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Behaviourist Theory And Cognitive Theory Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3049 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In tackling this question one could tentatively agree or disagree with the statement. One could argue that cognitive learning theories are more useful than behaviorist theories but in reality both school of thoughts are very much relevant for modern organizations since they both have strengths and weaknesses. However, the assignment attempts to evaluate which of the two theories of learning are more useful to an HR practitioner.

Both the behaviourist and cognitive theories of learning should be looked at, to serve as an umbrella term, which incorporate other learning theories. Thus although this essay will look at which between cognitive and behaviourist theories of learning suits best HR practitioner, this is very debateable since the latter theories are questionable and not exclusive.

Cognitive Theory

Rogers (2002) in his paper on the nature of learning, is of the opinion that learning has a multifaceted connecting factors – “including the learner, the context of learning, the learning task itself and the processes involved”. (Rogers, 2002: 85).

In addressing the question, which put direct focus on two main theories of learning, it would be wise that we swerve our attention of what does these learning theories entail. The first approach we will be looking at is the cognitive approach, in which theorists are mainly concerned about looking at the mental processes through which persons learn, perceive, and addresses inward phenomena such as memory, attention, concept learning, problem solving, and reasoning. (CLMS, M 1 U 1; 2011:20). It suggests that people learn selectively, meaning they do not retain everything observed or read.

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Most of the work in cognitive theories stems from the work of Wertheimer, Köhler, Koffka, and Lewin, four prominent Gestaltists. It mostly influenced by the developmental psychology of Piaget. Broadly, according to Beckett and Hager (2002) cognitive theory is mostly interested in how individuals understand matters around them. Thus this theory is also interested in aptitude and learning styles, which after giving a brief overview on behaviourist theories; we will look at different learning styles from different approaches, which are of different use to an HR practitioner.

Some theorists consider Cognitive Theories of learning as to render a mental change rather than an alteration in an individual’s behaviour. From a cognitive learning perspective, learning involves, transforming informa­tion in the environment into knowledge that is eventually stored in an individual’s mind, which according to Winograd (1975) distinguish between what he identifies as ‘declarative knowledge’ and ‘procedural knowledge’. This means that learning occurs when new knowledge is acquired or existing knowledge is modified by experience. Brotherton (1991) in his studies applied Vygotskian approaches. Schon [cited in Eraut, 1994] gives us significant work on reflective practice. His philosophy has been accepted through many programmes including training programmes. Schon introduces the ‘reflection-in-action’ term which he defines as the capability that professionals has to think about something they are doing whilst doing it. However, Eraut (1994) identifies that time is significant whilst an individual is reflecting on his/her own action. This will allow the individual more deliberating time that in the absence of less reflective time could have a bad influence on that reflection. As Eraut (1994) pointed out “reflection [be] best seen as a metacognitive process”. CLMS (2011, M1 U1) suggests that “mapping of metacognitions could lead to the training of thinking skills.” Sternberg (1985) offers the ‘componential theory model’ that shows two main components mainly the higher-order and lower-order (CLMS M1 U1:23).

Behaviourist Theory

We will now turn our attention and look at the behaviourist theories. Learning aims at changing an individual’s behaviour (Rogers, 2002). CLMS (2011) argues that behaviourist theories consider that through observing objectively individuals behaviour, one can become more knowledgeable about the process of learning. When discussing behaviourist theory one cannot not mention John B. Watson who was a pioneer in further developing the latter theory. Watson mainly built his work around Ivan Pavlov observations. His findings helped him to develop the process of classical conditioning. The idea of psychology posited by Watson (cited in Tennant, 2006) is that it should study the behaviour of a person and not the mental events. According to Watson, the mind is “inaccessible and unobservable” (cited in Tennant, 2006). Rogers (2002), observes that behaviourist theories look at the learner as submissive. Behaviour is learnt through environmental influences and not biological influences. Environmental influences are learning which are stereotypical (Rogers, 2002).

