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Behaviourist and Humanist Approaches to Learning

Behaviourist and Humanist Approaches to Learning

The means and style by which material is delivered to a learner depends upon a number of factors, not least of which are the traditions of the environment in which they are being presented. The aim of this essay is to explore both behaviourist and humanist approaches to learning and whether there is a place for the latter in a military environment.

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The behaviourist approach to learning is traditionally used in both military and school environments: it was the main theory from the 1940s to the 1970s. The ideas that give it its foundation are the experiments that were conducted by Ivan Pavlov; these experiments enabled him to influence the behaviour of dogs with the use of external stimuli – an example of this is salivation at the sound of a bell in anticipation of the arrival of food. This was labelled ‘Classical Conditioning’. It was argued that this sort of conditioning plays a big part in human learning, particularly with regard to physiological functioning (i.e. salivation at the sound of a bell) or emotion (i.e. fears and phobias).

James Watson embraced these ideas and was the first to use the term ‘behaviourism’. He believed that it was vital, in order to understand human behaviour and therefore learning, for one to adopt a scientifically measurable approach. He argued that all human behaviour is governed by conditioned responses and as such can be controlled and modified to suit any given purpose. He even went as far as to say that he could train any child to fulfil any job in society as long as he was healthy, as he believed that “ there is nothing from within to develop” (1928).

Both Watson and Pavlov thought “that the simultaneous occurrence of events is sufficient to bring about learning” and is “ordinarily referred to as the contiguity explanation” (Lefrancois 1994). In other words, the sound of a bell will induce salivation in dogs in anticipation of receiving food, once one is associated with the other; the salivation will occur at the sound of a bell after a while, even if there is no food given to the animal. Thorndike saw this in a different way believing that the effect of the response led learning to occur (termed the Law of Effect). He argued that a learner would repeat responses that brought positive results and that behaviour would be modified through a process of trial and error. This idea is what is known as the reinforcement approach which was further developed by B.F.Skinner. He stated that when reinforcement of any response occurs, it will be repeated and that this can enable control to be gained over people. These reinforcements can either be positive or negative – reward or punishment. He fully explored the relationship between responses and reinforcement and concluded that reinforcement brought about learning. This view is referred to as operant conditioning. Skinner contended that for learning to be effective it needed to be tackled in small stages, it needed to be logical/sequential, it needed to be based on prior knowledge, that the desired behaviour needed to be rewarded regularly in the initial stages and that reinforcement of the required or desired behaviour should happen immediately that it occurs. “…Skinner urges educators to focus on reinforcing student success rather than punishing student failure” and that “…reinforcement for appropriate responses is consistent and immediate, and learned behaviours are maintained by intermittent reinforcement schedules” (Ormrod 2004).

As we can see, there is no place for feelings and individual thoughts in behaviourist theory. It is only concerned with what can be observed and it contends that evidence gathered through experiments indicates that there are a number of principles which can be applied to learning and that if these were adopted, the process would be made easier. They are the Law of Effect, the Law of Contiguity, the Law of Exercise (repeating an action or behaviour) and the Law of Reinforcement.

The problem with this is that behaviourism provides only a very limited and mechanistic or mechanical way of looking at the process of learning, which is far too simple. It takes little to no account of the learner as an individual and assumes that the learner is passive and has no exercise of free will; it does not allow for differences in individuals and it can be manipulative if the provider wishes to use it in this way.

By contrast, humanist thinkers such as Maslow and Rogers asked themselves what is it that makes us human. They approached their studies from a completely different angle and looked upon humanity as innately positive, as opposed to previous ideas which apparently painted life in a very dower and pessimistic manner. Rather than concentrating their studies on those who are suffering form illness, they looked at the behaviour of healthy people –“when you select out for careful study very fine and healthy people…you get a very different view of mankind” (Maslow 1971). The humanist approach encourages people to exercise free will in their lives, allowing them to be individuals in their own right and to highlight everything that is positive about them. This enables any given individual to have the opportunity to achieve their maximum possible potential in whatever they choose to do. They contend that purely scientific methods of studying behaviour are inadequate in assessing any human being (Chapter 6 The Humanistic Approach).

