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Behaviorist VS Cognitive


Learning is the “relatively permanent change in behavior” (Burns, R., 2002) and
can come in the form of observable activities and internal processes.
Explanations of what happens when these actions occur are known as learning
theories. These theories include behaviorist, cognitivist, humanist, social learning
and constructivist. In this essay behaviorist and cognitivists will be described,
compared and contrasted in order to truly understand their approaches.


The behaviorist approach attempts to study learning and behavior within a

scientific tradition and was developed by John B. Watson in the early 20th
century. Three assumptions set out its notions: The focus of study is generally
observable behavior, the environment shapes behavior, and the principles of
contiguity and reinforcement are essential in explaining the learning process
(Grippin, P., & Peters, S., 1984).

Behaviorists maintain the assumption that we see and experience the world
exactly as it presents itself physically, for everyone. This therefore leads to the
notion that everything functions according to natural laws, and any change
occurring is due to a cause and effect. Hence, this theory focuses on how
environmental stimuli elicit behavior and responses.


Gestalt’s views of Bode, Wertheimer, Kohler, Koffka and Lewin later criticised the
behaviorist theory in 1929, through publications. These psychologists proposed
“looking at the whole rarther than its parts, and at patterns instead of isolated
events” (Ormrod, J. E., 1995).
Soon termed as the cognitive approach, it showed that such learners would
gather all resources necessary to solve a problem, and then put them together in
different methods until the problem is solved. Insight is gained upon completion,
whereas it isn’t apparent if the problem remains unsolved. Finally, evaluation is
adopted in order to check correct processing methods. Therefore, the individual
is accounting for organized wholes, and not disconnected parts of the individual
stimuli under this theory.


There are different assumptions in the learning and understanding process for
both the behaviorist and cognitive theories. Under behaviorism, one acts on
stimulation, whereas in cognitive they act on consideration.

Through stimulations, behaviorists are subjected to respond to stimuli through

our environment and experiences, and the actions and reactions are automatic. It
could be noted that inference and reflection are used to make decisions, but
these people are actually predetermined to answer in certain ways. The original
idea of free will is imaginary (Buchanan, K 1997). A single action may be the
consequence of an individual's childhood or even their formal education,
amongst other things.

In order to educate students, a behaviorist’s role is to perceive a high response

to stimuli. For example, a teacher’s may use reward systems when a student
answers a question correctly. If the correct response is constant, therefore the
teacher's initial methods of instruction are quite effective. If students do not
constantly respond correctly, then the methods may need variation and change.
Hence, students are able to learn by building upon stimulus-response affiliations,
both for content, skills and abilities.

Behaviorists evaluate effectiveness of a teaching procedure through observable

behavior (Phillips, D. C., & Soltis, J. R., 1985). A behaviorist wouldn't be content if
their students only declared to know the right answer. Behaviorists base their
interpretations and rationale on objective observations. Observable behavior is
the measure for behaviorist theory and methods. This then leads to the
understanding that a behaviorist doesn't attempt to interpret or forecast the
invisible workings of the mind, beyond what an objective measure would be able
to distinguish.

The factors underpinning behaviorist orientation can defiantly be applied to

workplace training and development. The most notable system in place in many
of today’s organizations would be the use of reward systems for high
achievements of labour. An employee may receive commission or pay rises in
the event of high productivity, or possibly their long existing loyalty to the
company and reliability to management.

The cognitive theory encounters the intricacy of the mind in contrast to this
(Greeno, J., Collins, A. M., & Resnick, 1996). Individual humans are observed as
people who make considerations, with their own free will. Cognitivists act and
respond using judgment and reflection, and are dependant on complicated
mental models of concepts (to differing degrees).

Teaching through this theory would take the role of aiding students in developing
their cognitive capability to store, connect, and recollect thoughts efficiently and
effectively (Skinner, B. F., 1978). As an example, a teacher would directly use a
visulisation to increase one’s retention and recall rates. Such methods can also
be utilised in the workplace, in training and development. A common example of
this would be the visual stimulus of signs posted around workplaces reminding
workers of their duties and tasks, as well as safety procedures that are currently
in place (ie- Occupational Health and Safety).

It can be observed that cognitivists are being dependent on mental models, as

they cannot objectively distinguish them. Cognitive psychologists substitute this
by trying to describe logical stories about mental activity, based on what can be
seen. In comparison to behaviorism, this perspective further explains synthesis
and originality much more clearly, because humans are able to combine and
extend their mental models (Buchanan, K 1997). These productive actions are
much harder to interpret under behaviorism, which seems to underestimate one’s
instinctive or experiential-based understandings in free will, motivation, and also
vision. Instead, behaviorism does not reduce these understandings, but in turn
claims that teachers or facilitators are dependant on observable behaviors in
order to demonstrate theories, while educating their students in their appropriate
teaching role.

The obligation on teachers to pinpoint the most effective ways to condition

students is brought forth through behaviorism. In contrast, the cognitive theory
places this obligation on students to direct their own mental processes.
Therefore, cognitive psychologists appreciate extensive innovation above step-
by-step habits, whereas behaviorists assess the habits. The cognitive
perspective favors the assessment of applied thinking.


To finalise the analysis of the two theories, one can summarise five important
aspects that determine each theory individually, and follow it up by answering the
question: ‘Which theory is favoured?’

The view of the learning process for a behaviorist is change in behavior, while a
cognitivist views internal mental process (including insight, information
processing, memory and perception).

The locus of learning for behaviorists is the stimuli in external environments,

whereas cognitivists have internal cognitive structuring.

The purpose of education in terms of behaviorists is to produce behavioral

change in a desired direction, and cognitivists develop capacity and skills to learn
The teacher’s role through behaviorists is to arrange the environment to elicit
desired response, while a cognitivist may structure the content of a learning

And the manifestation in adult learning in relation to behaviorists include;

behavioral objectives; competency based education and skills development and
training. A cognitivist side would include; cognitive development; intelligence,
learning and memory as a function of age; and learning how to learn (Merriam &

It is noticeable that the organisational necessity of instructional efficiency and

appropriate managing of resources, will tend to favour the behaviorist approach,
whereas deliberation of learner characteristics and factors brings teachers to
employ more cognitive approaches in educating others (Burns, R., 2002).

In conclusion, both the behaviorist and cognitive orientations present unique and
interesting theories for education. The applied learning, knowing, and
development are complicated notions to adopt, and each assumption has
specific advantages and limitations. There is no individual cognitive outcome that
is widely preferable. They both endure useful concepts and models for society to
implement. Therefore each is priceless in directing and guiding research and
appropriate teaching methodology in workplaces today.