Learning: Perspectives, Perceptions and Performance
“Learning” is a vague, important term. When mentioned, common associations are often relegated to the association with young schoolchildren and not so often as one of the most intriguing and inquired upon aspects of psychology.
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Prior to further elucidation, as if oft the case, the examination of “learning” merits a definition. Though it seems to be a word of self-evident meaning, because it is hard to study directly, some further refining must be utilized. This self-evident ‘acquisition of knowledge’ can only be measured with behavioral outcomes and should be observationally able to be distinguished from reflexive or instinctive responses. A behavioral outcome might consist of a high test score, a rat that quickly presses a lever, an employee that receives bonus compensation or any other number of commonly conceived examples.
In discussing the nature of learning, there are perhaps two or three popularly dominant perspectives which are essential to understand in the formation of any reasonably comprehensive review. These perspectives include the behaviorist, the social learning, and the cognitive schools. Though it becomes apparent that these three influences are not without critique and that, even within each, there exists what might be labeled ‘factions’, their fundamental contributions cannot be ignored.
The first of these perspectives is the behaviorist. In this scheme, there are two broad branches: classical conditioning and instrumental conditioning. In classical conditioning, learning occurs by the pairing of the stimulus with a desired response of the subject. Experimentally, this is an example of Pavlov’s famous dogs and the learning that results is a consequence of the learned associative relationship and is not contingent upon any action by the subject. The alternative to this method is instrumental conditioning in which the subject gets to “choose”. By this, it is meant that the reinforcement is contingent upon what the subject “chooses” as evidenced by the behaviorally discernibly different response.
Within the realm of behaviorism, one key contributor and voluminous icon of psychology in general is Thorndike. As a function of his experiments with cats in boxes for which they had to perform some specific behavior to escape, he concluded that learning was a process of an incremental nature and that their was became a neural link between the stimulus and response. This was evidenced by his successive experiments in which the cats became ‘smarter’, that is, they learned what specific behavior was required in order to be released. As the number of trials progressed, there was an inverse relationship with the time needed to escape.
The work of Skinner furthered the science of behaviorism by his greater elucidation of the four broad categories of reinforcement:
Application of a positive stimulus – Commonly referred to as a reward, this involves the presentation of something the subject desires.
- Removal of a positive stimulus – An example of this for children would be “time-out”. Theoretically and often in reality, this method is useful to extinguish unwanted behaviors. In fact, according to Skinner, the most effective way to eliminate a behavior is to ignore it, thus removing any external reinforcement.
- Application of a negative stimulus – Typically referred to as “punishment”, this involves the application of an unwanted or noxious stimulus to shape behavior.
- Removal of a negative stimulus – This is the be the restoration of “normal” conditions upon cessation of an undesirable action or commission of some desired behavior. A parenting example would be the removal of a ‘grounded’ condition upon acceptable repentance of some past action.
In addition Skinner identified another type of reinforcer that he labeled a “general reinforcer” due to its wide applicability. Money is one such item and is so labeled because subjects desire it regardless of their state of depravity. This is in contrast to food which is not an adequate stimulus unless one is hungry, that is deprived of food.
Another theorist, Guthrie provides yet additional insight into the theories and methods of learning. One of his key contributions to the field is with his “Law of Continuity”. In this, Guthrie proposes eloquently that, “a combination of stimuli which has been accompanied by movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement”… in other words, an action in a given situation will likely be repeated when the subject finds themselves in a similar situation.
The Cognitive Approach
While there is the well-known debate of nature versus nuture that runs throughout science, such polarity also exists within the field of psychology and learning. A pure behaviorist would insist that so-called ‘choices’ are really nothing more than an animal-like actions in all behavior is reducible to stimulus and response type mechanisms. As behaviorism has significantly added to our understanding of the human condition, there exist alternative perspectives that are also quite useful. One such branch of the more cognitive division of psychology is referred to a Gestalt psychology.
From this perspective, the insight that the brain is not the passive recipient of stimulus but actively involved in the perception and construction of reality is posited. Further, Gestalt psychologists attest that a given stimulus exists not in isolation but in the total context of the perception of the subject. For example, Wertheimer, the father of Gestalt psychology, cited the example of two blinking lights being able to present the perception of apparent motion. This as well as the popular psychology examples in which a certain line has the appearance of being longer than another depending on the lines and figures around it speaks to the tenet of Gestalt psychology that an experience as a whole, is greater than the sum of the individual parts that make it up. From these and other example, the idea that the mind is able to shape its own perspective of reality by virtue of its own beliefs about how things should be or how they are desired to be is a major enduring contribution of the Gestalt movement.