Maslow presented his studies in the form of a ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ which indicates that all humans work towards satisfying or attaining their perceived needs “as a ladder of human achievement that must be climbed” (Trigg 2004). This is laid out in the form of a pyramid with each type of need building from the other while being closely interwoven with each other. At the base is the Physiological type which includes basic needs like air, food, water, shelter and sleep; the next type is Safety or Security which is concerned with stability and a feeling of being protected from harm; this leads on to the type which encompasses Belonging and Love which covers relationships with our family and our peers; the fourth level is that of Esteem which deals with issues of achievement, recognition and respect. Maslow separated these and grouped them together and termed them ‘deficiency needs’ or ‘D-motives’ stressing that a lack of fulfilment in an area will cause a person to act to remedy the problem. He felt that the pyramid was the best way to represent this system as people seemed to challenge themselves to achieve and work their way through the types to achieve their full potential; their motivation was to get better and reach their needs leading onto the next level, similar to the way in which a person who is learning a musical instrument will strive hard to achieve the next grade or a computer gamer will keep trying until he achieves the next level.

The final type of needs are called ‘growth needs’, ‘being needs’ or ‘B-motives’ by Maslow. Once the initial needs described above are met, the need for the development within the individual becomes the prime driving force. This is described as Self Actualisation within the pyramid: subsequent versions of the hierarchy included more complex subdivisions within this type of need which serve to break down the areas of personal achievement into smaller categories. Maslow (1968) describes this growth as “…a rewarding and exciting process…” which continues to increase as the person develops throughout their life.

Rogers holds similar views to Maslow when looking at the concept of self actualisation. He believes that humans are able to push themselves to achieve their full potential and that each and every person is unique in their ideas about themselves. They hold their own image of themselves in their minds in terms of how they see themselves, how much value they perceive themselves as having and how they would like to develop in the future. “Whether one calls it a growth tendency, a drive towards self-actualisation, or a forward-moving directional tendency, it is the mainspring of life… it is the urge to expand, extend, become autonomous, develop, mature…” (Rogers 1961). He believed that every individual has the ability to solve their own problems and that his role as a therapist was one of being some kind of ‘facilitator’ to aid the individuals thought processes and progress towards resolving their issues. Each ‘facilitator’ needs to display honesty, empathy and respect towards those whom he is trying to help. This environment is controlled by the individual who is being helped and Rogers believed that this was the only environment in which genuine learning could take place.

Rogers went on to apply these principles to education. ‘Student centred learning’ enables individuals to take responsibility for their learning; the way that the teacher interacts with their class is crucial in the development of an environment that will encourage learning to take place: “…the facilitation of learning rests upon certain attitudinal qualities which exist in the personal relationship between the facilitator and learner” (Rogers 1969). They need to ensure that there are sufficient resources in place to aid the students, that they themselves are prepared to be a living resource and that they are prepared to act as a learner themselves within the classroom. As an idea, this is an alien concept to many teachers, even today. The idea of not being at the head of the class, dictating the direction that the learning is taking is frightening to a good number of educators. The traditional approach to teaching is being firmly challenged here with members of the profession being asked to look at their methods, critically appraise them and react accordingly. The focus in this environment is the student not the teacher and it is “a system of providing learning which has the student at its heart” (Brandes and Ginnis 1986). Rogers (1984) sums this supportive environment up by commenting that “person centred education is much like my rose garden – it needs a caring environment to sustain its beauty.”

