Behaviorism vs. Constructivism in the Technological Secondary Education Classroom

by Andrea K. Ebert


        Behaviorism and Constructivism are two of the predominant educational theories that form the basis of many of today’s educational technology tools in the secondary classroom.  In the research currently being conducted on the subject, there is an obvious shift to a more Constructivist way of thinking when it comes to implementing classroom technologies.  However, there are still arguments in favor of tools that are more Behaviorist in nature.  There are also many proponents for a blending of the two theories when it comes to technology integration.  What remains to be seen is how these theories will be centralized as more teacher preparation courses are being designed to include courses about educational technology.  Currently, it is difficult to define what effect, exactly, that Behaviorism and Constructivism will have on the future of educational technology. There are many factors to be analyzed and much that is still unknown about the future of the field of educational technology and the influences that Behaviorism and Constructivism will have.    
        In the secondary classroom, there is a shift toward implementing ever-increasing amounts of educational technology into curricula.  In order to do so meaningfully and to ensure successful learning, it is necessary to reflect upon learning theories.  Behaviorist and Constructivist theories provide a base for much of what happens in the technological secondary classroom.  These broad theories have many implications for the technological secondary classroom.  It is necessary to question these implications so that those involved in the educational (and more specifically, educational technology) fields can work toward bettering education.  Are there shifts happening in the secondary classroom today between these two theories?  If so, what are they?  Which is the more predominant in current educational practices?  Is one better for use with educational technologies?    
It is necessary to outline Behaviorism as it pertains to the realm of education and then to do the same with Constructivism.  Historically they have both been used in developing educational technologies.  They are also both prominent in today’s educational technology tools.  It is then necessary to examine what implications these theories have on the future of educational technology.  There is somewhat of a debate in existence, with some supporters of more Behaviorist approaches or more Constructivist approaches, with still others in support of a blending of the two theories when it comes to educational technologies.  It is then necessary to look at case studies to see which provides data for improvement of learning so that all educators may begin to implement the most successful strategies in their classrooms.

Foundations of Behaviorism in Education
In B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, the major theories as pertaining to education are reinforcement, verbal behavior theories, and social development theories.  Though all aspects of Behaviorist theory have influenced the world of education, Behaviorist reinforcement theory still impacts education widely today especially when looking at educational technology.  Skinner (1958) has found that “behavior is shown to be shaped and maintained by its ‘reinforcing’ consequences rather than elicited as conditioned or unconditioned response to stimuli” (972).  This idea has been molded into many educational practices, and the idea of reinforcement has had many implications for educational technology specifically, which will be examined later.   

Foundations of Constructivism in Education
Constructivism, on the other hand, is led by the ideas of Jean Piaget and his theories of the four childhood stages of development.  The theories of Constructivism are founded on the belief that “the child, at first directly assimilating the external environment to his own activity, later, in order to extend this assimilation, forms an increasing number of schemata which are both more mobile and better able to intercoordinate” (Piaget, 1955).  Led by Piaget’s theory, Constructivists that currently practice education believe more in learning by doing.  If a child is able to experiment for himself, the learning will be more profound.  Constructivists then focus on a different aspect of education than Behaviorists, as Behaviorists focus more on how students respond to positive and negative reinforcement provided through an educator’s planned system of data presentation rather than on letting students be presented with stimuli and seeing how students learn on their own. 
        In discussing educational theories, it is necessary to examine how they have influenced educational practices historically before we can analyze future implications.  We will first discuss Behaviorism in educational practices historically and then shift to a discussion of Constructivism in educational practices historically, before moving into current practices founded on the theories of each and finally the future implications.  
History of Behaviorism in Educational Technology
The utilization of Behaviorist theory in education has changed quite a bit though some aspects remain parallel despite the changing times.  Behaviorism has seen the Teaching Machine Phase, the Programmed Instruction Phase, and the Systems Approach to Instruction.  The Teaching Machine is perhaps of the most interest when examining educational technologies of today, as the machines were very basic versions of what educational software and computers can accomplish now.  The teaching machine was, in essence, a box that sat on student desks that each individual student could use to record answers to certain prompted questions.  Skinner (1958) provided background information about the teaching machines and called them “devices which arrange optimal conditions for self-instruction” (p. 971).  He stated that “Sidney L. Pressey designed several machines for the automatic testing of intelligence and information, which will encourage the student to take an active role in the instructional process” (p. 973).  An example of the classroom use of the Teaching Machine is as follows.  “In using the device the student refers to a numbered item in a multiple-choice test.  He presses the button corresponding to his first choice of answer.  If he is right, the device moves on to the next item; if he is wrong, the error is tallied, and he must continue to make choices until he is right” (Skinner, p. 971).  We can clearly see the similarities between the Teaching Machine and much of today’s instructional computer software, designed for reinforcing student behavior.  Computers and software are, in essence, much more complex versions of the Teaching Machine, which leads us to conclude that many of the roots of Behaviorism have come along with us into present day educational scenarios.  The concepts behind the Teaching Machine and modern-day computer gaming software, for example, are fundamentally equal.  The Teaching Machine example allows us to draw such interesting conclusions as there are so many linkages to today’s instruction.