Though not a cognitivist, Piaget’s contribution to learning could arguably be filed in this area. Particularly noted for his contributions to developmental psychology and thus much appropriate for child rather than adult learning, Piaget declared the existence of fairly defined period of development. During these periods, a child was able to learn specific skills and acquire certain abilities with not being able to achieve certain others due to the maturation and innate abilities that of a developing brain. For example, the period of approximately seven to twelve years old is referred to as the concrete operations period. During this range, reasoning and problem solving abilities are generally limited to “concrete” phenomena that can be seen and observed rather than abstract in nature.
Observational or Social Learning
Though cognitive in nature, these theories have been treated separately due to both their easy discernment by more ‘pure’ cognitive perspectives and by the distinctness of the contributions of the key theorists. Up to this point, the models of learning that have been postulated, whether behaviorist or cognitive, have been focused on the subject only. Moving somewhat further away from the ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ perspective of behaviorism, social learning theory attests that the focus must extend beyond the subject to the contextual influence on others. In describing the views of social learning, some of the most controversial and informative experiments in modern psychology have be conducted. For example, Bandura’s famed ‘prison experiment’ in which subjects were put into a mock prison with some subjects assigned to be “guards” while others were simply “prisoners”. The experiment was terminated early due some of the subjects ‘taking their roles a bit too seriously’.
In another classic experiment, children were shown a film showing an adult acting aggressively by hitting a doll or shown an adult being kind to a doll. These same children later modeled the demonstrated behavior, whether aggressive or not. Such findings are reinforced by LeBon’s work on “crowd psychology” in which individuals and groups are influenced by others to model or imitate certain implicit behaviors.
Implications on Health & Well-Being
Animals, depending on the species, have a number of unlearned, innate behavioral responses to certain stimuli. Examples such as sea turtles that ‘automatically’ head toward the sea upon birth on a sandy beach to dogs that seek the warmth and scent of their mothers while they cannot see after birth abound in literature. On the other hand, humans seem to come into the world as a blank slate to be written upon by life’s experiences. It is this aspect of humanity that makes learning play such a pivotal role in our development and beyond.
Further, after even a short perusal of the various schools of thought, it becomes apparent that the human animal is complex enough to warrant the consideration and application of all perspectives. By doing so, it is possible not only achieve specific learning goals but also to achieve the avoidance of certain other issues that may occur from situations in which learning does not occur. One such example of this is the child who is raised with excessive punishments to shape behavior. According Skinner and other behaviorists, this can produce a ‘maladapted’ adult who has emotional issues. These emotional issues may manifest themselves in any manner of behaviors such as avoidance of others or difficulties in relationships to, at the extreme, sociopaths who ‘act out’ their frustrations upon others.
From a cognitive perspective, much of the therapeutic approach of this school is in bringing the “cognitive errors” that a person commits to their conscious awareness. These “errors in thinking” occur when a person creates false assumptions or acts utilizing illogical conclusions in choosing their responses to stimuli. Extreme but common examples are those who express feelings of being a “total failure” and consider suicide. In most cases, such errors are much more subtle but just as insidious with regards to their ability to alter behavior.
Clearly, learning plays not just a role in the development of humans but is an ongoing factor in the ‘success’ of daily living. Psychologists, human resource specialists, trainers and managers and supervisors of any business are vitally concerned about learning in the workplace. As the business world grows more sophisticated, new skills are needed. These new skills must be taught, learned and successfully applied for the mutual success of the individual and the enterprise. As such, lessons from all three perspectives are quite relevant. By utilizing key components of each perspective and theorist, one can gain a flexible paradigm by which there is greater understanding and application to additional circumstances. It is with this goal of greater applicability that a number of specific contributions are outlined below:
Thorndike on Education
Thorndike had much to say in regards to educational process and the efficacy of teaching methods and styles. This insight is relevant regardless of the age of the learner.
- Consider the situation the student faces.
- Consider the response the wish to connect with this situation.
- Form the bond.
- All else equal, from no bond that will have to be broken.
- All else equal, from as few bonds as possible.
- All else equal, form bonds in the way they are required to act later.
- Favor the situations and responses that naturally occur in life (Hergenhahn and Olson 2005, p. 72).
The bond that Thorndike refers to is the previously mentioned neural bond that exists between the stimulus and the response. Though these recommendations contain a number of Thorndike’s behavioral precepts, a key ‘learning’ for typical occupational settings is the last advisement. Reminiscent of the idea that if one is going to train for a five-kilometer road race, it is at some point necessary to train by running reinforces the point that training for a specific task should, as much as possible for effective learning, resemble the task itself.