This sort of approach in the classroom can be very effective as long as both the staff and the pupils enter into the process wholeheartedly. There are many different activities that can focus on the student as an individual in order to allow them to develop and grow as individuals and learn from each other. Initially it is important for the group to set out ground rules so that every individual is aware of how the process works and to ensure that all of the group feel comfortable with the approach that is being taken. These ground rules can include things like not interrupting or talking over the top of someone when they are speaking, thus encouraging every individual to have respect for the others. Once the group have agreed to these ground rules, every activity can be approached with individuals having the same expectations of each other. It is important to note that if there are any new arrivals to the group, these need revisiting to ensure that the newcomer also feels a sense of ownership for them.

Group activities where everyone has the opportunity to learn are extremely valuable; examples that I have used are mind mapping (brainstorming), problem solving, open discussion and the circle. The great strength of the circle is that everyone can see and hear everyone else; each person, including the facilitator is on the same level and can physically be regarded as being the same – a listener and a learner. The topic of discussion or the theme that is being addressed can then be opened up to the group; each person has the opportunity to speak if they wish to, with the way that this is organised being decided prior to the circle forming. Sometimes hands up can be used, at other times one person in the group can be placed as a chairperson or even a pencil case or ruler could be passed from the person who is speaking to the next person to speak. This way of organising the group allows each person to feel that they can contribute if they wish to and quieter people can also be involved by the facilitator in order to broaden their horizons. It also encourages students to listen to and take notice of the views of others even if they ultimately reject them as not being for them. It encourages people to be open with each other without fear of being laughed at, shouted down or humiliated because of what they think or say. It does take a while to get used to this system of learning but it has huge benefits for all those who are open to it. It allows the student to appreciate and develop their own views through consideration of others, broadening their outlook in the process. I have heard the expression ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of it like that’ during circle time on many occasions.

Circle time can also be used to feedback from small group discussions and research that has been undertaken outside the classroom. Role plays are another excellent way of finding out what a small group have understood about a particular topic, through the content of their offering to the rest of the class. Not only does this allow the students to express themselves in their own way but it also encourages different styles of learners to flourish in the classroom and further encourages students to learn from one another.

Clearly the teacher or facilitator needs to be comfortable with this process as it is taking place and retain their authority within the classroom. This is a difficult balance to find and is one which some people find it almost impossible to do. Within the traditional school environment this sort of approach is unheard of due to the seemingly unstructured and undisciplined way of tackling any work. Military establishments may have the same views due to the highly disciplined nature of what the soldiers are trained to do. However, the question remains as to whether this sort of humanistic approach can work in that environment.

It would seem that whether the approach would work would depend upon the nature of what the learner was attempting to learn and where he is attempting to learn it. The military have traditionally relied upon the behaviourist model as it best suits their purpose. The instructors can employ both positive and negative reinforcement to train the soldiers to do what they have to in the field of battle or ‘theatre of war’. Soldiers do not have time to think about how to reload a weapon or whether it is right to fire when they are in the middle of a battle zone. The way that they are taught reflects the arena in which they will have to perform their set tasks; reloading a weapon today is far easier than it was in the days of muskets, but soldiers still have to be disciplined and keep their heads in difficult pressurised situations. Being taught in a mechanised fashion will help them as tasks will become second nature due to the consistent repetition that has taken place on the training ground. My father could still tell me how to strip down, clean, oil and rebuild his weapon in every detail some 20 years after having left the armed forces. This can also be said of manoeuvres that are vital to the survival of a unit of men. They are ‘drummed’ into the minds of the soldiers so that they are become an automatic reaction to a given stimulus. This could ultimately save their lives and the lives of those around them. An example of this is the reaction to a very loud bang in a public house one day while I was enjoying a drink with my two brothers in law, both then in the Army; they had just returned from Northern Ireland when this incident happened. The loud bang went off and I looked around to find them both on the floor tight up against the skirting boards on opposite sides of the room. This was a conditioned response to the loud bang and was as a result of their extensive survival and battle training. Much of military training cannot afford to concern itself with the individual needs of each of the soldiers – it must simplify the learning so that the whole reacts (as far as possible) in a predicable way. In short, when an order is given it is obeyed immediately, without fail.