History of Constructivism in Education Technology
It is more difficult to define examples of Constructivism historically in educational scenarios, as there is a vast array of educational practices that would qualify as being more Constructivist in nature.  These examples range from projects arranged by educators to have students learning by discovering on their own, to the simple daily activity of letting students interact with other students and learning a variety of lessons (in many different educational realms) just through this interaction.  Teachers have been facilitating these educational events for a long time that is not easily defined. Constructivist theories, did, however, lay foundation for the design of curricula.  Hypermedia and multimedia are examples of instructional technologies that are more Constructivist in nature.  Along with the increased use of such educational technologies came the emphasis on problem solving.  This is particularly Constructivist in theory, and though positive aspects of Behaviorism in learning have been identified, there has been a major shift toward more Constructivist learning situations involving problem solving (Sutton, 2003).  The main argument is that learners actively construct their own knowledge based on their own experiences. It is now necessary to look at where these more historical examples of Behaviorism and Constructivism have led us in the present day.
Current Trends of Behaviorism in Educational Technology
Sutton (2003) has discussed the current trends in instructional technology that encompass Behaviorist and Constructivist theories.  Though discussing primarily Constructivist ideals, he states that there are many aspects of Behaviorism that are positive and that have led to the development of important instructional technologies.  Examples of Behaviorism in current trends are instructional software and computer-assisted instruction.  Shield (2000) also discussed the use of drill and practice tutorials, with individual instructions and feedback drill and practice.  This type of learning, where a “student is rewarded through an encouraging comment before moving on to the next learning objective” (1) is especially apparent in the use of “the computer games that are so highly addictive to teenagers,” (1) as their “learning behavior is being progressively rewarded as each level of the game is mastered” (1).  Shield concluded that “the student's mastering of basic technological terms, descriptions of components, and understanding of theory behind technical processes can be achieved through structured programs delivered through CD-ROMs or similar media.  We can, therefore immediately see a place for ICT in technology education, both as a source of information and also, if structured effectively, a context or structure for learning simple skills and concepts.  Different learning objectives may require different teaching and learning strategies to achieve them. Some aspects of learning require basic low-level information as a preliminary activity before the more complex can be internalized. Often the rote learning of factual information is essential before a learner can be engaged in problem solving or those higher order activities deemed more desirable.  While Behaviorism is said to have a number of views, this view of learning drives a lot of current educational practice where competencies and standards have become established indicators of achievement” (1).  Shield summarizes much of what current Behaviorists focus on, stating that it is sometimes necessary to memorize bits of information before higher- level, problem-based learning can take place.  He also brings up the interesting point that much of today’s curriculum focuses on these memorized bits of information, and we can clearly conclude that this is a strong reason why so many Behaviorist practices are still relevant in today’s educational tactics.  