In his Chapter 7 from Psychology and Adult Learning, Tennant argues that Behaviourist approach to learning was and will continue to be tested under a laboratory setting and thus learning will be objectively measured. To elicit some examples we can mention Pavlov’s (1927) experiments who used animals in laboratory environment and Skinner (1938) who is well known for his ‘Skinner Box’ (Tennant, 2006). The latter is of the opinion that the latter researchers were both interested in looking at the reinforcement of behaviours and in which both used a stimulus and response method in their work. Thorndike (1914) is of the opinion that “behaviour that is rewarded is likely to recur, while behaviour that is punished will be suppressed” (CLMS, M1 U1: 13). Skinner is of the same opinion of Thorndike and thus explains how a behaviour – reward – consequence (result) works through one’s individual environment. As it is suggested by Skinner (cited in Tennant, 2006), rewards are given to reinforce ones’ behaviour and penalties to discourage certain behaviours. A significant argument put forward by CLMS (CLMS, M1 U1) is the criticism of such important work carried out by Skinner and other behaviourist theorists. It is argued that Skinner’s work was limited to the use of animals as substituting human beings in an attempt to further explore human behaviour (Braginsky and Braginsky, 1974). They did not contest the fact that Skinner focused on using animals during his work but his laboratory use, which is “artificial and tightly controlled” (Tennant, 2006: 96). This is, according to Braginsky and Braginsky (1974), considerably different from what happens in real life.

Having briefly considered the historical ideas of learning from a behaviourist point of view it is worth underlining Mead’s work in this part of the essay who “sought to make connections both with human consciousness and with the social relations they form with others” (CLMS, M1 U1: 18). Building on the work of Skinner, his ideas although they acknowledge the importance of behaviourist theories, through his theory he manages to “offer[s] a way of linking ‘action’ with ‘mind’…” (CLMS, M1 U1: 18). ‘Social behaviourism’ is a view coined by Mead to refer to his ideas and thus moving away from the facts posited between behaviourism and cognitive theories (CLMS, M1 U1). In Burkitt’s work, it is noticeable how Mead work rejects both the behaviourist attempt to consider the mind solely in terms of physiology and neurology and the traditional view of the mind that is separate from the body. As previously mentioned Mead agrees that from a behaviourist point of view we can explain mind behaviourally and view it as functioning naturally with human individuals (Burkitt, 1995).

Moving through Mead’s views of the link between action and mind it is now important to consider the work of Vygotsky and his views of learning. While Mead suggests that the mind and body are part and parcel, this implies that an HR practitioner should look at individuals as a whole person. On the other hand, many of the works of Vygotsky intertwine with that of Mead, as put forward in CLMS that “Vygotsky sought to offer a theory that made connections between mind and action” (M1 U1: 25). Amongst the main issues, that Vygotsky he has discussed and studied the importance to examine the developmental changes about children thinking. Vygotsky sees cognitive functions, to be affected by what he called ‘cultural tools’, values and beliefs. These could be better assessed from the culture that a person grows in. Thus, these tools vary from culture to culture (CLMS M1 U1). Vygotsky’s work helped us more to understand the cognitive development theories and to understand that “process of development is not restricted to childhood but continues throughout life” (CLMS M1 U1: 26). An essential important work in the Vygotskian approach is that learning takes place through one’s own individual development learning or else through the help of other peers or adult guidance. Vygotsky referred to this two-level gap difference as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He argues that if teachers make use of problem solving exercises these can assist less knowledgeable learners within their ZPD. Vygotsky believed that when an individual is at the ZPD of a particular task, when provided with the appropriate assistance, which Vygotsky refers to as ‘scaffolding’ will have the ‘scaffolding’ removed and subsequently learners can perform that task on their own initiative in the future, which will in turn become part of their own actual developmental level.

It can be seen from the above theoretical input how the importance of cognitive theories of learning are more highlighted particularly by Vygotsky who give importance to learning which is continuous and not seeing learning as something static. Actually, Lave and Wenger’s development of the situated learning notion is related to Vygotsky’s concept of learning through social development. Lave and Wenger are of the opinion that participation is part of the learning process and is set in activity, context, and culture (social situations) and which is generally unintentional rather than planned learning. It is in this aspect that the concept of ‘communities of practice’ is learnt, whereas situated learning according to Evans and Rainbird [in CLMS M1 U2:24] “is not restricted to the world, work, work or life environment but also to situations beliefs and values”, AND in which its essential components are social interaction and collaboration (CLMS M1 U2).

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In concluding this section, where a brief presentation of the two main theories of learning and pointing out some of their important issues, it is now appropriate that we now start identifying some strengths and weaknesses emerging from both behaviourist learning theories and cognitive learning theories. It was important to look at these theories because it will eventually help to conclude which of these theories can be of more use to and HR practitioner.

