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Establish how and why humans learn more effectively than animals by putting forward a combination of learning theories

| April 5, 2015

Effective learning is arguably one of the most distinctive attributes of humanity. As such it could be argued that this is the one trait that is distinctly human. However, animals do also have a way of learning habits of behaviour in the same way as humans do. The argument put forward by this essay would be to establish how and why humans learn more effectively than animals by putting forward a combination of learning theories. It would also serve to explain how these theoretical explanations could be applied to training within a working environment .

Behaviourism’s explanation

Behaviourists such as Skinner and Pavlov tried to understand how animals (and humans) learned different habits of behaviour and thought by experimenting on animals. The conclusions they both came up with were similar in many ways but they also had essential differences. Burns (1991) puts it in this way when he says that ‘classical conditioning’ involved a ‘response which…occurs to an unconditioned stimulus becomes associated with…another, conditioned stimulus’ (Burns: 1991: 95). In the case of Pavlov and his dogs, this means that the response (the dogs salivating) to the stimulus (the food) was conditioned by another, external stimulus (the bell). On the other hand, in operant conditioning the response is very much dependent upon the ‘subject’s response’ (Burns: 1991: 95) and:
If the subject does not make the appropriate response no reinforcement is delivered, and no learning takes place. The response is instrumental in obtaining the reinforcement; he must operate on his environment (Burns: 1991: 95).
In the case of Skinner’s box this means that the participant (in this case, the pigeon/rat) needs to ‘emit a response’ (peck the lever) in order to obtain the reinforcement (the nut) (Burns: 1991: 95). Therefore, Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning serves to illustrate that reward is only obtained when a participant learns that it needs to respond before a reward is obtained whereas classical conditioning is very much dependent upon the stimulus given from the participant’s immediate surroundings.
Moreover, it could be said that both of these learning theories have implications for how things are learned within the classroom or training room. Gagne (1965), as cited by Moseley (2010), suggested two methods of learning which were based upon Pavlov’s and Skinner’s theories of learning which were ‘signal learning (Pavlov’s classical conditioning)’ and ‘stimulus-response learning (Skinner’s operant conditioning)’ (Moseley: 2010: 63).
Signal learning, like Pavlovian classical conditioning is argued to get an emotional response from the student. It could be argued in this case that an attention activity at the start of a lesson would be a practical example of how classical conditioning is and can be used in the classroom. Examples of this would be the use of an Oxfam promotional video on YouTube to elicit emotions within the students’/trainees’ minds.
On the other hand, stimulus-response, like Skinner’s operant conditioning, would be evident in the classroom or training room to when a voluntary response is needed from the student. One example of this would be to initiate a quiz within the training room in order to get the student to respond. In this way, operant conditioning is evident because the correct responses to questions given lead on to more questions being answered as the student or students respond to the positive reinforcement given by the teacher. Furthermore, if an incorrect answer is given from the student then it could be said that this would also encourage them to give a correct answer next time. However, students could also react in a negative way to the discouragement of answering incorrectly.
To sum up the roles of behaviourism within learning it could be argued that humans do not really learn as effectively as they should if only the behaviourist school of thought is to be believed.


However, Gagne’s (1965) theory also incorporated the cognitivist school of theory is maintained that behaviourism did not explain everything regarding how human beings learn things. It would possibly be a mistake to assume though that cognitivism is the absolute opposite of behaviourism. Gingell and Winch (2008) state that:
It is customary to oppose cognitivism to behaviourism as the main alternative account of the mind, although the two are best regarded as contraries rather than contradictories…Cognitivism is important for education because its claims provide the framework for theories of learning that claim it takes place through symbolic activity within individual minds. Nearly all cognitivists are also representationalists; they believe that the mind’s symbolic activity takes place in representations which connect with relevant features of the world (Gingell and Winch: 2008:29).
It could therefore be argued that cognitivism and behaviourism are allied to one another. However, cognitivism has also branched out into other areas regarding education the most notable of which is social constructivism.