Current Trends of Constructivism in Educational Technology
There is a huge push toward more of a Constructivist approach, however, when implementing instructional technologies.  There are many supporters of this, and they provide a convincing argument.  “One way forward is to switch our attention from the design of software packages (which act solely as storehouses of information) to an interactive problem-based environment in which the student assumes the key.  With this profile in place, the learning task can be tailored to the student’s capabilities rather than the student having to fit in with the software designer’s generalized understanding of how learning should take place.  The creation of these rich learning environments will also have to ensure that texts, reference sources, multimedia and communication facilities are fully integrated” (Shield, 2000).  Learning, if taking place in authentic and real-world environments, and with relevance to the learner, is a “primary catalyst of knowledge construction” (Camp, 1999).  We can clearly see the relevance that Constructivist ideals have in today’s educational practices, as real-world Constructivist learning situations are more motivating to students through practical application of knowledge.  There is clearly a need for this learning as well as rote memorization, as much of what students will do as adults relies heavily on practical applications.      
Future Implications 
While there is still clear support for both Behaviorism and for Constructivism in education, and specifically within the realm of educational technology, it is necessary to examine how this information and these arguments will influence emerging trends.  Implications for the future of learning and the future of instructional technology need to be determined.  The relevance to our learners needs to be outlined so that successful practical applications can be identified and implemented to positively affect learning.  Whether arguing for more of a Behaviorist or more of a Constructivist approach, or for more of a blending of the theories, it is necessary to evaluate what has succeeded, what has failed, and the reasons for the successes and failures, as learning is a complex process with many influential factors.
Case studies provide a wealth of information about the successes and failures of theories in practical situations.  First, case studies of more Behaviorist practices will be examined.  Williams (2000), an educator in West Australia, drew upon his experiences to state that he did not believe that “constructivism is an appropriate approach to educational technology” (3).  He challenged that “while the traditional focus of technology education has been on activity, i.e., on doing and making things, this has represented a narrow interpretation of procedural knowledge.  This focus has not been accompanied by an emphasis on all aspects of procedural knowledge, but has typically been concerned with those procedures most closely aligned with the development of manipulative skills and how to use tools effectively and safely, for example” (3).  He also discussed the difference among the content areas, and concluded that Constructivist theories will not succeed as well in some content areas as they will in science or technology classrooms, for example.  “There is no other curriculum area in which students have as significant an opportunity to think and reflect and develop ideas, and then to test their ideas in a practical context” (1).  There emerge some significant challenges toward Constructivism in the classroom then, and there are clearly arguments in favor of using more Behaviorist approaches in learning, especially as much information is required to be memorized rather than applied.
        Now, in looking at case studies that are more Constructivist in nature, there are also many convincing arguments presented.  Barron et al. (1998) were provided with a grant to conduct research about problem- and project-based learning.  After studying a science classroom, the team concluded that “by beginning with a simulated problem, students develop a level of shared knowledge and skill that prepares them to undertake actual projects.  In addition, if students know they will be completing real projects in their community, they are motivated to learn.  Students view the problem-based learning as preparing them for “the real thing.”  They provided a multitude of data samples that argued in favor of using Constructivist theory in the classroom, with the learners in their case studies being very successful and accomplished.  However, Barron et al. concluded that implementing this type of learning is an extremely delicate process, and will only succeed if collaboration takes place.  It is necessary to have “new models of professional development that can provide in-service and pre-service teachers with the opportunity to engage in the type of learning we are suggesting for students” and to “create supportive environments for the teachers who will realize the potential of problem- and project-based approaches to learning” (Barron et al., 272).  There are therefore many strong arguments in favor of Constructivist learning practices.  We are also now made aware of some of the challenges presented, which is of special interest as Constructivist practices seem to be very highly esteemed in today’s educational technology practices.         
