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6.2 BEHAVIORAL APPROACHES TO LEARNING

The behavioral approaches emphasize the importance of children making connections between experiences and behavior. The first behavioral approach we will examine is classical conditioning.

A-Classical Conditioning:

In the early 1900s, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was interested in the way the body digests food, in his experiments, he routinely placed meat powder in a dog’s mouth, causing the dog to salivate. The dog salivated in response to a number of stimuli associated with the food, such as the sight of the food dish, the sight of the individual who brought the food into the room, and the sound of the door closing when the food arrived. Pavlov recognized that the dog’s association of these sights and sounds with the food was an important type of learning, which came to be called classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning is a type of learning in which an organism learns to connect, or associate, stimuli. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus (such as the sight of a person) becomes associated with a meaningful stimulus (such as food) and acquires the capacity to elicit a similar response. To fully understand Pavlov’s (1927) theory of classical conditioning we need to understand two types of stimuli and two types of responses:

unconditioned stimulus (US), unconditioned response (UR), conditioned stimuli (CS), and conditioned response (CR).

An unconditioned stimulus (US) is a stimulus that automatically produces a response without any prior learning. Food was the US in Pavlov’s experiments. An unconditioned response (UR) is an unlearned response that is automatically elicited by the US. In Pavlov’s experiments, the dog’s salivation in response to food was the UR. A conditioned stimulus (CS) is a previously neutral stimulus that eventually elicits a conditioned response after being associated with the US. Among the conditioned stimuli in Pavlov’s experiments were various sights and sounds that occurred prior to the dog’s actually eating the food, such as the sound of the door closing before the food was placed in the dog’s dish. A conditioned response (CR) is a learned response to the conditioned stimulus that occurs after US-CS pairing.

Classical conditioning can be involved in both positive and negative experiences of children in the classroom. Among the things in the child’s schooling that produce pleasure because they have become classically conditioned are a favorite song, feelings that the classroom is a safe and fun place to be, and a teacher’s warmth and nurturing. For example, a song could be neutral for the child until the child joins in with other classmates to sing it with accompanying positive feelings.

Children can develop fear of the classroom if they associate the classroom with criticism, so the criticism becomes a CS for fear. Classical conditioning also can be involved in test anxiety. For example, a child fails and is criticized, which produces anxiety; thereafter, the child associates tests with anxiety, so they then can become a CS for anxiety.

Some children’s health problems also might involve classical conditioning. Certain physical complaints asthma, headaches, ulcers, high blood pressure —might be partly due to classical conditioning. We usually say that such health problems are caused by stress. Often what happens, though, is that certain stimuli, such as a parent’s or teacher’s heavy criticism, are conditioned stimuli or physiological responses. Over time, the frequency of the physiological responses can produce a health problem. A teacher’s persistent criticism of a student can cause the student to develop headaches, muscle tension, and so on. Anything associated with the teacher, such as classroom learning exercises and homework, might trigger the student’s stress and subsequently is linked with ulcers or other physiological responses.

B- Operant conditioning (also called instrumental conditioning) is a form of learning in which the consequences of behavior produce changes in the probability that the behavior will occur. Operant conditioning’s main architect was B. F. Skinner, whose views built on the connectionist views of E. L. Thorndike.

Thorndike’s of Effect:

At about the same time that Ivan Pavlov was conducting classical conditioning experiments with dogs, American psychologist E. L. Thorndike (1906) was studying cats in puzzle boxes. Thorndike placed a hungry cat inside a box and put a piece of fish outside. To escape from the box, the cat had to learn how to open the latch inside the box. At first the cat made a number of ineffective responses. It clawed or bit at the bars and thrust its paw through the openings. Eventually the cat accidentally stepped on the treadle that released the door bolt. When the cat was returned to the box, it went through the same random activity until it stepped on the treadle once more. On subsequent trials, the cat made fewer and fewer random movements, until it immediately clawed the treadle to open the door. Thorndike’s law of effect states that behaviors followed by positive outcomes are strengthened and that behaviors followed by negative outcomes are weakened.

The key question for Thorndike was how the correct stimulus-response (S-R) bond strengthens and eventually dominates incorrect stimulus-response bonds. According to Thorndike, the correct S-R association strengthens, and the incorrect association weakens, because of the consequences of the organism’s actions. Thorndike’s view is called S- theory because the organism’s behavior is due to a connection between a stimulus and a response. As we see next, Skinner’s approach significantly expanded on Thorndike’s basic ideas..

Skinners Operant Conditioning:

Operant conditioning, in which the consequences of behavior lead to changes in the probability that the behavior will occur, is at the heart of B. F. Skinner’s (1938) behaviorism. Consequences rewards or punishments are contingent on the organism’s behavior. More needs to be said about reward and punishment.

Reinforcement and Punishment:

Reinforcement (reward) is a consequence thot increases the probability that a behavior will occur. In Contrast, punishment is a consequence that decreases the probability a behavior will occur. For example, you might tellone of your students, “Congratulations. I’m really proud of how good the story is that you wrote.” If the student works harder and writes an even better story the next time, your positive comments are said to reinforce, or reward. the students writing behavior. If you frown at a student for talking in class and the student’s talking decreases, your frown is said to punish the student’s talking.

Reinforcement can be complex. Reinforcement means to strengthen. In positive reinforcement, the frequency of a response increases because it is followed by a rewarding stimulus, as in the example in which the teacher’s positive comments increased the student’s writing behavior. Similarly, complimenting parents on being at a parent-teacher conference might encourage them to come back again.

Conversely, in negative reinforcement, the frequency of a response increases because it is followed by the removal of an aversive (unpleasant) stimulus. For example, a father nags at his son to do his homework. He keeps nagging. Finally, the son gets tired of hearing the nagging and does his homework. The son’s response (doing his homework) removed the unpleasant stimulus (nagging). Consider your own behavior after a stressful day of teaching. You have a headache, you take some aspirin, and the headache goes away. Taking aspirin is reinforced when this behavior is followed by a reduction of pain.

One way to remember the distinction between positive and negative rein forcemeat is that in positive reinforcement something is added or obtained. In negative reinforcement, something is subtracted or removed. It is easy to confuse negative reinforcement and punishment. To keep these terms straight, remember that negative reinforcement cement increases the probability a response will occur, while punishment decreases the probability it will occur.

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