There would however seem to be a place for the humanistic approach within the modern military environment too. Within the confines of a classroom, when conducting classes which are concerned with basic skills such as literacy, numeracy and IT there may well be an opportunity to utilise this type of learning strategy. Everyone likes their opinion to be taken notice of, to feel that they are contributing and to be listened to. Those who are undertaking officer training are required to problem solve – this can be done using this different approach and will allow the learner to express themselves as they are doing so. Individuals need to be given the opportunity to develop themselves to the best of their ability and this needs to be facilitated in all environments of learning, including the military. There is a place for freedom of expression, in the right place at the right time. It would seem that there would need to be strong leadership in order that these sorts of methods could be introduced and continue to be used in a military environment, as their implementation would involve a change in long held and established practises. There also needs to be an acknowledgement “that traditional training approaches, which place an emphasis on replication or imitative learning, are unsuited to fostering the longer term individual and organisational development outcomes required by a significantly changed operational environment” (Thomas 2006). Catering for the individual strengths and needs of individual soldiers can foster a greater sense of loyalty in them and an even greater motivation to succeed not only for themselves but their fellow men. This is particularly important in this rapidly changing modern technological world.

In the modern military environment, there would seem to be a place for both the traditional behaviourist and the humanist approaches to learning. Given that all those involved understand that certain situations require different methods of teaching to be employed and accept that from the outset, there is no reason why both cannot be employed. All soldiers understand the need to obey orders and that certain tasks will need to be done like an automaton in order for them to be successful in what they do. It is essential that there is also an acknowledgement that there is a place for people to want to achieve the best that they can within their environment as an individual, as well as for the collective. As Rogers (1980) explains “the actualising tendency can be thwarted or warped, but cannot be destroyed without destroying the organism.” It is also important to note that “…with this self-actualisation, individuals can engender life long learning…” (Kiel 1999).

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There are many differing ways that people learn and it is up to different organisations to adopt the method or methods that are best suited to bring them success in their field. That does not negate the need however, for all providers to reflect upon and modify their methods to best effect from time to time. The military have hundreds of years to tradition to fall back on, but need to ‘move with the times’ and accept that the humanist approach in certain areas of their educational provision can be of benefit to both individuals and the military as a whole.


Chapter 6 The Humanistic Approach

Brandes, D. & Ginnis, P. 1986 A Guide to Student-Centred Learning Oxford: Basil Blackwood

Lefrancois, G.R. 1994 from Tutor notes Behaviourist Theories of Learning

Maslow, A. 1971 The Farther Reaches of Human Nature New York: Viking

Maslow, A. 1968 Towards a Psychology of Being (2nd Ed) New York: Van Nostrand-Reinhold

Ormrod, J.E. 2004 Human Learning (4th Ed) from Tutor notes Behaviourist Theories of Learning

Rogers, C.R.R. 1961 On Becoming a Person Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Rogers, C.R.R. 1969 Freedom to Learn Columbus, Ohio: Charles E Merrill Publishing

Rogers, C.R.R. 1980 A Way of Being Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Watson, J.B. 1928 The Psychological Care of Infant and Child from Tutor notes Behaviourist Theories of Learning

Rogers, C.R.R. 1984 from Frieberg, H.J. 1999 Perceiving, Behaving, Becoming: Lessons Learned Alexandria Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Kiel, J.M. 1999 Reshaping Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Reflect Todays Educational and Managerial Philosophies Journal of Instructional Psychology, Vol. 26

Thomas, K 2006 Leadership Development in the Military: Bridging Theory and Practice International Journal of Human Resources Development and Management, 6(2-4)

Trigg, A.B. 2004 Deriving the Engel Curve: Pierre Bordieu and the Social Critique of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Review of Social Economy, Vol.62

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