In the competitive market of digital learning solutions, it’s easy for providers to fall into the trap of ignoring the sound theories of the past and only give their users a taste of the flavour of the month. Here at CDSM, however, we draw on a range of theories – from the past and the present – to form the method and practice behind our e-learning. In the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of posts looking at the various learning theories that make up our ‘pedagogy’. First up: Behaviourism.
What is Behaviourism?
Have you ever heard of Pavlov’s Dogs, Skinner’s Rats or Thorndike’s Cats? All of these theorists focused on how animals learned to behave in certain ways as a result of changes to their environments.
Emerging in the early part of the 20th century, behaviourism quickly became the main theory relating to how learning takes place. The theory is largely based on the results of experiments in which animals (including humans) learnt to display new behaviour patterns encouraged by repetition, reward and/or punishment.
For behaviourists, repetition is very important. John Watson, the father of behaviourism, suggested that the “more frequent a stimulus and response occur in association with each other, the stronger the habit will become.”
So how do reward and punishment reinforce behaviour, and motivate people to learn? Think back to when you were in school and the teacher set you homework. Your motivation to complete this work was probably influenced by at least one of the following:
- To achieve a good mark or praise from the teacher
- To avoid being shouted at by the teacher
- To avoid receiving detention
- To avoid having privileges taken away
These are all examples of reinforcement and punishment.
How Behaviourism Informs CDSM’s Pedagogy
Punishment is less helpful when it comes to adult learning – although it is still possible to use it effectively, you must be careful not to make your learner feel frustrated or undermined. However, reinforcement – in the form of positive feedback – can be just as rewarding for adult learners as it is for children. In our e-learning, we use reinforcement in the form of frequent feedback and praise:
Behaviourists place an emphasis on structured learning with observable and measurable outcomes, and this is something which is particularly important for users who complete e-learning in insolation. At CDSM, we add ‘signposts’ at regular intervals to help our users to find their way. These signposts take the form of learning outcomes, easily-accessible menus and section introductions. We also structure content into small, bite-sized chunks to help with this. Repetition then comes in the form of regular activities and summaries, reinforcing what the user has covered so far.
Almost a century after it first emerged, the theory of behaviourism may seem a little ‘old school’ by today’s standards. At CDSM, we don’t believe that our users are simply empty vessels, ready to be filled to the brim with knowledge (as behaviourists do). But we also recognise that it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater – which is why you’ll find some of the essential aspects of behaviourism in our pedagogy.
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a closer look at the behaviourist approach of having observable and measurable outcomes for learning, and explain why we ask our learners to ‘identify’, ‘summarise’ or ‘recognise’, rather than to simply ‘understand’.