Behaviorism, Constructivism & Cognitivism, Oh My!

by Stacey Mundo

Behaviorism as a psychological theory is generally attributed to B.F. Skinner and is often summed up as the belief that learning occurs through means of reinforcement and punishment. (Wyatt, 2001).  Though Skinner’s work was published more than 50 years ago, there is still great debate in the educational and psychological fields.  Popular culture is even familiar with a behaviorism experiment, often referred to as Pavlov’s dogs.  In this experiment,
Pavlov showed that the dogs would salivate when a stimulus was heard because they had been conditioned to expect food paired with the stimulus.   It is now not uncommon for schools to employ individuals with a master’s degree in Behavior Analysis. 

In sum, the theory is that all human behavior, including thinking, is developed due to antecedents and consequences. This theory has become increasingly popular in recent years with the rise of autism.  A paper published by Ivar Lovaas in 1987 has led to an educational approach called Applied Behavior Analysis. Lovaas’ research demonstrated the astonishing effects of a behaviorism approach to treating children with autism.  Lovaas, and later, Green, Leaf and McEachin, pioneered an approach where complex skills were isolated into discrete skills that could be stimulated and rewarded. Over time, the discrete skills were linked together to explicitly teach the complex skill.  For example, in the initial stages, the child with autism is taught to imitate motor skills. This vital skill is necessary to then be able to teach the child virtually anything else. While it does not appear to be necessary to reward a child for imitating a person when they clap, this is often a skill lacking in young children with autism.  Essentially, this behaviorist approach teaches the child how to learn by observing and imitating, something not inherent in many children with autism. (Maurice, 1994).

Theoretically, the reason this treatment approach works is because it is so strongly based in the Behaviorism theory of learning. Experts in the field explain that typically developing children are rewarded or reinforced by things such as a parent’s smile or a change in tone of voice, and it is in that way that the child learns nearly everything.  Because the child’s behavior is reinforced, they exhibit the behavior again and again.  Behaviors that are not appropriate, such as hitting, either receive no reinforcement, or are punished.  The theory is that if the child perceives the action after the behavior to be not reinforcing, they will stop exhibiting the behavior. 

A constructivism theorist believes that people learn through asking questions, exploring and creating connections between what they already know and new experiences.  Constructivists attempt to “tap into and trigger student’s innate curiosity about the world and how things work”.  The constructivist approach differs from a traditional approach in several ways.  In a traditional approach, curriculum emphasizes basic skills and the information is delivered to the students by textbooks and teacher lecture.  Learning is assessed through individually completed tests.  Opposingly, a constructivist approach emphasized big concepts, primary sources and interactive learning built on what a student already knows. The teacher is interactive and guiding the students.  Learning is assessed by determining how a student is processing the information instead of what they are producing.   Several popular theories are based on the constructivist approach including, Inquiry Learning, Multiple Intelligence Theory and the Montessori Method.  (Brooks, 2013.) 

Cognitivism is another theory in which the learner is viewed as an information processer, similar to a computer.  Each individual processes information differently but the same basic pathways are used. (Jorda & Campbell, 2013).   Essentially, this means that teachers should understand and address the cognitive processes going on inside the student.  Several well-known theorists have sought to propel this theory forward, such as Bloom, Marzano and Vygotsky.   Cognitivism focuses on the learner’s methods of processing information.  How a learner processes information, their memory and their individual learning style is all related to the cognitivist theory of learning.  By intentionally strengthening these processes or by explicitly teaching a student a mental skill such as visualizing or mnemonics, the student increases their ability to learn.

To me, each of these theories offers a layer of teaching for an educator.  These theories must be balanced in one’s mind as one is designing and delivering instruction. When I taught in the classroom my basic approach was to begin my year with a more behaviorist approach to teaching. It was my hope that in the first few weeks of school the student would go home excited to return the next day.  I worked for a solid six weeks in the beginning of the year to develop routines and procedures. I reviewed expectations and rewarded students extrinsically for the first few months.
While laying this foundation, I began to teach the students about their own thinking: metacognition.  I focused heavily on think alouds, graphic organizers, and mental processes such as memory and, essentially, learning how to learn.  We worked on how to work as a pair, in a group or as a class.  I did this when I taught first grade, third grade and middle school.  Once I felt that students where fluent in procedures, routines and thinking processes, I spent the rest of the year primarily focused on the constructivist approach to learning.

