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Behaviourism - ring any bells?!

by Dr Chris Haughton

In the last blog I introduced the three fundamental schools of psychology that have informed learning theory: behaviourist, cognitive and humanist. They’ve been around a long time yet still they form the building blocks of many theories concerned with teaching and learning. Of course, research is constantly presenting new ideas - and a future blog will review some of the latest work in this field – but, for now, this piece will start with the briefest of introductions to the behaviourist school and ask whether it still has relevance in teaching today.

In its starkest form, behaviourism describes a mechanistic, measureable and objective world of learning where behaviours can be explained, predicted and controlled by purely observable phenomena. There is little room for subjective consciousness in behavioural thinking. Probably the most famous exponent was Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) who wasn’t a psychologist at all - despite his work being required reading on any entry-level psychology course - but rather a physiologist. His work on the digestive system of dogs led to experiments where the animals’ saliva glands could be made to react by stimuli other than food – in this case the sounds made by bells and other devices.

It was argued that all animal behaviour (including learning) could be explained by reference to stimulus and response (S-R). These were further sub-divided into conditioned and unconditioned components. So, with the dogs, the food provides an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) and any resultant salivation would be an unconditioned response (UCR).  The bell is a conditioned stimulus (CS) and any induced response (after effective training) would be conditioned (CR). This diagram shows the basic model:

1.    Food (UCS)                                                                  Salivation (UCR)        an ‘unlearned’ association

2.    Bell (CS) +  food
     (after a time interval of 0.2 to 0.5 secs)                            Salivation (CR)            training period

3.    Bell (CS)                                                                      Salivation (CR)            a ‘learned’ association

 [Source: Curzon, 2004: 38]

This experiment demonstrates that we can engineer a result (salivation) without the use of food at all. Once the animal is conditioned the process can be repeated over and over again. Pavlov argued that these reflexes originated in the cerebral cortex of the brain. He made this assertion having observed behaviours alone (as opposed to any measurement within the brain) so it was received with some scepticism by other researchers and academics.

He was also working long before modern neuroscience started to afford us at least a scintilla of understanding. More on that in a later blog.
Back to the dogs: carrying over research findings (in any field) from animals to humans is always problematic. Apart from anything else, humans possess a ‘rich treasure house of language’ so we are able to respond in far more nuanced ways (through speech and writing) than our animal friends. Indeed, nowhere in his work does Pavlov suggest otherwise: to the contrary he wrote that humans are ‘unique’ and possess a ‘status superior to that of the animals’…and that’s before we get started on any philosophical discussion concerning consciousness, or the soul. The basic proposition underpinning behaviourism is felt, by many, to be overly reductionist. In other words, it seeks to explain high complexity by using over-simplified processes.

The debate and research became ever more complicated and famous psychologists including Watson (1878-1958) and Thorndike (1874-1949) extended the theories into many new areas. Psychologists tend to use the word ‘association’ rather than ‘conditioning’ but the basic precepts of stimulus and response can still be detected in some cognitive behavioural therapies in use today. They also spawned neo-behaviourism championed by significant psychologists such as Tolman (1886-1959) and Skinner (1904-1990) whose significance in learning cannot be overlooked. We will come to them in a future blog.

But for now, what can we take from behaviourism in our world of teaching and learning? Well, most teachers would probably argue that motivation, reward and performance are linked. Positive reinforcement – as soon as possible after the desired behaviour – is usually perceived to be the best strategy. So the student who gets his or her work assessed, marked and returned promptly will benefit more than if there are long delays in this process. Delivering material in appropriately-sized chunks which is planned and timed effectively is important as is ensuring the level of work is commensurate with students’ ability. Those given work that is too hard may never taste success, receive little praise and therefore receive no reinforcement. Some of the strategies used in the design of e-learning programmes by the experts in Videotel, my client, to engage, motivate, reward and acknowledge success can be traced back to behaviourism and conditioning.

Another strategy which has its foundation in behaviourism is where learning is reinforced by repetition. This can be effective under certain circumstances (though we must always be aware of the differences between recitation and deep learning). And finally, Pavlov was always keen to stress that learning was about association¬ about the ‘whole’. This holistic approach will be appreciated by teaching professionals for whom planning, organisation and reflection is an ineluctable component of pedagogy.

