A BEHAVIORAL VIEW OF LEARNING

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1 Chapter 10 Classical Conditioning Classical Conditioning: The Story of Dogs and Little Albert A BEHAVIORAL VIEW OF LEARNING As you read below you may come to think that behavioral learning theories seem somewhat mechanical. They are concerned with stimuli and responses, strengthening behaviors using reinforcement, charting rewards, and such. Again remember, a theory is used, not to predict what might humans do, but to understand the things humans have done and are doing. Behavioral learning theories can provide such understanding. As well, they offer insight into important elements of teaching and learning and they are essential for classroom management as well. Behaviorism is a school of psychology that, in its purest form, examines only outward behavior when trying to understand learning. From a behaviorist point of view, learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior (or behavioral potentiality) that occurs as a result of experience (Hergenhahn & Olson 2005). This change must be something that can be measured outwardly. The concept of the mind and the thoughts, feelings, dispositions, emotions, or states of consciousness that may dwell therein cannot be observed directly and thus, are not of interest for the pure behaviorist. Behavioral learning theories seek to describe or control the conditions (or stimuli) that affect an organism and cause it respond with particular behaviors. This is conditioning. Classical conditioning is described in this chapter. Operant conditioning (sometimes called instrumental conditioning) is described in the next chapter. CLASSICAL CONDITIONING Classical condition, a type of associative learning, is where two stimuli occur together enough times so that they eventually become associated with each other. The result of this association is that each stimulus eventually produces a similar response. To illustrate, let us say that the smell of spoiled milk caused you to shudder. By presenting spoiled milk together with a specific buzzer sound many times you would eventually create the condition where just the buzzer sound would cause you to shudder even when the spoiled milk was not present. Learning then is a matter of strengthening the bond between two stimuli (spoiled milk and buzzer) so that both stimuli elicit the same response (shudder). Originally, classical conditioning only focused on reflexive behavior such as the salivation reflex of Pavlov s dog (described below). More recently, voluntary responses to conditioned stimuli have also been included in classical conditioning, as well as looking at emotions and internal states. Ivan Pavlov Two names often associated with classical conditioning are Ivan Pavlov and John Watson. Each is examined here. Russian Physiologist, Ivan Pavlov ( ) was a biologist who was trying to understand the digestive system in dogs. One day he noticed (quite by accident) that not only did the placing meat power in a dog s mouth cause his dog to salivate; but the dog also began to salivate when things (or stimuli) associated with the meat powder were present such as the sound of the door, the food dish, or the sight of the food person. He then conducted experiments where the stimuli was limited to just the sound of a bell paired with meat powder. Through this pairing, the dog eventually came to salivate when just the sound of the bell was present (no meat powder). This is called classical conditioning (or respondent conditioning). Here a neutral stimulus (bell) is repeatedly paired with a stimulus (meat powder) that causes a particular reaction (response) so that the neutral stimulus eventually creates the same response as the original stimulus (see Figure 10.1). This represents the principle of continuity which states that when two things are paired together enough times, the one thing will be associated with the other.

2 Pavlov s Salivating Dog Pavlov noticed that presenting meat powder (an unconditioned stimuli or UCS) to his dog caused it to salivate (an unconditioned response or UCR). The original stimuli and response are unconditioned because both occurred naturally without any conditioning. During the conditioning the meat powder (UCS) was paired with a neutral stimulus (NS). The neutral stimulus was a bell. Neutral here means that the sound of the bell by itself did not cause any particular response in the dog. The bell and the meat were then presented together many times. Each time, these paired stimuli produced the same response (UCR) which was salivation. The bond between the bell and the meat power became strengthened so that eventually the bell by itself produced the same response (salivation). The salivation then became the conditioned response (CR) because the dog had to be conditioned to respond to the bell this way. The bell had been conditioned to become a stimulus by itself and was now the conditioned stimulus (CS). Figure Classical conditioning. Classical Conditioning Before Conditioning 1. Before conditioning, the unconditioned stimuli (UCS) in the form of meat powder, leads to an unconditioned response (UCR) in the form of salivation. UCS [meat powder] = UCR [salivation] During Conditioning 2. During conditioning the unconditioned stimuli is pair with a neutral stimuli (NS), in the form of a bell. This also leads to a unconditioned response in the form of salivation. UCS [meat powder] + NS [bell] = UCR [salivation] 3. The neutral stimuli (bell) becomes associated with the unconditioned stimuli (meat powder) so that it becomes a conditioned stimuli. That is, through conditioning it has become a stimuli. NS [bell] + UCS [meat powder] = CS [bell is associated with meat powder]. After Conditioning 4. Now the CS (bell) elicits a conditions response (salivation). This response has been learned through conditioning. CS [bell] = CR [salivation].