Social constructivists believed that the environment around the learner also has an impact upon their ability to learn. This was especially true within the realm of educational psychology. Social constructivists such as Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner maintained also that the interaction between the trainer and the trainee enabled a learning structure to take place. However, despite these similarities between these two theories there are also differences.
Vygotsky, as cited in Russell (2004), maintained that humans learn better when there was a mentor present to aid the learner. Russell (2004) suggests that:
‘Vygotsky expanded the behaviourist theory of learning by introducing the concept of tool mediation…When people encounter some object in the environment, a stimulus, they interpret and act on it, not directly, but through the mediation of tools by others (Daniels and Edwards: 2004: 310).
Otherwise known as the Zone of Proximal Development, Vygotsky intimated that these ZPD’s were defined as the ‘difference between what one can do alone and what one could do with assistance’ (Daniels and Edwards: 2004: 317). Vygotsky also maintained that learning had more to do with external conditions the learner is in than with the innateness which behaviourists suggest is connected with learning. The ZPD between teacher/trainer and learner is part of the learning environment.

To take this into a real-life scenario, the concept of a ZPD is shown in an everyday situation where a student is learning a new language and is having one-to-one tuition with their teacher. The teacher asks them to attempt a phrase which the student does but he/she gets it wrong. However, the teacher corrects them by repeating the phrase and pointing out how it could be said better. It could be said that this is a real-life example of ZPD. As Russell (2004) suggests:
To extend this basic concept to distributed learning, we might imagine a course that consisted merely of readings posted on the web, compared to a course that provided opportunities for interactions with teachers, other students and perhaps outside experts. It is those human interactions, mediated by a range of tools that allow zones of proximal development to emerge (Daniels and Edwards: 2004: 317).
It could also be argued that this relationship between teacher and student is similar to that of Bruner’s ‘scaffolded learning’ theory which maintains that at every step of learning a concept or skill their ability to take their learning one step further increases with assistance. Bruner (1985) himself, as cited by Meadows (2004), intimated that:
When the child [or adult]achieves that conscious control over a new function or conceptual system, it is then that he is able to use it as a tool. Up to that point, the tutor in effect performs the critical function of ‘scaffolding’ the learning task to make it possible for the child, in Vygotsky’s word, to internalise external knowledge and convert it into a tool for conscious control (Daniels and Edwards: 2004: 174).
In a sense, both Vygotsky’s and Bruner’s theories of learning contribute hugely within education. An understanding of either or both of these can be very effectively used within a training scenario in particular where certain skills and concepts need to be learned.

