Fundamentals of Educational Psychology

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Task One - Discuss behaviourist applications to education

Behaviourists use an approach to learning and education where they concentrate on pupils’ behaviour and, more specifically, changes in observable behaviour. This is in contrast to a more cognitive approach which focuses on inner thought processes. Focusing on observable behavioural changes is obviously important in the realm of education since teachers need to be able to see what students are doing and to identify the reasons for students behaving in the ways that they do. It is also helpful for the teacher to be able identify cues or precursors to students’ behaviours as well as to understand how consequences will affect their behaviour. This is the basis of behaviourist applications to education - they are interested in precursors, behaviours and consequences or outcomes. There are two main models of behavioural learning, which are called respondent conditioning and operant conditioning respectively. Lavond (2003) highlighted that the starting point for respondent or classical conditioning is an involuntary response to a stimulus. This is usually an innate behaviour that does not require specific though to demonstrate, and is usually an automatic response such as jumping at the sound of a loud noise. Respondent conditioning in the sense of stimuli and responses was initially investigated by Ivan Pavlov (1927) in his famous work with dogs. Pavlov observed that dog exhibited an unconditioned response (UR) of salivation to an unconditioned stimulus (US) of food. Pavlov measured the levels of the dogs’ salivation by attaching tubes to their mouths and initially found that the dogs eventually started to salivate when Pavlov walked into the room even before he gave them the food. He then conducted further studies with the dogs and found that by pairing a ringing bell (conditioned stimulus / CS) with the presentation of the food, the dogs eventually associated the bell with the food and salivated even when the bell was rung without food being given. This salivation after the bell ringing is referred to as the Conditioned Response (CR). In other words the dogs had displayed learning by association. There has been some evidence that classical conditioning can apply to human subjects as well (Hermans, Craske, Mineka & Lovibond, 2009; Watson & Raynor, 1920).

Operant conditioning is an approach to learning that contrasts quite sufficiently with classical conditioning. Operant conditioning focuses on learning of new behaviours as a result of consequences. Operant conditioning was studied by B.F. Skinner initially with rats, however Skinner also highlighted that humans have the potential to demonstrate operant learning (1936, 1948, 1988). Operant conditioning relies on the concepts of reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement has the potential to increase a desired behaviour by providing a desired stimulus once the behaviour has occurred (positive reinforcement) or removing an undesired stimulus once the behaviour has occurred (negative reinforcement). In contrast, punishment has the potential to reduce the frequency of an undesired behaviour by providing an undesired stimulus once an undesired behaviour has occurred (positive punishment) or by removing a desired stimulus once an undesired behaviour has occurred (negative punishment). This can obviously have practical applications in terms of education. For instance, token economies may be used such as giving gold stars to pupils for completing their reading tasks, with the gold star being the reinforcement and the reading being the desired behaviour, which is a practical application of positive reinforcement. There are almost limitless applications of behaviourism in the classroom, another example of which could be giving a consistently noisy pupils a set of lines to write as punishment for the noisy behaviour (positive punishment). It is clear then, that behaviourism does have a place within...
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