Three Influential Views on Learning


B.F. Skinner viewed human learning through a behavioral perspective and that we are governed by behavior consequences. Skinner emphasized reinforcement. These reinforcers strengthen behavior and increase that behavior’s reoccurrence. In a language classroom, positive reinforcement might take the form of something as simple as a smile or a compliment. This positive attention encourages students to repeat such desired behavior such as participating, putting in effort, or being helpful.

David Ausubel viewed human learning through a cognitive lens. He describes learning as a meaningful process of relating new material to already existing cognitive structures. Under the Ausubel view, students will better remember new material if they can relate it to what they already know. For example, my school uses an American textbook for their second grade science curriculum. One chapter is about hurricanes. Trying to describe hurricanes to Taiwanese ELLs would be futile without a comparison to typhoons and a map. When introducing this word I started by asking students what happens during typhoons. We then took out a map and I labeled the areas of the world where typhoons and hurricanes form. I emphasized that they are the same type of storm they just start on different areas of the globe. Since the students showed understanding, I also marked up the map further to illustrate where they are called cyclones.

Carl Rogers brought us a social constructivist perspective. Rogers emphasizes learning over teaching and teachers are facilitators in the classroom. Probably having the work of Rogers and other social constructivists in mind the school district I grew up in approved an alternative high school in the 1970s that allowed students freedom to control their own education and write their own contracts setting individual goals and measures of achieving them. Outside of normal subjects, students also had options such as organic farming and witchcraft to choose from. Lack of organizational structures caused enrollment to plummet and the school was eventual incorporated into the district’s other alternative high school.

These three views provide a foundation for my personal view of language learning. From Skinner: The enthusiasm and care that I bring to the classroom for all students encourages individual participation and learning. From Ausubel: Knowing my learners’ backgrounds helps me relate new material to their prior knowledge so they can better learn new material. Finally, from Rogers: I create activities that allow for students to discover patterns before explicitly teaching them and design classwork in which students can work in groups largely independently from me and learn through discovery.

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