Skinner on punishment
Just as Thorndike “lectured” on educational process, the iconic behaviorist Skinner advises in regards to punishment. This topic is perhaps most salient to child-rearing, an occupation in which there exists considerable frustration that might be at least slightly abated by the application of a learning theory. From a behaviorist standpoint, “punishment” is the application of a negative or undesired stimulus in order to shape behavior. While commonly utilized, Skinner cautions that punishment:
- Causes unfortunate emotional byproducts
- Indicates what an organism should not do rather than what it should do.
- Justifies inflicting pain on others.
- Being in a situation where previously punished behavior could be engaged in without being punished may excuse a child to do so.
- Punishment inflicts aggression toward the punishing agent and others.
- Punishment often replaces one undesirable response with another (Hergenhahn and Olson 2005, pp. 92-94).
Guthrie on breaking habits
Also a behaviorist, Guthrie addressed the issue of “habits”. From a behavioral perspective, habits are simply a specific response to a large number of stimuli in which the greater the number of the stimuli, the greater the strength of the habit. As habits can be a significant annoyance and possibly quite maladaptive, insight into their extinguishment is valuable. According to Guthrie, the following four methods are useful and valid:
- Threshold Method – In this method, the technique of ‘warming up’ to an idea is utilized rather than the sudden presentation of the stimulus in order to attenuate the response.
- Fatigue – This method demonstrates the futility of a response to gain the desired results but simply letting a subject ‘wear themselves out’ when a stimulus is presented.
- Incompatible Response Method – This method relies upon the pairing of a stimulus which generates an unacceptable response with a stimulus in which the response is not compatible with the unacceptable response. Such action has the effect of lessening the ability of the former stimulus to evoke and undesirable response. Though this is a behavioral percept, it has the net effect of forcing the subject to cognitively “rethink” the pairing and its meaning.
- Sidetracking – This method is one in which a habit in not so much eliminated as simply avoided. By removing the stimulation, one can effectively sidetrack the response (Hergenhahn and Olson 2005, pp. 220-224).
Wertheimer’s Facts versus Principles
According to Wertheimer, the father of Gestalt psychology, real “learning” occurs not by the simple recitation of facts but rather by the understanding of underlying principles. As apt illustration of this idea is the following example:
A school inspector who was impressed by the children he had observed but wanted to ask one more question before departing.
“How many hairs does a horse have?” he asked.
Much to the amazement of both the inspector and the teacher, a nine-year old boy raised his hand and answered, “3,571,962.”
“How do you know that your answer is correct?” asked the inspector.
If you do not believe me,” answered the boy, “count them yourself.”
The inspector broke into laughter and vowed to tell the story to his colleagues when eh returned to Vienna. When the inspector returned the following year for his annual visit, the teacher asked him how his colleagues responded to the story. Disappointedly, the inspector said, “I wanted very much to tell the story but I couldn’t. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember how many hairs the boy said the horse had.” (Hergenhahn and Olson 2005, p. 281).
Piaget’s “Learning depends on failure”
Though we generally judge the success of learning by achievement, the noted developmental psychologist Piaget suggests that perhaps this should be reconsidered to some extent. Specifically, Piaget indicated that learning occurs only when the dilemma of ‘not learning’ or a failure to learn is present. To elaborate, the inability or failure of previous learning to account for a given set of circumstances makes it possible for new situations to be assimilated and accommodated, thus providing the raw material for learning to occur. Important to this assimilation and accommodation, or learning process is the ability of the teacher to gradually challenge rather than overwhelm the individual ((Hergenhahn and Olson 2005, pp. 302-303).
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Bandura: Human Monkeys are Different…
In early behaviorist experiments, animal subjects did not “look” at other animals to learn adaptive strategies. While more recent experiments have indeed demonstrated this phenomena, is was the failure of these early experiments that led Bandura to postulate model learning.
In this system, Bandura explained and predicted human behavior by such as means that the stimulus was simultaneously internal and external to the subject. This is, to some extent, a cognitive behavioral approach and aptly illustrates the importance of positive role models and the influence that others can have upon learning and behavior.
Human learning simply cannot be fully understood by the use of a single perspective. It is not that any one paradigm is incorrect but rather each is only a partial representation of the range and diversity of the human condition. By availing oneself of multiple perspectives, one becomes the beneficiary of significantly more vast knowledge by which life, through work-, school- or home-life can be improved through the application of numerous principles and precepts designed to foster adaptive responses to the stimulation life brings.
Hergenhahn, B. and M. Olson. (2005). An Introduction to the Theories of Learning, 7th Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, US: Pearson Prentice-Hall.
Le Bon, G. (1914). The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T.F. Unwin.