My purpose of this study is to get a better understanding of behaviour and the various approaches and strategies that have evolved over the years and their effective application to make learning more meaningful and successful

My purpose of this study is to get a better understanding of behaviour and the various approaches and strategies that have evolved over the years and their effective application to make learning more meaningful and successful. I will be exploring and evaluating two theories of educational psychology, under the behaviorist approach.

Predominately, the principle theories of behaviour and their main core, can be characterized as per this table:

Theoretical approach Principles of the theory Theorist
Maturation Evolution and growth happen in orderly phases and sequence. The individual genetic timetable affects the degree of maturation. Arnold Gesell
Psychodynamic Behaviour is controlled by insensible needs. Three components of the mind are id, ego and superego. Sigmund Freud
Psychosocial Personality grows in eight stages throughout a lifetime. Development is inclined through interactions with family, friends and culture. Jean Piaget
Lev Vygotsky
Cognitive Qualitative deviations in the way children reflect. The child is considered an energetic learner going through stages. Erik Erikson
Behaviorist Learning is steady and continuous. Development is an order of specific conditional behaviours. Main importance is on the environment, not inheritance. Noticeable behaviours are considered most vital. John Watson
BF Skinner
Albert Bandura
Ecological Balance between nature and nurture. Child is positioned in the middle of concentric factors which all effect the child. Emphasis is positioned both on environment and heredity. Uri Bronfenbrenner
Information processing theory We all have an inborn learning ability. Children are born with particular information processing capabilities that enable them to figure out the structure of development. Noam Chomsky

Behaviorism is a theory focusing on objectively observable behaviours, while not taking into account mental activities. Behaviour theorists thus define learning as an observable or quantifiable change in behaviour through the “universal learning process” known as conditioning. There are two types of conditioning, classical and operant, each of which yields different behavioural patterns. To make learning and teaching effective, we need to understand the elements of behaviour specifically the aspects of humanism, behaviourism and cognitivism, and how they can support effective teaching and learning. D.C. Phillips & Jonas F. Soltis, Perspectives on Learning, Chapter 3. Teachers College Press.(

Cognitive development lays emphasis on inner mental activities. It is a theory about the nature and expansion of human intelligence. It is recognized as a developmental stage theory. It deals with the nature of information itself and how people come slowly to obtain construct and use it. Cognitive pupils absorb by constructing evidence from their involvements and what they already know. Cognitive learners learn mainly by problem-solving activities. According to Piaget: Behaviour of the human organism starts with the organization of sensory-motor responses and becomes brighter so as coordination between the reactions to objects which becomes gradually more interrelated and complex. (S Knowles, Pg 31:2005)

Behaviorists regard all behaviour as a response to stimuli. They state that what we do is influenced by the situation we are in that additionally causes us to evaluate our past environment and the response to the stimuli in specific ways. Pavlov states that Behaviourism is the connotation or combination of an incentive with a response.

Humanism focuses on the human independence, dignity and potential. The learner learns by realizing their own potential and building on this. This is in contrast to the behaviorist concept of operative conditioning, which contends that all behaviour is the outcome of the application of consequences. Abraham Maslow sees the goal of learning to be self-actualization. (Knowles: Pg 14:2005). A humanist behaviour is where the learner has reached the top.

Behaviorists believe that people have no free will and that a person’s environment determines their behaviour and that psychology must be both scientific and objective in order to gain validity. They consider that there is little difference between humans and animals; therefore research can be conducted on animals as well as humans (Moxon 2003).

Pavlov’s ideas of classical conditioning fitted perfectly with Watson’s quest to make psychology become more scientific as Pavlov’s experiments could be easily replicated. Watson decided to apply the process of classical conditioning to human behaviour and in doing this he became the first psychologist to ever do so (Roth 2000).

Classical conditioning provides us with the knowledge that we learn by association and helps explain behaviours such as phobias; however, it is a reductionist theory whereby everything is reduced down to the simple association between behaviour and the environment, as opposed to internal events like thinking and emotion.
Classical conditioning does have practical applications such as aversion therapy and behavioural therapy to decrease the arousal and attraction to certain stimuli; however, results are mixed and there can be issues with ethics (Gross, 2006).

B F Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory

The basic principle on which Skinner’s theory is poised, is that learning is a purposeful change in behaviour and the consequences of behaviour lead to a change in the probability of re-occurrence of behaviour (Skinner, 1953). The term ‘operant’ in Skinner’s theory was included to distinguish between reflexes and responses operating directly on the environment (Skinner 193 as cited in Skinner, 1963,505) and to articulate the stimulus -response (S-R) pattern that was delineated by Skinner (Dinsmoore, 2004). An individual’s behaviour or response (R), leads to some occurrence in the environment. In the operant terminology, this reaction is labeled as stimulus (S).

