Human Learning


Of Mice and Men
Classical Behaviorism
Skinner's Operant Conditioning
Ausubel's Meaningful Learning Theory
Systematic Forgetting
Roger's Humanistic Psychology
Types of Learning
Transfer, Interference, and Overgeneralization
Inductive abd Deductive Reasoning
Intellignece and Second Language Learning

In the Classroom: The "Designer" Methods of the Seventies

Thus far in outlining a theory of second language acquisition we have discovered that the cognitive domain of human behavior is of key importance in the acquisition of both a first and second language. The process of perceiving judging, knowing, and remembering are central to the task of internalizing a language.
In the first part of the chapter, four different learning theories are outlined:

  • Classical behaviorism (Pavlov, among others)
  • Operant conditioning (Skinner)
  • Meaningful learning (Ausbel)
  • Humanistic approaches (Rogers)

Of Mice and Men

Suppose you have been asked to train a mouse to walk backward in a circle in an open space (without barriers or guiding makers). Overwhelming? Yes indeed, unless you are an expert mouse trainer. Nevertheless, you might be able to begin to identify some of the pertinent questions you would need to have answered before you attempt the training program. What would those questions be?

First, to specify entry behavior: What the organism already "knows." What abilities does it possess upon, which you, the trainer, can build?
Second, the goals of task would need to be formulated explicitly. You have a general directive; what are the specific objectives? How many times and how fast mouse walk backward in the circle?
Third, you would also need to devise some methods of training. Based on what you know about entry behavior and goals of the task, how would go about the training program?
Forth and finally, you would need some sort of evaluation procedure. How would you determine whether or not the mouse had learned what you set out to teach?

In turning now to varied theories of how human beings learn, consider once again the definition of learning given in the Language Learning and Teaching: "acquiring or getting of knowledge of a subject or skill by study, experience, or instruction," or "a relatively permanent change in a behavioral tendency... the result of reinforced practice."

Classical Behaviorism

Certainly the best-known classical behaviorist is the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who at the turn of the century conducted a series of experiments in which he trained a dog to salivate to the tone of a tuning folk through a procedure that has come to be labeled classical conditioning. For Pavlov the learning process consisted of the formation of association between stimuli and reflexive response. In the classical experiment he trained a dog, by repeated occurrences, to associate the sound of tuning-fork tone with salivation until the dog acquired a conditioned response: salivation at the sound of tuning fork. A previously neutral stimulus (the sound of the tuning fork) had acquired the power to elicit a response (salivation) that was originally elicited by another stimulus (the smell of meat).

Drawing on Pavlov's findings, John B Watson (1913) coined the term behaviorism. In the empirical tradition of John Locke, Watson contended that human behavior should be studied objectively, rejecting mentalistic notions of innateness and instinct.

Skinner's Operant Conditioning

In 1938 B.F. Skinner published his Behavior of Organisms and in so doing established himself as one of the leading behaviorists in the United States. He followed the tradition of Watson, but other psychologists have called Skinner a neobehaviorist because he added a unique dimension to behavioristic psychology.
Skinner called Pavlovian conditioning respondent conditioning since it was concerned with respondent behavior -- that is, behavior that is elicited by a preceding stimulus. Skinner's operant conditioning attempts to account for most of human learning and behavior. Operant behavior is behavior in which one "operates" on the environment; within this model the importance of stimuli is deemphasized.

According to Skinner, the events or stimuli - the reinforces - that follow a response and that tend to strengthen behavior or increase the probability of a recurrence of that response constitute a powerful in the control of human behavior. Reinforces are far stronger aspects of learning than mere association of a prior stimulus with a following response, as in the classical conditioning model.

Operants are classes of response, Crying, sitting down, walking, and batting a baseball are operants. They are sets of responses that are emitted and governed by the consequences they produce. In contrast, respondents are sets of responses that are elicited by identifiable stimuli.
The best method of extinction, said Skinner, is the absence of reinforcement entirely; however, the active reinforcement of alternate responses that hastens that extinction.

The impact of Skinnerian psychology on foreign language teaching has extended well beyond programmed instruction. Skinner's Verbal Behavior (1957( described language as a system of verbal operants, and his understanding of the role of conditioning led to a whole new era in language teaching around the middle of the century. A discussion of the popular audiolingual method will elucidate Skinner's impact on American language teaching practices in the decades of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s.