The Humanistic Viewpoint

Education and learning can be argued to be dependent upon the student’s internal situation as well as the external surroundings and their relationship with the teacher. It could also be argued that other needs have to be fulfilled before real education and learning can take place. It could be said that the humanistic viewpoint takes this into consideration when assessing how students learn. Maslow (1987) states that there is a hierarchy of needs for each individual stemming from ‘physiological needs’ such as food, sleep and water through ‘love and belonging’ to ‘self-esteem and self-actualisation’ (Miell et al: 2004: 203). It has been stated that, even though Maslow (1954) said nothing about education per se, the implication is that when he defined self-actualisation as ‘the human desire for self-fulfilment, to become everything that one is capable of becoming’, education was one thing that he had in mind. Miell et al (2004) go on to state that:
For some, self-actualisation may be in creativity, for others in discovery and understanding. It may be expressed athletically or in the desire to be an ideal mother. Unlike the other needs, self-actualisation is not a drive to attain an end-state where the need is assuaged. Rather, expression of the need is an end in itself (Miell et al: 2004: 204).
However, Maslow (1968), as cited in Pear (2010), also suggested that the ‘lower needs’ (physiological and safety) have to be satisfied first before the ‘higher needs’ (Love, Self Esteem and Self-Actualisation) can be realised (Pear: 2010:225).
The concept of the hierarchy of needs can also be applied to education and training even though Maslow did not necessarily mention this idea as applied to those two related disciplines. It could be argued that in order for a student to learn effectively basic needs have to be addressed first. Many students come from different backgrounds , with some more stable than others. However, it is important for the teacher/trainer to establish what those individual needs are and it is the role of the school or college to react to those needs accordingly.
Moreover, it could also be argued that it is in the remit of the educator to ensure that each individual student becomes all that they have the potential of becoming. This was also an approach to education taken up by Rogers (1969) who stated, along with other humanistic psychologists, that the ‘role of educators should be as facilitators of the growth and learning drive that is inherent in all humans’ (Smith: 2010: 16). This philosophy, taken from other educational thinkers like Rousseau, Pestalozzi and John Dewey, takes the role of teacher away from being just a purveyor of facts to being a facilitator (literally one who makes things easier) who guides students towards finding answers for themselves. As one critic put it, Rogers felt that ‘experiential learning’ was ‘self-initiated’ but ‘he does not actually dispense with the teacher’ (Pear: 2010: 98).
Within classroom practice it is now commonplace for teachers to take on this role of facilitator as well as that of purveyor of facts. Middlewood et al (2012) suggested that the role of teacher should be one where the teacher provides:
Resources for formal and informal learning, ranging from a daily newspaper to the latest pedagogical theory texts….have a learning noticeboard and newsletter to share good practice informally (Middlewood et al: 2012: 76).
In short, the classroom should be a place where self-initiated education would take place by teacher and student alike.
Alongside the humanistic views of Maslow and Rogers the concept of self-induced thinking pedagogy is also prevalent within the views of De Bono and Bloom. Both of these educational schools of thought enhanced the idea that students should think for themselves in isolation as well as in groups.
De Bono (1976) and his concept of the Six Thinking Hats seemed to illustrate the need for what he called ‘generative thinking’. Each coloured hat represents a way of thinking and encourages a student to take upon themselves a role within a group. Red (intuitive), Green (Creative), Blue (Planning), White (the Searcher), Yellow (Positives) and Black (Potential problems) could be argued to be illustrative of the types of thinking styles that each student has. De Bono (1976), as cited in Moseley (2010), suggests that ‘critical thinking, scholarly thinking and generative thinking:
All have their place. I don’t mind in what order of importance they are placed. I am only concerned that education should take notice of generative thinking. Generative thinking is messy, imperfect, impure and perhaps difficult to teach. But it is important and we should try to teach it (Moseley et al: 2010: 133).
De Bono (1985) then suggests that the six thinking hats idea is one way in which generative thinking can be achieved. It has been suggested that this theory has it uses within the workplace especially when it comes to training. Birdi (1999), as cited by Kaufman and Sternberg (2000), did a study where de Bono’s ideas of lateral thinking and ‘the six thinking hats’ were utilised against other methods of creativity training. Kaufman and Sternberg (2010) state that:
Analysis of a post-program survey revealed that whereas the Business Beyond the Box workshop had the greatest impact on attitude toward innovation, those workshops based on de Bono’s methods did more to improve participants’ knowledge of creativity techniques. The de Bono workshops also showed greater impact on work-related idea generation (Kaufman and Sternberg: 2010: 161).
It could be argued that this is because both de Bono’s ideas of lateral thinking and the six thinking hats enable individuals within a group to work together and take on different roles to achieve a common goal.
It could be argued that this has much in common with other learning theories mentioned within this essay. The transference of ideas from one individual to another as well as the feeling of being able to think outside the box could be argued to give participants the motivation or reward to keep coming up with ideas. An idea that comes from Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. It could also be said to have much in common with Bruner’s scaffolded learning theory and the Vygotskyian concept of ZPD especially if the trainer/teacher is in the classroom where the transference of ideas takes place. It could be said that many of these learning theories enable humans to learn effectively but only when reinforcement of some kind is taking place in an environment which is conducive to learning.

Reference List

Burns, RB, (1991), ‘Essential Psychology: For Students and Professionals in the Health and Social Services’, 2nd Edition, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands
Gingell, J and Winch, C (2008), ‘Philosophy of Education: The Key Concepts’, Routledge Falmer, Abingdon
Kaufman, J and Sternberg, R, (2010), ‘The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Meadows,S (1993), ‘Models of Cognition in Childhood’, IN: Daniels, H and Edwards, A (eds), (2004), ‘The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Psychology of Education, Routledge Falmer, London
Middlewood, D, Parker, R and Beere, J, (2012), ‘Creating a Learning School’, Paul Chapman Publishing, SAGE Publications, London
Miell, D, Phoenix, A and Thomas K, (2002), ‘Mapping Psychology’, Open University Press, Milton Keynes UK
Moseley, D, (2010), ‘Frameworks for Thinking: A Handbook for Teaching and Learning’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Pear, J (2010), ‘A Historical and Contemporary Look at Psychological Systems’,Laurence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey USA
Russell, D, (2004), ‘Looking Beyond the Interface: Activity theory and distributed learning’, IN: Daniels, H and Edwards, A (eds.) (2004), ‘The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Psychology of Education, Routledge Falmer, London
Stonehouse, P, Allison, P and Carr, D (2011),’Aristotle, Plato and Socrates: Ancient Greek Perspectives on Experiential Learning’, IN: Smith, T and Knapp, C, (eds.), (2011) ‘Sourcebook of Experiential Education: Key Thinkers and Their Contributions’, Taylor and Francis, Abingdon UK

Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Psychology Essay Examples