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Description of two learning theories: Behaviorism and Constructivism.
1. Description of two learning theories: Behaviorism and Constructivism

Behaviorism is a learning theory that relies wholesomely on observable behaviors but does not put much emphasis on mental activities. What the learner does is important and not what the learner thinks. Behaviorists however, contend that learning is exclusively the acquisition of new behavior.
According to Driscoll (2000), behaviorism was first introduced to American psychology by John B. Watson in 1913. B. F. Skinner was said to emphasize behavior as a basic subject matter of psychology. Skinner’s approach to psychology of learning was concerned with a search of functional relationship between environmental variables and behavior. Skinner defined learning as a more or less permanent change in behavior that can be detected by observing an organism over a period of time.

Behaviorist learning is based on conditioning of which there are two types: 1. The classical conditioning that occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus, like the famous “Pavlov dog observation”. Classical conditioning is simply, when a certain stimulus is followed by a certain expected response (S--->R). 2. Behavioral or operant conditioning or(behavior modification, behavior shaping). This occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced. This is basically a feedback system, wherefore a reward or reinforcement follows the response to a stimulus, then the response would be more likely to occur in future. This concept of reinforcement central to Skinner’s behaviorism was initially expressed by E.L.Thorndike as the Law of Effect (Driscoll, 2000).

There are two critical fields of thought: 1. In order to understand learning one would have to look for a change of behavior. 2. If one wants to be certain of what learners are actually doing, then the learners must be observed.
The likely limitations of this, behavioral theory: 1. It does not account for all kinds of learning, since it disregards the activities of the mind. 2. It does not explain some learning such as recognition of new language patterns by young children, for which there is no reinforcement mechanism.

Constructivism can be defined as the belief that learners construct their own knowledge from their experiences. Constructivism is predominantly a philosophy of learning that is based on the premise that we all construct our own understanding of the world we live in, through reflection on our experiences. We build mental models as our internal representation of this knowledge thus learning is an adjustment of these models to accommodate new experiences.
According to Driscoll (2000), Constructivist Design Principles: provide complex learning environments, provide for social negotiation as an integral part of learning, provide multiple perspectives of instructional context, provide access to multiple modes of representation, develop metacognitive skills (reflexivity), and emphasize student-centered instruction. Constructivism is not a unitary theory but is seen as a continuum that is divided into three broad categories: Cognitive Constructivism, Social Constructivism, and Radical Constructivism. Cognitive constructivism is associated with information processing. Social constructivism deals with the social nature of knowledge, and the belief that knowledge is a result of social interaction and language usage. It is more concerned with meaning than structure. Radical constructivism deals with knowledge acquisition which is an adaptive process that results from active cognizing by the individual learner, rendering an experimentally based mind, not a mind that reflects some external reality.

Constructivism acknowledges the learner’s active role in the personal creation of knowledge, the importance of experience (both individual and social) in this knowledge creation process, and the realization that the knowledge created will vary in its degree of validity as an accurate representation of reality. These principles provide the foundation for basic principles of teaching, learning, and knowing process as described by constructivists.

2. Description of the similarities and differences in the epistemological foundations of behaviorism and constructivism.

To look at the similarities and differences in the epistemological foundations of behaviorism and constructivism, the writer will first state the three major epistemological orientations that will impact on the approach to learning. The three major epistemological orientations are: Objectivism – The epistemological orientation in which reality is assumed to be external to and separate from the 'knower'; empiricism and realism characterize this orientation. Interpretivism – The epistemological orientation in which reality is assumed to be constructed by the 'knower'; rationalism and idealism characterize this orientation. Pragmatism – The epistemological orientation that corresponds to the belief that reality exists but cannot be known directly. Knowledge is provisional, not absolute – sometimes it corresponds with reality and sometimes it doesn’t – and it can be obtained through empirical or rational processes. (Driscoll, 2000).

On a continuum of the three epistemological orientations, objectivism and interpretivism are at the extreme ends and pragmatism somewhere between them. In terms of pragmatism, behaviorism and constructivism share likeness under this orientation in that reality is interpreted through signs both internal and external and knowledge is negotiated from experience and reason. Both theories behaviorism and constructivism base a child’s acquisition of knowledge on the child’s active participation in the environment, frequent repetition of activities, and opportunities to explore the environment in meaningful ways. Both approaches require careful planning of the environment as well as frequent and routine observation of learning. Other similarities include requiring the teacher to change the environment as a result of the analysis of progress, going from simple to more complex tasks and directing the teacher to be actively involved with the learning environment.

There are distinct differences between the two theories. Behaviorism relies heavily on the epistemological orientation of objectivism while on the other extreme constructivism relies heavily on the epistemological orientation of interpretivism. Behaviorally- oriented programs require a methodical task analysis of the skills to be taught, identification of behaviors to be increased or decreased, and use intense direct instruction. The instructional format may consist of repetitive drill-like activities. There is planned reinforcement and corrections and continual feedback. Systematic and consistent application of the behavioral techniques is paramount. Constructivist oriented program is one where children are encouraged to explore materials and to use them creatively. Mistakes/errors are viewed as an opportunity to construct knowledge rather than an event that requires correction. The emphasis is on process of learning – not the end product.

