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Learning Theories and Higher Education

Author -Frank Ashworth, Gabriel Brennan,Kathy Egan, Ron Hamilton and Olalla Saenz

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Behaviourism (click here for summary diagram)

According to Jones and Elcock (2001) the beginning of the twentieth century in the USA was characterised by both a high level of industrialisation and rapid technological change. Urbanisation led to increasing migration to the cities and a restructuring of labour, resulting on the one hand in new social problems which needed to be dealt with. On the other hand, the technological change – such as electric light and telegraph – developed the idea of science as a potential benefit for society. Psychology, then could become the science society needed, and two main schools emerged: progressivism, aimed at social and political reform, and functionalism, the goals of which were to improve the adjustment of the mind to the environment. Behaviourism assumed the ambition to become an exact science and the belief that environment determines personality and behaviour. Behaviourism eventually replaced functionalism thanks to the influence of the progressive movement, which ‘in attempting to provide a technology of social control, found it necessary to concentrate on behaviour, since social control is ultimately the control of behaviour’ (Jones and Elcock , 2001, p.105)

Behaviourism originated as a social science, the goal of which was to predict and control behaviour. Learning was manifested by a change in behaviour, with an emphasis on a connection between a stimulus and a response. From a behaviourist perspective, the goal of education is to ‘ensure survival of human species, societies and individuals’ (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999, p.252). The main principles of behaviourism have a visible impact on third-level education, producing the appearance in the curriculum of behavioural objectives/outcomes, the importance of feedback, skills development and training, computerised and programmed instruction, competency-based education, and constructive pre-alignment of content, teaching methods and assessment.

Humanism (click here for summary diagram)

The concern with the ‘self’ is a hallmark of humanistic psychology which emerged as a protest against the scientific explanation of the person [in the 1960s and 1970s]. Scientific methods reduce the person to the status of being an ‘object’ for scientific enquiry. By contrast humanistic psychology reaffirmed the human qualities of the person (Tennant, 1997, p.12).

Humanism has its roots in counselling psychology & focuses its attention on how individuals acquire emotions, attitudes, values and interpersonal skills. Humanist perspectives tend to be grounded more in philosophy than in research (Ormrod, 1999, p.412).

The main proponents of humanistic psychology are Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Carl Rogers was a counselling psychotherapist and believed that the model of the ideal therapist–client relationship could be applied to other domains, particularly education. In educational terms this would lead to the self-directed learner, with the teacher as the facilitator of student learning. Abraham Maslow’s theory of motivation presented a hierarchy of needs – the highest of which is the need for self-actualisation – which represents the main goal of education from a humanistic point of view.


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