3 John Watson While the roots of behaviorism are to be found in Pavlov s work, John Watson ( ) is known as the founder of behaviorism (Hergenhahn & Olson 2005). Before him psychology was studied mainly through introspection (people studying their own thought processes and internal states). Watson, who was highly influenced by Pavlov, brought a degree of scientific rigor to the field by moving away from the study of consciousness, which he believed to be a very subjective entity that could not be reliably measured. According to Watson, mental events (anything happening in the conscious or unconscious mind), could not be dealt with directly and thus should be avoided in the study of psychology. Instead, psychology should only study behavior and the conditions or experiences that affect or cause behavior. These were things that could be objectively observed and measured. To Watson, personality was nothing more than a collection of conditioned reflexes. He believed humans inherited only three emotions: anger, fear, and love. It was through classical conditioning that these three emotions and their variations became attached to different stimuli (things, people, and experiences). He described humans as responding organisms who go through life constantly responding to various stimuli in their environment. Over time certain reflexive patterns became reinforced through classical conditioning. According to Watson, the variability in people was a result of their varied experiences not inherited ability. Poor Little Albert Watson and Rosalie Rayner (1920) conducted the classic (and highly unethical) experiment involving an 11-month old child named Albert, a white rat, and a steel bar and hammer. Before the experiment, Albert was presented with a white rat. He showed no fear, reaching out to touch it when he saw it. During the initial part of the experiment when Albert again saw the rat he reached for it. As soon as he touched the rat a researcher behind Albert hit the steel bar with a hammer. This made a very loud noise causing Albert to jump violently, fall forward, and cry. Again, when he saw the rat and reached for it the same thing occurred. There were several more pairings like this between the rat and the sound. Eventually Albert developed a strong fear of the rat. When the rat was presented to Albert he would fall over, begin to cry, and try to crawl away. The experiment continued. Albert was taught, in the same manner, to fear a variety of other objects that were not feared at the beginning of the experiment such as a dog, a rabbit, cotton, a fur coat, and a Santa Clause mask. In this experiment Watson showed that emotional reactions could be altered through classical conditioning. Here the loud banging noise was the UCS. Albert s physical reaction to the noise was the UCR.