For the majority of the year, I circled back to the behaviorist approach when there was an issue such as a lack of homework being turned in, talking during centers or inappropriate behavior in the hallways. I continued to teach lessons on thinking-processes, especially in small groups. However, the majority of my teaching centered around students asking questions and finding the answers – the constructivist approach. In math, we completed projects where I sought for the moment when students would discover the concept, rather than me simply teaching them the steps.  I designed lessons, or found lessons online, that enabled students to manipulate information and digest it before drawing their own conclusions. In reading, I encouraged students to choose their own material and thoroughly document their thinking through the book. I worked with them as individuals, in small groups and as a class to explore their thinking and expand it.  By March, I almost felt as though I wasn’t teaching, I was simply there guiding students along their own path of learning.  Students would frequently spontaneously make connections, ask questions or do independent study in the latter part of our school year together. I even had optional assignments that many students would choose to pursue.

Typically, a school district adopts a “boxed” curriculum that is more heavily influenced by a behaviorist approach in that the student is given information, practices the skill, is reinforced or punished through a graded test and then the entire process is repeated the following week with a different skill.  These skills are generally designed to layer upon one another until the most complex skills are addressed later in the year.  Even the standards teachers have used for the last decade have been based on the part-to-whole approach.  In a boxed curriculum, there are activities in the beginning of the unit and sprinkled throughout that rely more on a constructivist or cognitivist approach, but the core of the program is skill and drill. 

With the adoption of the Common Core standards, I see this as a major shift away from relying so heavily on the behaviorism approach to teaching. I see that thinking processes and students constructing their own conclusions as being the focus. It will be a challenge for many teachers to shift their education practices from skill and drill to inquiry learning. This offers an excellent opportunity for education publishers to radically change their approach to curriculum design.

Technology is an obvious area where the skill and drill approach no longer works.  When my parents were in school, they were specifically taught how to use technology that was available at the time. My mother took typing and sewing classes and my father learned how to operate a wide variety of machines. When I was in middle and high school, we were explicitly taught step by step how to use various computer programs.  With the technology rapidly growing and changing today toddlers are learning how to navigate smart phones, iPads and laptops by themselves.  Elementary and middle school aged children are often far more advanced in their technology skills than their parents.  This natural progression has gone through the gamut of education theory as well.  No longer do we need to teach students step by step how to use technology.  We simply need to allow them to use the technology for an educational purpose. The purpose might simply be for them to flex their problem solving skills in learning how iMovie works, or trying out a new voice-activated software.  We can simply guide them to be aware of questions they have, issues they would like to learn more about, or topics they find interesting, and then allow them to research on their own.  We can gently push them to make connections and think at a higher level about the answers they find. 

This is an exciting time in education, as the skill and drill approach does not work for many students, thus they end up in special education placements, or ultimately dropping out of school.  Students that have been able to navigate the skill and drill approach are often ill prepared for college level thinking or the higher level thinking required in many jobs.  As a nation, we have been so preoccupied with proving that teachers are or are not doing their jobs that we’ve lost sight of what the job should be.  Students should be developing their thinking skills so that they can enter the modern world ready to tackle the problems of the future.  There is no boxed curriculum that can teach students how to solve problems that don’t even yet exist. 


Brooks, J. (2013). Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. Retrieved from www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index_sub3.html
Jorda, M. & Campbell, S. (2013). Cognitivism and constructivism. Retrieved from www.coe. Fau.edu/faculty/cafolla/courses/eme6051/cognitivism.htm
Lovaas, I. (1987). Behavioral treatment and normal education and intellectual functioning in young autistic children.  doi:10.1037/0022-006x.55
Maurice, C. Green, G. & Luce, S. (1996).  Behavioral intervention for young children with autism. Pro Ed.
Maurice, C. (1994). Let me hear your voice. Ballantine Books.
Wyatt, J. (2001). Some myths about behaviorism that are undone in B. F. Skinner’s “The Design of Cultures”. Behavior & Social Issues, 11-1:28-30.