The central element of Skinners theory is all about reinforcers, which is a stimulus that strengths the response it follows. Rewarding for behaving in a specific way, and further reinforcing it, strengthens the response (Skinner 1963). It is considered as the most widely used concept in behaviour analysis (Northup, Vollmur & Serrett, 1993). Reinforcement can sustain and alter behaviour and its outcomes.

Reinforcers are both natural and contrived; natural reinforcers are uncontrived consequences to behaviour for example, relief in resolving a tricky problem or a sense of accomplishment, of advancing to the next level. Whilst contrived reinforces are impositions with the purpose of promoting desirable behaviour when natural reinforces aren’t effective or sufficient enough to encourage the desired behaviour. Although there are certain reinforcers, which are negative or positive, which can be possible contingencies to sustain behaviour (Iwata ; Worsdell 2005). Positive reinforcers are concrete, activity and social reinforcers.

Concrete reinforcers are tangible. Activity reinforcers are activities the student likes to engage in. Social reinforcers are when a student receives a gesture that communicates approval. In fact, many studies show that much troublesome behaviours are sustained by social consequences (Iwata et al 1982/1994). The Premack Principle in planning programs for behaviour change is recommended, which identifies the reinforcers that will be effective (Schunk et al 2008). Therefore, it is important for teachers to engage with the students to familiarize themselves with their preferences and utilize them as rewarding activities.

Positive reinforcement is used widely in the Education system whilst negative reinforcement can have adverse effects on the child’s development and learning process and can create long inundated impressions. Skinner’s theory helped to develop the emphasis on the experimental methods, which made psychology more credible as a scientific discipline; however, he was only concerned with observable behaviour and was not interested in the consciousness or internal mental processes.

Whilst engaging in discussions with the students, a teacher is able to identify what might work with them and help in creating a task reward program, which is reciprocal in nature to make teaching more effective and create desirable outcomes. It’s important that teachers praise the students on the occurrence of positive behaviours and on completion of tasks. In order to make reinforcement effective, a certain choices should be made available to the students, which could be in the form of tokens. The major advantage of this system is that it can be administered easily either on a one-on-one basis or in groups (Schloss & Smith 1998).

Another strategy is the contingency contracting, which is a contract that outlines the academic or behavioural expectations and consequences thereof, as per Miller & Kelley 1994 and Brooke & Ruthven 1994. It has been proven that contingency contracting has been effective in boosting academic performance and modifying misbehavior. It is a more involved approach, which is an engagement between the teacher and the student, which gives the student a sense of ownership and commitment. Although the downside of this is the effort needed to develop and monitor the contract.

Skinner’s evaluation and research has contributed a great deal to use of behavioural objectives to ensure accountability, positive reinforcement and praise to encourage learning, such as the use of time out and token economics to manage classroom behaviour (Morris 2003: Schunk et al 2008).

Although the use of positive reinforcements has positive effects on behaviour, they have to be used judiciously, as overuse can cause a student’s disinterest in engaging in the activities. Behavioral theorists contend that being involved in a task stems from an individual’s free will, and then a change in behaviour is due to reinforcements without any negative effects (Rassuli, 2011).

The application of Skinner’s theory can be applied to varied settings and his impact on fields of applied behavioural analysis, psychology and education has impacted significantly. Critics have argued that an apparent emphasis on controlling or manipulating behaviour as well as Skinner’s delineation of the fact that how a child’s thoughts or feelings can influence behaviour (Crain, 2011).


Bandura’s Social cognitive theory asserts that much of human learning occurs in social environments and the reciprocal relationship between environments. Cognitive and behavioural factors play an important role in learning and motivation.

Reciprocal causation suggests that human functioning is a result of an interaction among personal factors (P), behaviour (B) and the environment (E) (Bandura’s 1989, 1997; 2006; 2009). Personal factors refer to cognitions, perceptions, expectations, personal attributes as to how we explain our success and failures, and the sense of self-efficacy and confidence we hold to achieve success at tasks. Behavioural factors refer to the responses, behaviours and activities we choose to engage in and the environmental factors refer to the company we live, the advice and feedback we get, and the socially acceptable rules and etiquettes within our society.

