The Analysis of Different Learning Theories


Social learning theories postulate that the human mind exhibits extensive scope in choosing certain behaviors over others (Bandura, 1977). Children develop the ability to think and rely on their skills by the problems they face in life, and the opportunities presented to them to overcome these problems productively. This reinforcement of achieving something successfully and fruitfully is the most powerful form of learning in human beings.

While reacting to situations, children employ composite psychological processes involving behaviorist doctrines in addition to several social attributes including moral values, ethics and worldly perceptions. Learning theorists identify this interaction of individuals and children which enables them to behave in particular ways, in the milieu of the environment in which they function (Bandura).

The belief system, which is an understanding of how the world functions, is a vital aspect in determining the manner in which children respond to situations. When the personal belief system of children, undergoes positive assimilation with behaviors in response to this system, children gain confidence over their comprehension processes which improves their chances of success. The feeling of competence or incompetence in children occurs through the social settings in which they function, for instance, a parent may motivate the child by telling her that she can achieve a complex task or a teacher reprimanding a child and calling her “useless and good for nothing” in class.

This paper aims to analyze different learning theories and how these theories make positive and negative impacts on the success and lack of success of children, in view of the social settings in which they function.

Behavioral Theory

Behavioral Learning Theory, one of the major learning theories, postulates the importance of learning through a systematic approach to bring about a “relatively permanent change” through “experience or practice” (Huitt & Hummel, 2006, p. #). According to this approach, positive and negative motivators can be used to yield specific responses in individuals. Essentially founded by John Watson and forwarded by the famous behaviorist B. F. Skinner, behaviorism refers to reflex psychology in which “behavior is controlled by its consequences” (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003, p. #).

Skinner gained immense popularity for his experiments with animals, such as rats and pigeons, with the help of which he proved his theories of negative and positive reinforcements to alter the behavior of living beings. It was through these successful experiments with pigeons that Skinner proved the importance of practice and reinforcement in the developmental processes of living organisms, and his ‘Schedules of Reinforcement’ became a major milestone in the domain of psychology (Dews, 1970; Karen, 1974).

Skinner’s model of conditioning and reinforcement is believed to be extremely useful in the domain of psychology in order to understand the different behavioral aspects of children, especially to bring about behavioral changes in them by using reinforcement techniques. Parents, teachers and counselors can work collaboratively to bring about certain desirable changes in children or students to change and alter those aspects of personality which may be negative and unacceptable. This alteration of behavior can be accomplished by introducing reinforcement techniques which are applied to alleviate undesirable behaviors and strengthen desired aspects of behavior through B. F. Skinner’s Classical Conditioning Theory.

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning was the foremost behavioral tradition to be explored, which is why it gets its name. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist, the major theorist associated with classical conditioning, found in his study of the digestive system of dogs, that, when hungry, the dogs would salivate when his assistants walked into the room. He investigated this phenomenon and trained the digs to respond by salivating to a ringing bell which in turn was associated with food.

Huitt and Hummel (2006) affirm the use of classical conditioning chiefly to condition the emotional behavior of students and children. The theory is based on previous experiences which elicit emotions of joy, sorrow, pain etc. which become the basis of all future responses to stimuli in later life as well. An excellent example of classical conditioning is a child feels bad at being harassed at school and therefore associates harassment and school and begins to elicit negative emotions when thinking of school (Huitt & Hummel, 2006). In order to eliminate the emotion of feeling bad with school, it is first necessary to remove the connection between harassment and school.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is the term used to denote the use of stimulus to help modify a certain behavior or response, and is extremely popular in the field of psychology. The study of operant conditioning was initiated by Edward L. Thorndike who he formulated the famous “Law of Effect” through his experimentions with cats to study their ability to escape from a puzzle box following several sessions of trial and.

According to Thorndike’s law,(1911) when many responses are made “to the same situation” those responses which are “followed by satisfaction to the animal” will result in firming the connection to the given situation (Thorndike, 1911). In this way, the Law of Effect came to be realized as the principle component of operant reinforcement which became the foundation of Behaviorism in the early part of the twentieth century.