Behaviorism centers on students’ efforts to accumulate knowledge of the natural world and on teachers’ efforts to transmit it. It therefore relies on a transmission, instructionist approach which is largely passive, teacher-directed, and controlled. In some contexts, the term behaviorism is used synonymously with objectivism because of its reliance on an objectivist epistemology, where behaviorism emphasizes observable, external behaviors and, as such avoids reference to meaning, representation, and thought. Constructivism takes a more cognitive approach. This subtle difference has profound implications for all aspects of a theory of learning. The constructivist theories take a variety of forms just like the behaviorist. The basic distinction, however, is that while the behaviorists viewed knowledge as nothing more than passive, largely automatic responses to external factors in the environment, the constructivistic school views knowledge as a constructed entity made by each and every learner through a learning process. This epistemological orientation relies wholesomely on interpretivism.

According to Heylighen (1993), the history of epistemology, the trend has been to move from a static, passive view of knowledge towards a more adaptive and active view. Jonassen (1991), states that the important metaphysical assumption of objectivism is that the world is real, structured, and that the structure can be modeled for the learner. In contrast the constructivist view argues that knowledge and reality do not have an objective or absolute value or at the least, that we have no way of knowing this reality. Von Glasersfeld (1995), believes that reality is made up of the network of things and relationships that people rely on. The 'knower' thus, interprets and constructs a reality based on his experiences and interactions with his environment. On an epistemological continuum however, objectivism and constructivism would represent opposite extremes.

3. Discuss the differences and or similarities that an instructional unit, curriculum and or educational system may have if relied primarily on either behaviorism or constructivism.

Applications of behaviorism in education are based on the principle that instruction should be designed to produce observable and quantifiable behaviors in the learner.Behaviorists expect any effective instructional activity to change the students’ behavior in some obvious and measurable way. After completing a lesson, students should be able to do something that they could not do as well before the lesson. Using behavioral objectives is one technique advocated by behaviorists that many educators have found to be very effective. Behavioral objectives are easy to develop and have been related to improvement in student achievement.

Constructivism on the other hand is a fairly new way to instruct students, giving them more freedom to choose their activities and determine the pace at which they want to work. This makes students more responsible for their education and requires them to be more independent.
Behaviorist can use technology and the media to enhance education but not in a lot of ways. Books are used in behaviorist classrooms, but children are not invited to choose their own books. Every child is assigned to read a certain book and there is an assigned date in which the book has to be read. It is hard for teachers to use television in a behaviorist setting, because there are so many different interpretations that come from the television. Teacher can use the television as long as they have the students do a uniform activity related to television program they viewed.

Computers are rarely seen in behaviorist classrooms as means of instruction or learning. They are used mainly as reinforcers in the classrooms. Each child is evaluated in the same way and grades can easily be determined well, so that every child is doing the same thing at the same time. Teachers can easily monitor the students and determine who is on task. Teachers are in control of the classrooms and are in charge and responsible for the students’ education.
In a constructivist classroom activities that require the use technology can easily be created. For example, students can view a television program, after watching the program they can explore the topic, write about it, manipulate it, or simply discuss it. There is a wide variety of activities that can stem from one television program. In a constructivist classroom, on any unit of work or curriculum, it is possible for every student to do different activities. They are free to learn what they desire and they can learn any way they choose, through any tools.

With the structure of the curriculum and respective units, there are several problems that come with behaviorism. The most obvious is that students all learn in different ways. Students do not have the autonomy of choosing their activities. They are required to do the same activity as the rest of the class and work at the same pace as the rest of the class. The education in a behaviorist classroom is rather teacher-centered and teacher directed. On the other hand the constructivist classroom creates a learner-centered environment. It allows students to make choices about their education and do activities that they desire to do. The teacher acts only as facilitator and the students are responsible for their own learning and must become independent.

With the structure of the curriculum and respective units, there are a few problems that come with constructivism. Not all children can learn in this type of environment. Some cannot handle responsibility and rely heavily on the teacher for instruction. Some teachers also cannot handle constructivist setting because it is time consuming and demands a lot of preparation.
If both theories are used, this would set the stage for an ideal classroom. They need to be used hand in hand, so that each student can be reached and can learn the best way for them as individuals.


Driscoll, Marcy P. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction. Second Edition. Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.
Heylighen, F. (1993) Epistemology, introduction Principia` Cybernetica. Available at: http://pespmcl.vub.ac.be/EPISTEMI.html
Jonassen, D. (1991 September) Evaluating constructivist learning. Educational technology, 36 (9), 28-33.
von Glasersfeld, E. (1995) A constructivist approach to teaching. In L. Steffe and J. Gale (Eds.) (1995). Constructivism in education, (pp.3-16).New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
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