Observational learning is about adapting new behavioural patterns, knowledge and skill by observing people who are either alive or notional characters who are of some repute and stature and are influential (Bandura 1986,1997; 2006). The basic social cognitive principle is that learning doesn’t always result in change of behaviour, however, if there is an incentive, then the change is evident. As per Bandura (1986, 1997) there are four processes of observational learning i.e. attention, retention, production and motivation.

Attention is to acquire new behaviour or skills via observational learning, by paying attention to the model and the distinct features of the modeled behaviour (Bandura 1986; 1997). Models that we are likely to emulate are people of prestige and competence, having some preconceived similarity to the observer, wherein the focus and attention is on the utilitarian aspect of behaviour. Retention is organizing, coding and memorizing information in our minds, it is facilitated by the symbolic transformation of information into codes and cognitive rehearsal of that information (Bandura 1997). Production is the transformation of symbolic concepts into appropriate actions (Bandura 1986; 1997). It is the replication or enactment of the behaviour stored in our memory. Motivation is the process wherein learned or not learned behaviour shall be put to use (Bandura 1986:1997). We should want to perform that behaviour that is perceived to be utilitarian and expect to receive some reward or recognition. Alternatively, if the expectation is punishment or negative then it’s unlikely to imitate that behavioral pattern.

Modeling affects or influences behaviour particularly in three ways: observational learning, inhibition and disinhibition. In observational learning, the observer can learn new behaviour or cognitive skills after watching them being modeled (Bandura 1986; 1997; 2006). Children emulate their parent’s behaviours, including vocabulary words. For teachers, it’s important to be a role model as their students observe the teachers to learn new skills. Inhibition and disinhibition modeling can affect the frequency of previously learned behaviours.

Modeling can be purposeful to strengthen or weaken inhibitions for behaviours previously learned, since it conveys the probable consequences of enacting that behaviour (Bandura 1986). Behaviour may be discouraged when a student observes being punished or previously inhibited behaviour can be encouraged, when the student observes that the behaviour doesn’t result in adverse consequences, which can lead the student to engage in undesirable behaviour.

Inhibitory and disinhibitory effects are evident when it involves behaviour with moral overtones (Schunk 2012). Behaviour of others can serve as a social cue for previously learned behaviour (Bandura 1986). Students may learn new behaviours, but aren’t particularly motivated to perform those behaviours. Response facilitation is not some behaviour that isn’t new to the student nor it is deviant.

In order to make observational learning more effective, the models depicted should be of competence and have some perceived similarity to the students in order to demonstrate valued and relevant behaviour (Bandura 1986, 1997; Schunk et al 2008). Since students emulate models of repute, competence and perceived similarity, they can relate to these models as well as cope or gauge their inherent capability. Therefore, it’s important for teachers to gain and maintain students’ attention and demonstrate and convey the meaningfulness and practical utility of skills. More importantly, teachers should create a value system in the students by demonstrating enthusiasm, respect for human diversity, open mindedness and empathy for others.

Modeling can overcome incorrect stereotypes by exposing students to positive mentors from a variety of ethnical and socioeconomic backgrounds, to bring about diversity in thought and increase in social development skills through peer modeling or symbolic modeling. By pairing students in classrooms, you create opportunities for cooperative learning; it also serves as a vicarious source of influence on students, which creates self-efficacy. Symbolic models are useful to validate academic concepts or social development skills and facilitate the thought of believing in one’s own capability (Bandura, 1997).

The basis of self-efficacy is self-esteem and self-concept, wherein self-esteem is the evaluative component of the efficacy reflecting the specific estimate of one’s capability to succeed. Self-concept is the descriptive part of the self that reflects your own understanding. These are important influencers on one’s behaviour, motivation and the outcomes thereof.

Although the theory is described as a learning theory, it doesn’t account for age related changes that occur during the development cycle of the child (Miller 2011, Santrock 2011, Thomas 2005). It highlights the situational and motivational influences on learning and behaviour, and as to how we look at behaviours, within our own cognitive and personal factors and how the environment plays an important role in influencing the way we behave or react. As an academic model it serves the purpose of nurturing students, creating self-regulation and encouragement.

When planning lessons, I ensure tasks are relevant. Additionally, all learners have an equal opportunity to ask questions, if needed. Further, I create different settings for the children to work alone, in pairs or in groups. Ensuring that the children have the right resources and the relevant equipment, while planning and delivering lessons. Learners need a combination of activities to help them learn. Knowing and understanding the learning styles through varied activities such as interactive tools, worksheets, discussions, giving homework and individual research, can achieve the desired results. Learning should be structured so that students feel motivated through praise and constructive feedback, so that they are engaged and participative in learning.