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Although the field of educational psychology is concerned with all the psychological
aspects of the educational process, its primary goal is to discover how people learn. Many
Educational psychologists have conducted numerous experiments on animals and humans
to determine the process of learning.

• Behaviourism
Behaviorists believe that learning is the result of experience which can be observed
and tested over and over again in the same way as in any other scientific

J.B.Watson (1878-1956)
Watson is one of the strong believers of behaviorism which is based upon
laboratory experiments conducted on animals. According to him and other
behaviorists, an event occurring in the environment is called stimulus and the
behavior the individual exhibits is called the response. Behavioral Psychologists
have conducted experiments on animals to determine how the stimulus-response
bonds (S-R bonds) lead to learning. By repeating the experiments, they found out
that the S-R bonds are strengthened when they are repeated and attain a stage
called conditioning. It means that the individual becomes associated with
stimulants in the environment so that whenever the stimulus occurred the
behavior occurred. A dog’s salivation when food was presented was observed to
repeat every time the stimulus occurred.

Watson believed that learning happened as a result of the repeated formation of S-

R bonds. He also believed that the results of the experiments conducted on
animals hold good for humans as well. His belief was such strong that once he
said, ‘Give me a dozen healthy children and I will guarantee to take anyone at
random and make him or her to be any type of specialist- a doctor, engineer,
lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, thief or even a beggar.’

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

Watson seems to have been inspired by Pavlov’s experiments on animals
including the experiment on the salvation of the dog. The dog in the above
experiment was made to respond to the arrival of meat powder by salivating. The
experiment showed that at first the dog salivated when it saw the food but after a
number of repetitions it was found that the dog started salivating even when it
heard the footsteps of the feeder arriving. This type of response is called a
conditioned response. Similarly, the sound of the feeder’s footsteps was called
conditioned stimulus.7

More experiments were conducted using children to find out that a conditioned
stimulus leads to a conditioned response. An example is that a child may not only


refuse to go to a doctor who gave a painful injection several times but also will be
scared when he saw the doctor’s clinic.

Thorndike (1874-1949)
He is said to be one of the greatest Educational Psychologists who believed that
some behavior was attributed to natural reflexes like salivating or sudden removal
of the hand from heat but there is another behavior due to stimulus found in the
environment. From his experiments (mostly on animals) Thorndike also found
that stimulus occurring after the behavior helped to learn. He presented the
stimulus (food pellets) to pigeons after they walked along the required line and
found that rewarding at the right responses-initiated learning. Similarly, not
providing food pellets for wrong responses (punishment) reduced unwarranted
behavior, considerably.

Skinner too believed only environmental factors affect behavior and rejected any
involvement of emotions, consciousness, motives, and intentions as only bi-
products and not major factors pertaining to learning. Most of Skinner’s
experiments were also with animals like cats and white rats. The stimuli occurring
after the behavior are called reinforcers. Rewards or pleasant reinforcers result in
positive reinforcement and which enhance learning while punishment or
unpleasant reinforcers reduce learning, rather remove what had already been
learned. It may help in removing undesirable behavior.

Skinner’s work shows that a process called stimulus generalization happens

where the individual begins to apply the same behavior at similar situations such
as a child using the experience, he got at the classroom 10 times 4 is equal to 40 at
a shop to pay 40 cents for 4 pieces of items each of which costs 10 cents.

• A cognitive theory of learning

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) believed children are active learners and behave like
little scientists who develop their own theories about how the world works and set
out to confirm their beliefs. This is in great contrast to the behaviorist version that
children are passive learners who merely react to the stimuli of the environment.

Piaget uses several ‘technical terms’ to name various stages of learning. Many
times, the subjects of his experiments were his own children. The word he uses
for the already existing understanding is schema (Plural- schemata). It is the
mental representation of what one has learned responding to the environment

When new learning comes the child tries to fit them into already existing
schemata. This process, Piaget called assimilation. A child may have had a belief
that Santa Claus comes through the chimney but due to conflicting stories by
other children, he may try to change his belief as Santa Claus is somebody who
comes from outside, by assimilating new evidence. However, at a later stage, he
may find his father or a family member dressing up as Santa Claus and he would
accommodate the new information to change his previous belief to a new belief.

Piaget’s stages of cognitive development

Stage Age range Major Characteristics

Sensorimotor Birth to 2 years Increased goal-directed behavior

Object performance
Preoperations 2 to 6-7 years Egocentrism
Collective monologues
Magical thinking
Parallel play
Dramatic play

Concrete Operations 6-7 to 11-12 Classification

Class inclusion

Formal operations 11-12 and older Abstract thinking

Scientific reasoning
Hypothesis testing
Adolescent egocentrism
Adolescent disentrenchment