Behaviorism – What Does Pavlov’s Dog Have to Do with Learning Theory?

What does Pavlov’s dog have to do with learning? The foundations of Behaviorism as a theory for explaining human behavior actually started quite by accident.

At the turn of the 1900s, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov was researching the digestive processes of dogs when he noticed something completely unexpected.

Although the dogs in his lab salivated while being fed, they also began to salivate when they associated a stimulus with feeding. For instance, if the dogs heard a bell or saw a lab assistant each time they were fed, they would eventually start salivating anytime they heard the bell or saw the lab assistant – even if they did not receive any food.

This is called “classical conditioning” and it doesn’t just apply to dogs; it applies to human behavior and learning as well. B.F. Skinner would later build upon Pavlov’s work with his research on “operant conditioning,” in which the positive or negative reinforcement of a behavior occurs after the desired response (Alana Barnett, 2015).

Connections to Teaching and Learning

How does Behaviorism fit into Learning Theory? Like Pavlov’s experiment with the dogs, Behaviorism theorizes that all actions or behaviors can be learned and unlearned. When external stimuli cause us to have a reaction, positive reinforcement can encourage us to learn a behavior (and repeat our action in response to the stimulus). Likewise, negative reinforcement can teach us to “unlearn” a behavior (and cease our reaction).

When external stimuli cause us to have a reaction, positive reinforcement can encourage us to learn a behavior (and repeat our action in response to the stimulus). Likewise, negative reinforcement can teach us to “unlearn” a behavior (and cease our reaction).

Behaviorist learning theory looks at learning as teacher-initiated, performance-based, and focused on external behaviors that can be visibly observed by others. As one can imagine, Behaviorism has its limitations. However, it can be useful for learning standards, mathematical formulas, scientific facts, language vocabulary, or other information that can be memorized and has a clear “right” or “wrong” answer.

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