Operant Conditioning is based on the processes of positive and negative reinforcement (which help in strengthening behavior), punishment and extinction to weaken behavior (Huitt & Hummel, 2007). The major theoretical concepts of operant conditioning are:

  • Positive reinforcement is a concept which is used to denote the occurrence of a behavior in response to a favorable or pleasurable stimulus (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). For instance, a favorable response being delivered to a dog such as giving food after the dog achieves a certain desired behavior such as pressing a bell.
  • Negative reinforcement is a concept which is used to denote the occurrence of a behavior in response to an unfavorable stimulus such as loud noise in the cage of a rat until it achieves the target behavior of pressing the lever of the cage (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003).
  • Punishment could be positive or negative. Positive punishment is the concept which is used to denote an aversive stimulus such as loud noise or shock which will result in the decrease in the undesirable behavior in the target (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). Negative punishment refers to the removal of a favorable stimulus such as the taking away of a sweet from a child if the behavior or response in a child is undesirable, with the intention of reducing or removing that undesirable behavior from the child.
  • Extinction is a concept which refers to the absence of a consequence or response after a behavior or stimulus has been provided (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). When a certain behavior or stimulus fails to produce any consequences, favorable or unfavorable, and leads to no reinforcement, the situation leads to extinction indicating no outcome from the stimulus provided.

The behaviorist approach has proven to be highly effective in the field of education with regard to learning. However, in order for the systematic approach to be successful, it is essential to ascertain the environment in which this systematic approach can take place. The three major objectives of behavioral learning are:

  • Learning has to be an observable phenomenon
  • Learning has to be a measurable phenomenon
  • Learning has to be in controllable environment/stimuli (Huitt, 2006).

There are several strategies that have been used in an effort to promote social competency in children. Behaviorists focus primarily on the reward system and positive praise to enable students to change their undesired behaviors. This is accomplished by repetition of similar tasks (reinforcement) until it is embedded in the students’ minds. Students learn appropriate responses by repetition and praise. Huitt and Hummel (2006) affirm that behaviorism still dominates formal education as well as our lives since as a society we are driven by positive praise through monetary gifts or awards for doing great jobs, and the field of education is no exception. Students are rewarded with grades and tools of recognition when a student they display academic and social competence. Critics however argue that the behavioral theory is not the good enough to promote higher level thinking (Glasser, 1998).

Application and usefulness of behavioral theories in classroom settings

In the modern world many of the behavioral theories would be applicable to extensive situations, beginning with parents who base the upbringing of their children on rewards and punishments. The operant theory of conditioning could prove to be highly beneficial to teachers in classrooms to bring about behavioral changes in students using reinforcement techniques. Teachers and parents can work together to bring about desirable changes in their children and students to change or alter those aspects of their personality which are negative or not acceptable and to create reinforcements techniques to initiate positive or acceptable behaviors.

Operant conditioning theory can be used to increase productivity and attendance in classrooms as well as workplaces. Reinforcement techniques may be applied to strengthen desired behaviors or reduce the undesired aspects. Thus, operant conditioning theory can be used to mould and alter aspects of behavior and bring about the desired changes in them.

Cognitive Theory

A second major learning theory which could prove to be beneficial for measuring the progress and social competency of students is the Cognitive Theory. Cognitive Theory studies how the mind works cognitively, in terms of how we think, learn and remember (Froggatt, 2006). As teachers, knowledge of these facts would therefore enable us to make healthier decisions and better equip us to help students. Furthermore, teachers can come up with enhanced social programs that will help students be better prepared to handle unforeseen problems. Learning the way individuals think can help improve the learn Process You use we and us. I think you need to use third person – individuals.

The cognitive model of learning bridges the gap between old and new information by expounding old information and how these skills can enable teachers to build confidence in students. The challenge however, is to re-program teachers so that they are able to focus on aspects of teaching other than memorization. It is difficult for many teachers to make choice of rote memorization and teaching for comprehension. Cognitive learners know how to assimilate their existing knowledge and structure their new material to build on what they know. When students use their preexisting knowledge and recognize current rules they are unable to solve new problems, thereby recognizing the need to obtain new information needed to build on the knowledge which they already posses (Froggatt, 2006).

There are however, some problems with this model of learning, primarily due to the importance of the teacher in filling the gaps with appropriate information so that students can take a leap from being novice to experts. Once a teacher has mastered this process of transmitting new knowledge based on the old knowledge of students, they are able to reach a higher level called Metacognition. Metacognition occurs when students develop the ability to know how to think (Froggatt, 2006) following which, students then develop the confidence to view themselves as problem solvers who have the mental ability to monitor and control their mental processes. Metacognition also enables students to gauge which method of learning to apply; memorization versus comprehension.