The next blog will describe the work of Skinner and others, who have had such an influence on the psychology of modern teaching and learning.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 16:24

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Distance Learning - Part 1

Distance Learning – Part 1

This Whitepaper will explore briefly the provenance of distance learning - from ancient to modern. It sets the scene for future Whitepapers on the concepts supporting pedagogy – the science and art of education.

“Parties may allow the training of seafarers by distance learning and e-learning, in accordance with the standards of training and assessment set out in section A-I/6...’ (STCW 2011:283)

This is good, but the realisation that learning could be facilitated at a distance pre-dated the STCW Convention by a few thousand years. As soon as people began to write on tablets (the stone type, that is), and give them to others to read, a form of primitive distributed learning was underway. However, it was the development of moveable type in China a thousand years ago followed by Gutenberg’s printing press in Europe in the fifteenth century that really opened the way to the mass production of books for the very first time. Learning was becoming distributed in a way that no one would have dreamt possible.

The religious establishment in Europe in those far off days did not always support the spread of popular learning – especially in a language the common person could read - and there was frequent and violent social unrest as a result. This reaction, where arms of the establishment sometimes frustrate learning rather than facilitate it, echoes faintly, even in modern times, although thankfully, we don’t any longer burn people at the stake just for reading a book. Nevertheless, there is still much social and political control over knowledge distribution and delivery, as we shall see in a later Whitepaper.

Slightly more up to date, distance learning received a huge boost when the Penny Post in the UK was regularised in 1840. Isaac Pitman began delivering instruction on his famous shorthand system by correspondence from Bath, in England. This was followed in 1858 by the University of London[1] who established a distance learning degree which continues to be delivered to this day. Seats of learning in the United States also began to offer programmes of study by this method around this time.

The Open University[2] (OU) in the UK is, arguably, the most prolific exponent of distance learning in the world. The University enrolled its first students in 1971 under the direction of its first Vice Chancellor, Walter Perry. Lord Perry later became the President of Videotel until his death in 2003, at the age of 82. The OU has always been at the forefront of pedagogical development in distance learning and has extended its provision across Europe and the World. Since inauguration almost 1.8 million people have achieved their learning goals with the OU. Some of the programme design processes embedded in the work of Videotel can be traced back to early OU systems. A future Whitepaper will enlarge on this.

We have moved on somewhat from stone etchings, printing presses, books, films, cassettes, videos and TV lectures. The current generation of young learners are, of course, digital natives. That is, they have grown up in the information age and do not know a world without it. Anyone knowing children and even young adults under a certain age will know their attachment to things digital transcends physicality. Some research[3] even suggests there may be an addiction to mobile phones. So, given the invasive and all-encompassing spread of information technology and its gadgets, it is hardly surprising that education looks to exploit this wonderful medium of distribution in the digital age.

Involving gaming theory and animation, the very latest technologies embrace Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). These programmes appear to be changing the way in which thousands of people engage with learning. Harvard University is reported to have enrolled more people for MOOCs in a ‘single year than have attended the University in its 377-year history’.[4] A future Whitepaper will explore MOOCs more closely.

Of course, many of these initiatives and technologies rely on connectivity and access to the internet that the maritime sector – for the moment – does not always enjoy. We have to rely on proven technology which will work consistently and reliably in the harsh physical, operating and commercial climates of the shipping industry. Videotel’s NVOD system is a solution with which we can manage this dynamic background and it will continue to do so until every ship in the world fleet gets 24/7 broadband at a price we can all afford. Rest assured Videotel is poised and ready for the day!

So, what’s the framework underpinning all this? From tablets biblical to digital, from mail to MOOCs, from film to Flickr? They’re all about being open, flexible, distance, distributed – terms used side-by-side with the word ‘learning’. Learning is the link and so often we fail in our understanding of the word – which is something to be explored in the next Videotel Whitepaper.

...and we haven’t even started on teaching or training yet!


Author: Dr Chris Haughton



Lockwood, F. and Gooley, A. (2001). Innovation in Open and Distance Learning. Successful Development of Online and Web-based Learning. London. Kogan Page.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO). (2011) International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, Including 2010 Manila Amendments. London. IMO.


Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 16:22

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Distance Learning - Part 2

In the last Whitepaper we recognised that ‘distance learning’, as a concept, is as old as the hills – but that our understanding of it and the technology by which it’s delivered has changed considerably over time and continues to race ahead. The common denominator, we found, was ‘learning’: our understanding of it and engagement with it. This is a vast area to explore and will take a series of papers to cover adequately.

This Whitepaper will begin a journey whose destination will be an appreciation of the current state of structured learning that we think we’ve reached in our sector and that Videotel seeks to embed in its materials. But before we get there, it may be useful to reflect on the process of learning, its different forms and how our present level of understanding explains it. A short story may help to set the scene.

Recently, I was walking along the seawall path close to my home in the UK. It overlooks Morecambe Bay, a vast estuary, where the tide can go out over three miles on spring lows. There’s a derelict structure about two miles offshore - the Wyre Light - which dries at low water and stands about 12m high. I overheard three young lads discussing it loudly. ‘It looks titchy [= small]’ said one. ‘That’s ‘cos it’s miles away’, said another. ‘But when you get close, it’s massive’ said the third. The boy then looked around to try and explain what he’d meant. Pointing to some bungalows, he said ‘if you put that one on top of that one on top of that one – that’s how high it is! D’you get it?’ Nods all round. His friends (and I) were impressed.

Their discourse on perspective was forgotten and they ran off to play football. But this was an example of learning in its raw form and a privilege to hear. A problem (how high is the light?) followed by discussion (it looks small but that’s because it’s far away), reflection (how do I explain it?) and, most wondrous of all, an animated illustration using effective teaching aids (houses). Understanding confirmed - a result! Unconscious, unstructured, unevaluated, no formal assessment - or teacher - in sight – but learning nevertheless. The boys will probably never remember the event, just as the many thousands of minuscule, similar encounters we have all faced as we have grown up, repeated over and over again and which have informed our development. Hopefully, as they grow older and as their learning becomes more structured, the boys will be encouraged to develop an effective methodology, embrace relevant theory and so test their hypotheses more rigorously.

And talking about theory, it will be no surprise that teaching and learning comes with its fair share of it. Should it? Well, teaching and learning has been described as a complex mixture of science and art. Where the balance lies between these two extremes will depend on your point of view. But if we acknowledge even an ounce of science in the process (and I believe there’s much more than that!) then we have to accept that theory will play a part in explaining how things are and predicting how things will be. For, by definition, all science is based on theory.

Theory is sometimes dismissed as not being relevant to the ‘real world’. Leaving aside the paradox that this position is in itself, of course, a theory, surely we need to make sense of any activity in which we’re engaged? Theory serves many functions and seeks to explain phenomena in as simple a fashion as possible.

There are three fundamental schools of psychology that inform learning theory: behaviourist, cognitive and humanist. They complement one another and there are overlaps between them. Each of these main ‘taxonomies’ (or categorisations) contains sub-divisions.


Schools of Psychology


Behaviourists argue that essentially you can only measure what you see and that our behaviours can be explained in terms of our response to various stimuli and external influences. Cognitive theory admits the influence of ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ and maintains that an appreciation of this is essential if we are to understand how people come to learn. ‘Humanists’ emerged as a reaction against behaviourism. They argue that learning has to meet the emotional and developmental needs of students, who must be encouraged towards self-actualisation.

An understanding of these positions is crucial to an understanding of teaching and learning. The theories underpin and help to explain the ways in which students might absorb learning and which may lead subsequently to behavioural change. But also, learning theory influences the design, delivery and evaluation of curricula and learning materials. It may even – perhaps unwittingly – influence conventions and statutes that prescribe what we all have to learn.

So, the next few Whitepapers will explore each of these psychological perspectives starting out with the behaviourist school of thought. It will only be possible to paint a broad picture – but there will be references to take up for those who may wish to explore further. Meanwhile, I wonder if we‘ll able to situate the learning of the boys in Morecambe Bay within any of the theoretical frameworks? Something to ponder until next time.


Author: Dr C J Haughton FNI FIfL

Education Consultant to Videotel



Curzon, L.B. (2006). Teaching in Further Education. 6th Ed. London. Continuum.

Petty, G. (2004). Teaching Today. 3rd Ed. Cheltenham, UK. Nelson Thornes.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 January 2014 16:23

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