4 When the UCS was paired with the rat, the rat became the CS. Watson s explanation was slightly different from Pavlov s. While Pavlov would say that the UCS (banging sound) reinforces the CS (rat); Watson would say that these two followed each other in closely in time so that the one became associated with the other. Learning, according to Watson, occurs because of the close succession of events (things happen together). The more often they occur together, the stronger the bond or association between events. This is known as the law of contiguity. Classical Conditioning and Humans Going beyond Watson, we can also look at classical conditioning as it involves a person s emotional state. That is, we can examine the conditions or behaviors (UCS) that produce a particular emotional reaction (UCR). How does classical conditioning appear in real life? One illustration would be the physical reaction most people have when they hear the sound of the dentist s drill. The sound is closely associated with the very unpleasant sensation of a dentist drilling your teeth. Thus, the very sound creates a physical reaction. Another real-life example of classical conditioning related to education would be the pairing of a warm, nurturing teacher (UCS) with a particular classroom (NS). If a child s response to a particular classroom teacher was to become relaxed and less anxious (UCR); the classroom (CS) associated with the teacher would have the same effect (CR) whether or not the teacher was there. In the same way, children with learning disabilities often experience failure (UCS) and humiliation at school. They become anxious, tense, and angry (UCR) in classroom learning situations (UCS). Eventually, school and everything related has the same negative effect and school becomes a very depressing place to be. A second real life example to consider would be reading instruction. Instruction that involves reading for pleasure, enjoying great books, having choices in reading selections, learning interesting things, and having interesting discussions (UCS) generally produces a pleasurable response (UCR). When students enjoy reading class, reading books become associated with pleasure. When books are associated with pleasure, students are more apt to read for pleasure outside of school. However, when reading instruction that involves drudgery, drill and practice worksheets, activities used to test students ability to regurgitate story details, and activities that ask students to sound out lists of nonsense words; it generally produces a negative response. It becomes far less likely that children would pick up and read a book for pleasure outside of school. This type of instruction becomes a detriment for many reasons, the most important being that voluntary reading (the reading you do on your own outside of school) is highly correlated with academic achievement (Cox, 2001; Cunningham, 2006). In the current academic climate, because of the emphasis on high stakes testing, schools have become very tense, competitive places. High stakes testing is when decisions about a student, teacher, or school are made based on the results of a single test. The result of this is that schools and teachers spend more time preparing students for standardized tests and less time focusing on learning, experimenting, exploring new ideas, or creative new ventures in learning. In these cases, the curriculum becomes limited to that which will be on the test. Opportunities to learn become constricted. Learning becomes something that is done to the child instead of something children do and school becomes associated with something negative. Terms and Concepts Related to Classical Conditioning The following terms and concepts are also related to classical conditioning. Classical Conditioning - Pairing one thing with another to produce a similar response. Generalization - Responding to stimuli that are similar to the UCS. Here an organism that has been

5 condition to respond to a particular stimulus (CS) also responds to similar or related stimuli. Using Pavlov s experiment, the dog would initially respond to a particular bell. Through generalization it might be taught to bell sounds at different tones, or sounds that were similar to the bell sound such as a gong. Discrimination - Being able to distinguish one stimulus from others. Here the organism is able to tell the difference between the stimuli and others that are similar. Pavlov s dog would respond to a bell but not to a gong. Extinction - The weakening of a conditioned response. When the CS becomes absent from the UCS the UCR disappears. That is, if the bell was run without the meat powder many times, Pavlov s dog would eventual stop salivating. The responding behavior would become extinct. Systematic Desensitization- Based on classical conditioning, this is a method to reduce anxiety by getting people to associate comforting or happy thoughts with stressful situation that produces anxiety. For example, a student becomes very anxious when taking tests. Through systematic desensitization, the student would be put in a series of test-like condition and be asked to imagine or visualize a happy time. Since comfort and anxiety are incompatible emotions, the student would eventually become less anxious in these situations. Classical Conditioning and the Master Teacher Teachers must do their best to pair learning with pleasurable experiences so as to avoid the negative effects of classical conditioning. But do all learning experiences have to be fun? No, certainly not. But neither do they all have to be boring, useless, frustrating, disconnected, impersonal, contrived, or irrelevant. What separates the master teacher from those with growth potential is the ability of the former to make learning interesting, successful, relevant, and personal to the greatest extent possible. And, while a teacher would not necessarily try to condition a human being to act in ways that are unnatural to him or her, understanding classical conditioning can help in understanding the forces that shape students and cause them to act and react. Master teachers also strive to design learning experiences that reflect and respect students natural ways of learning, their curiosity, or the developmental tasks confronting them to the greatest degree possible. Summary of Key Ideas Behaviorism studies only outward behaviors when trying to understand learning. Behavioral learning theories seek to describe or control the conditions (or stimuli) that affect an organism and cause it respond with particular behaviors. Classical condition is where two stimuli occur together enough times so that they eventually become associated with each other. Through classical conditioning a condition stimulus eventual produces a similar response as an unconditioned stimulus. References Cox, K. (2001). Motivational and cognitive contributions to students amount of reading. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26, Cunningham, P.M. (2006). Struggling readers: High-poverty schools that beat the odds. The Reading Teacher, 60, Hergenhahn, B. R., & Olson, M. H. (2005). An introduction to theories of learning (7 th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall. Watson, J.B. & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

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