Topics: Learning, Psychology, Behaviorism Pages: 8 (3450 words) Published: November 15, 2014
by Bob Boakes
Psychology and You, pp.59-63, Hawker Brownlow Education, Melbourne Australia  
Learning is the process by which we gain knowledge about the world. It is not just something we try to switch on occasionally when, for example, we have an exam to study for or want to try a new game. It is a process that starts before we are born and continues to the moment we die. The kind of concentrated, deliberate process that we usually refer to as ‘learning’ in a school context is only one of the ways we acquire knowledge. Most of what most people learn about their worlds is absorbed in other ways, usually without conscious intention. Learning theory is the study of the basic principles by which any kind of learning occurs. From the viewpoint of evolution, species survive only if they are adapted to their environment. Early in the development of his theory, Charles Darwin concluded that the behaviour of animals is one of the most important factors for survival. At one extreme behaviour can be entirely innate, selected to be highly effective in a particular ecological niche, but totally inflexible in the face of change. At the other extreme are species like our own where all of what we do, how we react  emotionally as well as in our actions  is learning and can change if conditions change. From its beginnings over a hundred years ago, learning theory has developed within an evolutionary context. It seeks fundamental principles underlying the way that species, in general, adapt to their particular environments as the first step towards a proper understanding of human learning. It is for this reason that rats and pigeons in particular have loomed so large in learning research. Physiologists have for centuries studied the functions of organs such as the heart or lungs in various mammals to the enormous benefit of human medicine. More recently, genetic research, starting with fruit flies, has made possible the current massive international project on the human genome. But when it comes to the mind, many people feel great reluctance to accept that we might learn much from the laboratory rat. Surely we learn about our worlds in a very different way from any other animal? Possibly we do. Clearly our unique possession of a language which enables us to register and think about our experience transforms some of the ways we learn. Nonetheless, the facts of evolution strongly suggest that much of what we know that is not easily put into words and those reactions that we label involuntary are based on processes shared with other species.  

Since learning begins before birth and our experiences vary enormously from one individual to the next, even for people growing up within the same culture, or even in the same family, not only does what we have learned throughout our lives differ, but how we learn from some new experience also differs. One advantage of studying animals is that, if raised in a laboratory, their prior experience can be made much more uniform. For example, we shall see later that whether or not an individual has encountered a particular taste before can have a major influence on whether it is associated with an experience of sickness. It is a simple matter to ensure that a group of rats has never tasted anything sweet before they enter an experiment that studies the development of, say, a learned aversion to sugar water. It is unlikely that anyone will ever carry out such an experiment with people. How did learning theory begin?

Through the ages people have speculated about the nature of learning and developed sound practical advice on the subject. However, the scientific study of learning did not begin until late in the nineteenth century. Two developments most directly influenced later research. By coincidence they happened almost simultaneously on opposite sides of the world. In St. Petersburg, the first Russian scientist to win a Nobel Prize switched his attention from the digestive system to the...

References: -     Boakes, R A (1984) From Darwin to Behaviourism: Psychology and the minds of animals, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
-     Hilgard, E.R. & Bower, G.H., (1966). Theories of learning (pp 15-47) New York: Appleton Century Crofts
-     Hulse, S H Egeth, H & Deese J (1980) The psychology of learning (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
-     Logue, A W (1986) The psychology of eating and drinking New York: W H Freeman
-     Mackintosh, N. J., (1974) The psychology of animal learning. London: Academic Press.
-     Mazur, J E (1990) Learning and behaviour (2nd ed.) Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
-     Schwartz, B (1989) Psychology of learning and behaviour (3rd ed.) New York: Norton
-     Skinner, B.J. (1953) Science and human behaviour. New York: Macmillan.
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