great results which is referred to as the Premack Principle (Premack, 1965). One incident stands out in my mind when a third grade teacher told a student that if he completes his homework, he will be able to remove his name from the “completed homework” sign outside the classroom.

The teacher explained to me, that this particular student dislikes the fact that his name is up on the board, so she pairs doing homework with the favorable act of removing his name. Having his name on the board was supposed to be a reinforcement for doing homework, however Slavin mentions that if the behavior does not increase or decrease in frequency with the reinforcement than it is not necessarily a reinforcement (Slavin, 143). Behavioral Learning Theories are quite established and they are useful in changing behaviors. It is important to acknowledge however, that the theory has its limitation.

Mainly, because of its focus on observable behaviors, other more abstract and conceptual learning remains unspoken. However, Social Learning theory helps bridge the gap between the behavioral and cognitive prospective (Slavin, pg 159). —————————————————————————————————————————— Appendix: 1)Slavin, R. E. (2006). Educational psychology: Theory and practice (8th ed. ). Boston: Pearson. 2)Premack, D. (1965). Reinforcement theory. In D. Levine, Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: Univeristy of Nebraska Press.

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