Debating Behaviorism and Cognitivism

Other students’ blogs where I commented:


(Kerr, 2007) invites an interesting debate over the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of learning theories as a reliable mean to guide the learning process. Behaviorism and Cognitivism are introduced as competing rivals in what the author apparently would not mind calling the quarrel of the “isms”.

The debate took place in 2007 among Bill Kerr, Stephen Downes, and Karl Kapp, three important thinkers on learning theories. The most significant points raised were the continuing evolution of the theories as a result of continuing criticism, the death and resurrection of behaviorism, and the portability of the cognitivist theory via a process of mechanization of humans or humanization of machines. The blog ends up recognizing the importance of “_isms“and suggesting using them “as a filter, not as a blinker”.

This debate brings to mind the current mindsets which drive teaching and learning in the twenty-first Century. The reward-stimuli response method which defines behaviorism is still well alive in all human endeavors. It may not be a spanking or the direct rendition of Pavlov bell experiments where bell ring sufficed to generate saliva, but our world is built on behaviorist methods, from the school grade, the pay check, the job promotion, to the loss of a pay check, medical benefits, recognition, and all of the positive and negative factors related to human performance. The second learning theory discussed in the blog is cognitivism which sees the brain as a computer where information can be stored and manipulated. We have at this point technologies where, regardless of the field, knowledge can be captured, stored, shared, ported into machines, and executed when needed with better and faster efficiency than by human beings. (Sanborn, Santos, Montgomery, &  Caruthers, 2005) informs us of the possibility of “implanted nodes”  in the brain as a way to establish direct lines of communication between the learner, the “information society”, virtual classrooms, and wireless networks. offers a vivid illustration on how Artificial Intelligence mimics the human brain (retrieved from ).  The key question is, if the machine can think or be programmed to think, can it be forced to feel and exhibit pure emotional and mental human attitudes?

Regardless of the espoused mindset, it seems to me that both behaviorism and cognitivism stand ready to revamp themselves and continue guiding teaching and learning in the Twenty First Century. As a response to (Kapp, 2007)’s blog put it “We have now found ourselves shifting to a Cognitive form of teaching over that of behaviorism as we become more concerned with the internal mental processes of the mind and how they could be used in encouraging effective learning”.  The debate is open. Can we program machines to perform better than humans? Can we program humans to perform better than machines?  What do you think?


Kapp, K. (2007, January 2). Out and about: Discussion on educational schools of thought [Web log post]. Retrieved from   

Kerr, B. (2007, January 1). _isms as filter, not blinker [Web log post]. Retrieved from   

Robert Sanborn, Adolfo Santos, Alexandra L Montgomery, & James B Caruthers. (2005).       Four Scenarios for the Future of Education. The Futurist, 39(1), 26-30.         Retrieved October 13, 2010, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document       ID: 759035561).


4 thoughts on “Debating Behaviorism and Cognitivism

  1. Hi Joseph,

    Nice post. I’m not sure of the answer to the questions you pose at the end, but I keep coming back to Daniel Pink’s work on motivation when I reconsider behaviorism in education. He’s done some remarkable work on rewards in work environments that call in question what exactly are the reinforcers for many of us who work in more intellectual environments. I’m wondering, are you familiar with his work? The ambiguity of reinforcers makes me rethink how effective behaviorism can be.

    1. Mike

      I thank you for your feedback on my post. I would like to take this opportunity to commend you for the great job you are doing at Learning Facilitated. I am not familiar with Daniel Pink’s work which seems to propose an interesting interpretation of human motivation as being the outcome of genuine intrinsic values in contradiction to the rewards and punishment outcomes promoted by behaviorism. I am under the impression that the reinforcers are more likely to be effective on workers at the two lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid than on those at the top.

  2. Joseph,
    To prepare our children in the twenty-first century requires teachers to explore how to integrate technology in the classroom. Our children are digital learners and should be given the opportunity to use the technology that they use on a daily basis outside of school in the academic setting.

    This means that teachers must be willing to step outside of their own comfort zones and learn how to integrate this technology to reach their digital learners. I once heard that technology will never replace the teacher, but the teacher will eventually be replaced if he or she refuses to use the technology.

    With this in mind, the real challenge is to determine which learning strategies and theories will best meet the needs of our digital learners, and how technology can be used to support various theoretical assumptions. There are various strategies that I use where I am able to use technology that emphasizes various perspectives, such as behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism.

    1. Howard:

      I cannot agree more with you. Despite the digital divide, our socio-cultural landscape is loaded with what (Bruner, 1967) would refer to as technological “amplifiers” which can be used to enhance the learning process.
      Bruner, Jerome (1967) The Process of Education
      Harvard University Press

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