Ausubel's Meaningful Learning Theory

David Ausubel contends that learning takes place in the human organism through a meaningful learning process of relating new events or items to already existing cognitive concepts or propositions -- hanging new items on existing cognitive pegs.

The cognitive theory of learning as put forth by Ausubel is perhaps best understood by contrasting rote and meaningful learning. Ausubel described rote learning as the process of acquiring material as "discrete and relatively isolated entities that are relatable to cognitive structure only in an arbitrary and verbatim fashion, not permitting the establishment of [meaningful] relationships".(1968:108). That is, rote learning involes the mental storage of items having little or no association with existing cognitive structure.
Meaningful learning, on the other hand, may be described as a process of relating and anchoring new material to relevant established entities in cognitive structure. If we think of cognitive structure as a system of building blocks, then rote learning is the process of acquiring isolated blocks with no particular in the building of structure, and therefore with no relationship to other blocks. Meaningful learning is the process whereby blocks become an integral part of already established categories or systematic clusters of blocks.

Any learning situation can be meaningful if:

  1. learners have a meaningful learning set -- that is, a disposition to relate the new learning task to what they already know
  2. the learning task itself is potentially meaningful to the learners -- that is, relatable to the learners' structure of knowledge.

William James (1890:662) described meaningful learning:

In mental terms, the more other facts is associated with in the mind, the better possession of it our memory retains. Each of its associates becomes a hook to which it hangs, a means to fish it up by when sunk beneath the surface. Together, they form a network of attachments by which it is woven into the entire issue of our thought. The "secret of good memory" is thus the secret of forming diverse and multiple associations with every fact we care to retain... Briefly, then, of two men with the same outward experiences and the same amount of mere native tenacity, the one who thinks over his experiences most, and weaves them into systematic relation with each other, will be the one with the best memory.

System Forgetting

Ausubel provides a plausible explanation for the universal nature of forgetting. Since rotely learned materials do not interact with cognitive structure in substantive fashion, they are learned in conformity with the laws of association, and their retention is influenced primarily by the interfering effects of similar rote materials learned immediately before or after the learning task (commonly referred to as proactive and retroactive inhibition). In the case of meaningfully learned material, retention is influenced primarily by the properties of "relevant and cumulatively established ideational systems in cognitive structure with which the learning task interacts" (Ausubel 1968:108).
The second stage of subsumption that operates through what I have called "cognitive pruning" procedures (Brown 1972). Pruning is the elimination of unnecessary clutter and a clearing of the way for more material to enter the cognitive field, in the same way that pruning a tree ultimately allows greater and fuller growth. An important aspect of the pruning stage of learning is that subsumptive forgetting, or pruning, is not haphazard or chance -- it is systematic. The notion that forgetting is systematic.

Rogers's Humanistic Psychology

Roger's humanisitc psychology has more of an affective focus than a cognitive one.
In his classical work Client-Centered Therapy(1951), Rogers carefully analyzed human behavior in general, including the learning process, by means of presentation of 19 formal principles of human behavior. All 19 principles are concerned with learning to some degree, from a "phenomenological" perspective, a perspective that is in sharp contrast to that of Skinner. Rogers studied the "whole person" as a physical and cognitive, but primarily emotional, being. His formal principles focused on the development of an individual's self-concept and of his or her personal sense of reality, those internal forces which cause a person to act.
The "fully functioning person," according to Rogers, lives at peace with all of his feelings and reactions; he is able to be what he potentially is; he exists as a process of being and becoming himself.

What is needed, according to Rogers, is real facilitators of learning, and one can only facilitate by establishing an interpersonal relationship with the learner. Teachers,to be facilitators, must first of all be real and genuine, discarding masks of superiority and ominiscience. Second, teachers need to have genuine trust, acceptance, and a prizing of the other person(the student)as a worthy, valuable individual. And third, teachers need to communicate openly and emphatically with their students and vice versa.