Strengths and weaknesses

The Behaviourist theories sole focus of learning is on the observation, manipulation of behaviour and it fails to treat any underlying causes for such behaviour, and thus one can argue that this behaviour is likely to repeat itself after a period of time. It has been argued by CLMS that one cannot disregard the individual’s social environment, something which behaviourist theories of learning does (CLMS M1 U1). Behaviourist theories are also seen to have a reductionist attitude since it considers human behaviour as mechanical and simply the product of stimulus-response. It ignores human beings’ complex thought processes and emotions. Behaviourist theories of learning’s principles were only tested on animals, which this could not necessarily apply to human behaviour, which behaviour is much more complex. Elsewhere other theorists have argued that learning can be understood throughout diverse aspects however on cannot ignore cognitive factors, something that behaviourists did. This approach does not seem adequate for HR practitioners since it does not perceive individuals as capable to learn on their own. Workplace learning is a very debatable issue because the idea of learning is instilled “as a process that takes place within formal education institutions…” (CLMS 2011, M1 U3:5).

On the other hand, cognitive theories of learning emphasize conscious thinking and are able to present a positive analysis of cognitive development. These theories especially Vygotsky’s, emphasises the individuals active construction of how understanding takes place (CLMS M1 U1). From CLMS (2011) views, learning theory is perceived as the process of learning which takes place within an individual and this is done to give meaning to life experiences.

Given this brief overview of the strengths and weaknesses of both learning theories, it is now optimal to understand which of these learning theories can be of more use to an HR practitioner, if in fact they are and even propose new learning theories keeping in mind their relevance to HR practice. On one hand, learning in Human Resources Development has more often than not posed different challenges. One cannot argue that one theory of learning is better than the other, however behaviourist theories started to be less recognizable since according to CLMS (M1 U1:15) “organisations began to change”. Whilst organisations and production lines where changing their designs, as in workers working in groups and having multi-tasking personnel, cognitive processing was seen to be more effective and that could be of more help to workers who are becoming more skilled and thus having problem-solving skills is considered as an asset. (CLMS, M1 U1). This type of rationale is not something that is endorsed by the behaviourist theories of learning.

If one looks at the social theory of learning developed by Bandura (1977) whose focus was more on the observation through cognitive processes, individuals’ learning can take place through observing others, however it is not necessarily the case that an individual imitate that learning stance. Similarly, to Bandura’s work one finds also Lave and Wenger [cited in Lee, T. et al, 2004] who from their end argue that an individuals’ learning process happens through ones’ participating in communities of practice. They also look at this process as involving the person as a whole. It is elsewhere argued that workplace learning posit a constant challenge to HR practitioners since workplace learning has been recognised as “naturally occurring” (CLMS M1 U3:5) especially by cognitive theories of learning as suggested in previous arguments above.

Workplace learning can be an easy catch for many practitioners since it can be pointed out that there is no need for alternative training since learning can easily take place at work. We can attempt to disagree with this hypothesis whilst referring to Ashton et al’s (2005) study through small-medium sized enterprises in which they argue that once organisations has an increase in employees it is wise to formalise training which in turn will ease communication between managers vis-à-vis the larger workforce [cited in CLMS, M1 U3:11]. This takes us to the next argument, that of formal or informal learning environments. Pioneering in this argument are Billet (2002) and Colley, Hodkinson and Malcolm (2003). Billet (2002) is not in favour of labelling ‘informal’ learning that takes place through work. Both Billet (2002) and Colley et al (2003) agree that formal and informal learning should be looked at as if they are one sole type of learning not as something different. Colley et al (2003) argue that most learning situations should be looked at as both have formal and informal learning as constituents. On the other hand, Becket and Hager (2001), and Eraut et al (1999) have opposing ideas to the opinion posited by Billet (2002) and Colley et al (2003). They both argue that both formal and informal learning are different from each other. Eraut et al (1999) in their review of the manager’s impact on learning at work consider that a mix of both formal and informal learning is found in most of the organisations he studied. They also argue that formal learning although there were times when it was believed to be the main source for workers learning should not supersede informal learning. Clarke (2004) argues that workplace learning and informal learning are on the increase and organisations are doing their utmost to support such learning. Supporting this are the findings from Clarke study where he established an increase use of informal learning within the organisations he studied. Fuller et al (2003) however in their report emphasises the fact that most of the learning that takes place in peoples’ lives, normally happens within non-formal settings, away from what they call “‘formal’ education” (Fuller et al, 2003). Fuller et al report shows that the type of learning provided, also depends on the type of organisation since there are organisations that due to their set-up it might necessitate to have certain type of learning.

However, it is important not only to look at these latter theories but also to introduce other learning theories that can be of help for an HR practitioner in helping individuals and organisations in their learning process.

It is in this light that HR practitioner should look at learning in an organisation. Learning should be looked at as something that is procedural and Vygotsky’s perspective is one, which is worth to consider in relation to the work of Brookfield (1986) and Kolb’s learning cycle (1984) in which the experiential learning theme was developed.


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