Social Cognition

Social Cognition is based primarily on the work of Albert Bandura, and draws from both Behavioral and Cognitive views of learning (Huitt, 2006). Bandura’s social learning theory postulates that people learn primarily from one another through observation and imitation which is followed by modeling. Bandura’s theory is often believed to be the bridge between behaviorist and cognitive theories of learning because of the inclusion of attention, memory and motivation.

Social learning theory is built on the premise that people learn primarily by observation and imitation of others’ behaviors and attitudes (Bandura, 1977). In order for learning and behavior modeling to occur optimally, certain conditions are necessary which include:

  • Attention: observation of the environment requires an individual to be attentive to the surroundings.
  • Retention: this is the process of remembering what has been seen and observed
  • Reproduction: the image which has been observed and remembered is reproduced by the observer, and this is also a form of imitation.
  • Motivation: is a good reason for the observed and practiced behavior to be adopted by the individual and is based on prior knowledge and experiences connected to that behavior which are pleasant.

Social learning theory is emphasizes the importance of social learning and its impact on the environment in which individuals function. In order for a change to occur in the learner, the mind, behavior and environment must function together in unison (Huitt, 2007).

Bandura (1977) demonstrated his findings with his “Bobo doll” experiment in which he used 3 to 6 year olds to show that there would be a change in behavior by watching others (not necessary) (p. #). Three groups of children watched a film on aggressive behavior which was then modeled on the playground with three different endings. The first ending used praise when a child conducted a wrong behavior; the second ending used punishment for wrong behavior, while the third ending included no consequences for wrong behavior or action. The findings were significantly higher with the boys in the model group who went unpunished or praised as opposed to the children who faced consequences for their actions.

The girls’ model group showed an increase in aggressive behavior with unpunished or praised for aggressive behavior, but a significant decrease in violent behavior was reported in those children who were punished for wrong behavior. Through this and other experiments, Bandura concludes that a person is influenced by the environment and can influence others in a positive or negative way in the environment (Huitt, 2007)

Examining the applicability of the behavioral cognitive models to teachers, a study was conducted by Christensen, Young and Merchant (2007) to study the effects of an intervention plan on appropriate classroom behavior of socially withdrawn, Hispanic children who were third grade students with learning disability. The authors investigated the effects of peer mediation and behavioral intervention plan to affirm the social validity of the assessment and intervention process (Christensen et al., 2007). The investigation revealed “marked improvement” in a socially withdrawn student with regard to socially apposite behavior in the classroom and completion of academic work.

The study revealed the fact that training and development of teachers, to train and alter the behavior of children in classroom to make it socially appropriate, would be tremendously expensive since intervention would be needed at the all levels of school administration to make school teachers aware of and train them to initiate this kind of behavioral action and intervention.

In order to meet the needs of diverse students hailing from distinct cultures and communities, teachers need additional professional knowledge and development to cater to the emotional and behavioral needs of students, and to intervene early so that optimal results can be obtained (Christensen et al., 2007). If educators have the skills and expertise to identify at-risk students at early stages, appropriate intervention strategies will reduce more students from being placed in special education programs.

Choice Theory

The third major theory of learning is the Choice Theory which postulates that individuals are held accountable for the choices they make in life and these choices reflect how individuals view the world and the role they play in life. The founder of this theory, William Glasser, decided to stop practicing the ideology of Freudian Theory and conceptualized the Choice Theory. While working with delinquent girls, Glasser (1965) discovered that one of the major problems was how the girls perceived themselves.

Glasser saw that what the girls needed to be given more responsibility and accountability for their behavior. This concept of motivation through responsibility and accountability fulfilled a certain need and Glasser decided to focus on the importance of love and belonging which he realized were two primary goals which people strive to obtain throughout their lives (Glasser).

According to William Glasser (1965) and his Choice Theory, all people are born with five basic needs:

  1. The need to survive.
  2. The need to belong.
  3. The need to gain power.
  4. The need to be free.
  5. The need to have fun.