Finally, we will examine case studies that provide examples of more of a blending of the two types of theories.  Keengwe et al. (2009) have identified the need for a blend of approaches as they have identified the challenges to today’s learning processes.  “The growing focus of high-stake testing and accountability has changed the role of instruction, teachers, and students.  As a result, teachers are finding challenges to implementing active learning and learner-centered pedagogies in the classroom.  To achieve the national goal of education, helping learners use their minds well and be prepared for responsible citizenship, teachers must go beyond teaching only the subject matter, to also providing learners with the tools to become effective learners.  In practice, teachers must strive to facilitate learning environments where a sense of inquiry is encouraged, and active learning and critical thinking are the foundation for creative problem solving and global citizenship.”   Camp (1999) concluded that education, as it pertains to career and technical education, is still “founded on the learning principles of behaviorism” (4) and that “it may be that constructivism will be found to be a better solution than behaviorism to serve as the learning theory foundation.”  Camp stated, however, that in order to blend these theories and for any shifts to take place, “significant rethinking may be in order for how we determine, structure, and deliver the content of education” (4).  It is clear that there are many factors to consider when deciding how to implement educational technologies based upon learning theory, but that there are arguments in favor of both Behaviorism and Constructivism that support the utilization of both theories.   
        In looking at the historical examples of Behaviorism and Constructivism as they pertain to educational practices, and by also examining these theories in educational technology implementation today, we can begin to formulate hypotheses for the future of education, and more specifically, educational technology.  Shield (2000) concluded that Constructivist and Behaviorist learning theories are very rarely used independently of each other to explain learning:  Most skilled teachers are simply adept at knowing when are where to apply them, often subconsciously, to produce the most effective results.   This is fascinating in the fact that it is so abstract.  Can we, in fact, outline the best road toward meaningful technology integration in regards to Behaviorism and Constructivism?  If successful teachers intuit this process, is it even worth outlining?  Will there ever be a more definite process outlined for educators to use as a guide, or will the debate between theories always remain?  Camp (1999) concluded that more research is necessary to make this shift happen successfully.  There are also many challenges posed to this process by key researchers, which seem to provide an argument for the theory that the road to outlining this process will be a long one.  Hannafin (2000) stated that one challenge to Constructivism is learned helplessness.  Another challenge to Constructivism in the classroom is that “if curriculum changes are not made carefully with adequate planning and support, we risk a potential backlash that favors back-to-basics and rote learning over authentic inquiry” (Barron, 1998).  A further challenge is that teachers are not well-prepared for this shift and that too frequently, appropriate resources are not available (Keengwe, 2009).  It is clear that although we have many historical and current examples of both Behaviorist and Constructivist learning practices as they pertain to educational technology, there are still many factors that are unclear, and we are therefore unable to draw any absolute conclusions about the future of these theories in educational technologies.  However, judging from these historical and current examples of these theories in educational technology, we can absolutely conclude that both theories have been relevant and will most likely remain relevant as we work to improve upon future educational technology implementation.  
In summary, there appears to be a theoretical shift more often than not from Behaviorist learning practices to Constructivist learning practices because of the increased use of educational technologies, and stemming from the fact that many available technologies support Constructivist learning platforms.  However, there are still many learning practices that focus on more Behaviorist learning techniques, and there are arguments in support of their validity as well.  That with the most support currently is more of a blending of the two theories, for they can be used in conjunction as well while utilizing educational technology.  There are many factors to be considered when deciding which theory is more valid in certain practices, including curriculum, assessment, and resources.  Though there seems to be a shift toward more Constructivist learning practices or a blending of the two learning theories, the road ahead in determining precisely what should be done by educators remains vague.  There are many important factors involved along with challenges to both theories, and it is possible that these trends may be analyzed but put into practice in a variety of ways without any standardization.  There are so many factors involved that this debate seems to fall to the choice of individual educators, and may, in fact, continue along this path as we look toward the future of educational technology integration. 



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