THEORIES OF LEARNING
A learning theory is an attempt to describe how people and animals learn, thereby helping us understand the inherently complex process of learning. Learning theories have two chief values according to Hill (2002). One is in providing us with vocabulary and a conceptual framework for interpreting the examples of learning that we observe. The other is in suggesting where to look for solutions to practical problems. The theories do not give us solutions, but they do direct our attention to those variables that are crucial in finding solutions.
Now we will discuss theory of behaviorism of B.F. Skinner Theory of Instrumental or Operant Conditioning.
B.F. Skinner Theory of Instrumental or Operant Conditioning
Instrumental conditioning theory of learning was formulated by B.F. Skinner. Who was an American Psychologist. His theory came based on the lapses discovered in the classical conditioning theory. Skinner believed that classical conditioning explained only how behaviour that has already been acquired can occur in the presence of a new stimulus (Iversen, 1992). Operant or instrumental conditioning, however, believed that most learning consist of acquiring new behaviour. He believed that behaviour is an outcome of response that follows the action. The learner will possibly repeat the action or a particularbehaviour if it is followed/ rewarded with a pleasant consequence (positive reinforcement).
Skinner explained the two types of responses in his theory. One can be elicited only by the stimulus or information an individual acquires at a particular period (reflex response). For example, stepping on a sharp object or touching a hot metal will originally make someone to produce reflex response. The second type is the response that an individual elicits following his/her own decision. This type of response is called operant conditioning. It is based on the fact that behaviour operates upon the environment to generate its own response. This operant behaviour emits voluntary response. Operant conditioning believes that behavioural responses become connected to environmental stimuli largely as a result of what happens after the response occurs.
To establish his claims, Skinner performed many experiments with pigeons and white rats in the laboratory. He constructed a box (Skinner box) with a small lever inside it. The lever releases food to the animals whenever the lever is pressed. In one of the experiments, an hungry rat is placed in the box and if the rat presses the lever, the food would drop for it. The lever in this box is mechanically connected to a device that automatically records every attempt the rat made. In the box the rat moved around tirelessly and each time the lever is pressed, the food falls for the rat. The rat becomes persistent in pressing the lever so that the food could fall. The food that comes down for the rat reinforces its action, this lever pressing becomes a conditioned response for the rat. In contrast, if the food is not accompanied with the pressing of lever, the number of presses would fall gradually to the
lowest point. In this type of theory, it is the result or consequence of a behaviour that makes that behaviour more likely to be repeated on learned. If the result of behaviour is gratifying, one is likely to respond the same way the next time one encounters that stimulus. In the above experiment, the pressing of lever becomes instrument (instrumental).
Skinner in this theory identified the two types of reinforcers, they arepositive and negative reinforcers. The stimulus that occurs after a response is called a reinforcer. Giving a pleasant or complimentary remark to a student for scoring a good mark in an assignment or homework is a positive reinforcer. By this action, it is likely that such a student will want to continue doing his/her assignment promptly. However, the student who receives punishment for misbehaving in the classroom is not likely to repeat the action for which he/she has received unpleasant/negative reward.
Classroom Implications of Instrumental/Operant Conditioning Theory
The teacher should know that the environment or the conditions in which the students learn are very significant to the learning outcomes, hence, the teacher should provide conducive learning environment and conditions for his/her students.
1. Reinforcement is an essential factor if the students must perform well in a given task. To this end, the teacher should not neglect the use of motivation that can adequately propel the students into actions.
2. If a student engages in a disruptive behaviour, the teacher should not reinforce such a behaviour rather, he/she should endeavour to tell such a student the dare consequence of that action.
3. When there is interference in the transfer of experiences by the learners, the teacher may use explanations and reinforcement to strengthen the desired facts and weaken the undesired one.