Examples of survival needs include eating healthy, exercising regularly, being responsible in taking care of things to maintain a standard of living for instance, paying bills on time. The second basic need for love and belonging could include the need for fellowship, to be nurtured and a sense of belonging. Wubbolding (2000) states that if a person’s survival needs are met, then the desire for love and belonging will be a priority. Glasser (1998) feels much strongly about the connection between survival needs and intimacy and states that forming relationships which fulfill the need of love and belonging are important since these are the key components that determine healthy and unhealthy relationships. Glasser believed that without the fulfillment of this need it is difficult to satisfy other four basis needs.

The need for power is fulfilled through accomplishment and competence when one feels a need to be recognized through hard work and dedication. The opinions and reactions of others are important in this process as it causes a person to strive for power in a responsible manner or an irresponsible manner. An example of gaining power in a responsible manner is when goals are accomplished without endangering the welfare of others for instance ins schools, students must strive to achieve best grades without cheating because this would be unfair to other students.

The need fun is defined by Wubbolding (2000) as a feeling of pleasure that is invigorating. According to Glasser (1998) the need for “fun is the genetic reward for learning” (p. 41) and through fun individuals learn how to interact with their peers. Children learn what is acceptable and unacceptable, and discover valuable lessons on the playground, such as their likes and dislikes through their interaction with other children.

Teenagers learn important lessons of dealing with complex relationships through the ability to have fun. The need for freedom is based on humans desire to be happier when free rather than living under dictatorship and this need initiates as early as infancy. Infants desire to explore their surroundings without any restraints and as they grow older, they choose their own friends and careers (Glasser, 1988).

Choice theory opposes the way students are taught and emphasizes that much of what is taught has no significance to the real world (Glasser, 1998). Describing teaching in the context of schooling, it is for the betterment of students and if students rebel against the system they are punished with bad grades. Thus, schooling illustrates the practice of forcing students to acquire knowledge that has no relevance to their mental picture. Glasser points this as the primary reason for the fact that students are unable to work to their full potential because they are forced to learn things that have no meaning to them. He also asserts that most of what is taught in schools does not prepare them for the real world.

Glasser (1998) feels that there is little value in knowing a bunch of facts; however, there is much to gain by using what has been taught. He states that if schools could manage to switch their focus from rote learning to preparing students for the real world, children would be able to see the real value of what is being taught. Glasser is also of the firm view that much of the data which students are expected to memorize is information that is not beneficial to them and hence will never be used. He feels that education is worth the effort only if it is attached to learning something that can be improved upon. Hence, teachers must first learn how to teach students and how to use and improve on their knowledge.

Glasser (1998) provides the example of students’ inclination towards sports rather than academics in which a crucial factor of teaching involved improvement. It is therefore necessary for teachers to bear in mind that knowledge about good and bad behavior is useless unless they can educate students to use this knowledge effectively, later in their lives. As such, it is necessary to overcome a system of education which dictates to one that stresses on acquiring and utilizing useful knowledge. The challenge is that while there may be numerous teachers who affirm Glasser’s theory, with standardized test that measure students and teachers’ performance it would be difficult to change the existing education system.

Glasser also endorses the view of universal education which forces students to come to school regardless of whether or not their needs are being met. He states that schools, as institutions of learning, must change their views to better support social world views. A primary fault of the current education system is that schooling has confused many students regarding the purpose of education and has in a way discouraged them. Through the modern system of education, teachers should endorse the practice of nurturing love for lifelong learning students as opposed to the present system which is killing the students’ love for learning.

Educators must recognize that students need change and must accordingly find what works with them and upgrade and later their lessons according to the students’ needs and understanding of the world. The tremendous reduction in tests scores from the elementary to high schools is an indicator of the fact that the schools are not able to meet the educational needs of students.

In conclusion, it can be affirmed that majority of the theorists, realize the need for a paradigm shift in the education system and stress on the importance of social and environmental factors of motivation in teaching. Teachers can no longer teach without taking into consideration the positive and negative motivators for children and must employ methods which would be most beneficial for children and carefully set up the environment that would allow that child to succeed.

Behavioral theory emphasizes improvement through reinforcement and motivation to improve the behavior of children, while the cognitive theory stresses on observational and motivational learning to improve behavioral outcomes in children and students, so that they develop the ability to adjust to a variety of situations in life. Choice theory obliges teachers to teach in an environment in which students are part of the learning process and instruction is student centered rather than teacher centered. This would enable students to practice their social skills in the classroom and better equip them to utilize these skills in the environment in which they function.


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