Types of Learning

The educational psychologist, Robert Gagné(1965), for example, ably demonstarted the importance of identifying a number of types of learning which all human beings use. Gagné(1965:58-59) identified eight types of learning:

  1. Signal learning. The individual learns to make a general diffuse response to a signal. This is the classical conditioned response of Pavlov.
  2. Stimulus-response learning. The learner acquires a precise response to a discriminted stimulus. What is learned is a connection or, in Skinnerian terms, a discriminated operant, somtimes called an instrumental response.
  3. Chaining. What is acquired is a chain of two or more stimulus response connections. The conditions for such learning have also been described by Skinner.
  4. Verbal association. Verbal association is the learning of chains that are verbal. Basically, the conditions resemble those for other (motor) chains. However, the presence of language in the human being makes this special type because internal links may be selected from the individual's previously learned repertoire of language.
  5. Multiple discrimination The individual learns to make a number of different identifying responses to many different stimuli, which may resemble each other in physical appearence to a greater or lesser degree. Although the learning of each stimulus-response connection is a simple occurrence, the connections tend to interfere with one another.
  6. Concept learning. The learner acquires the ability to make a common response to a class of stimuli even though the individual members of that class may differ widely from each other. The learner is able to make a response that identifies an entire class of objects or events.
  7. Principle learning. In simplest terms, a principle is chain of two or more concepts. It functions to organize behavior and experience. In Ausubel's terminology, a principle is a "subsumer" -- a cluster of related concepts.
  8. Problem solving. Problem solving is a kind of learning that requires the internal events usually referred to as "thinking". Previously acquired concepts and principles are combined in a conscious focus on an unresolved or ambiguous set of events.

The first five types seem to fit easily into a behavioristic framework, while the last three are better explained by Ausubel's or Roger's theories of learning.

Transfer, Interference, and Overgeneralization

In the literature on language learning processes, three terms have commonly been signled out for explication: transfer, interference, and overgeneralization. The three terms are sometimes mistakenly considered to be seperate processes; they are more correctly understood as several manifestations of one principle of learning -- the interaction of previously learned material with a present learning event.

Transfer is a general term describing the carryover of previous performance or knowledge to subsequent learning.
Positive learning occurs when the prior knowledge benefits the learning task -- that is, when a previous item is correctly applied to present subject matter.
Negative learning occurs when the previous performance disrupts the performance on a second task. The latter can be referred to as intefernce, in that previously learned the material interferes with subsequent material -- a previous item is incorrectly transferred or incorrectly associated with an item to be learned. It has been common in second language learning teaching to stress the role of interference -- that is, the interfering effects of the native language on the target (the second) language.

Generalization is crucially important and pervading strategy in human learning. To generalize means to infer or drive a law, rule, or conclusion, usually from the observation of particular instances. Meaningful learning is, in fact, generalizing: items are subsumed(generalized) under high-order categories for meaningful retention. The learning of concepts in early childhood is a process of generalizing.

In second language acquisition it has been common to refer to overgeneralization as a process that occurs as the second language learner acts within the target language, generalizing a particular rule or item in the second language -- irrespective of the native language -- beyond legitimate bounds.

Inductive and Deductive Reasoning

Inductive and deductive reasoning are two polar aspects of the generalization process. In the case of inductive reasoning, one stores a number of specific instances and induces a general law or rule or conclusion that governs of subsumes the specific instances. Deductive reasoning is a movement from a generalization to specific instances: specific subsumed facts are inferred or deduced from a general principle.

Traditional -- especially Grammar Translation -- methods have overemphasized the use of deductive reasoning in language teaching.

Intelligence and Second Language Learning

Traditionally, intelligence is defined and measured in terms of linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities. Our notion of "IQ" (intelligence quotient) is based on several generations of testing of these two domains, stemming from the research of Alfred Binet in the early years of the century.

Howard Gardner (1983) advanced a controversial theory of intelligence that blows apart our traditional thoughts about IQ. Gardner describes seven different forms of knowing which, in his view, give us a much more comprehensive picture of intelligence. The list consists of following matters:

  1. Linguistic intellegence
  2. Logical-mathematical abilities
  3. Spatial intelligence (the ability to find your way around an environment, to form mental images of reality, and to transform them readily)
  4. Musical intelligence (the ability to perceive and create pitch and rhythmic patterns)
  5. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (fine motor movement, athletic prowess)
  6. Interpersonal intelligence (the ability to understand others, how they feel, what motivates them, how they interact with one another)
  7. Intrapersonal intelligence (the ability to see onself, to develop a sense of self-identity)

Musical intelligence could explain the relative ease that some learners have in perceiving and producing intonation patterns of a language. Bodily kinesthetic modes have already been discussed in connection with the learning of the phonology of a language. Interpersonal intelligence is of obvious importance in the communicative process.

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