Educational psychologists study learners and learning contexts — both within and beyond traditional classrooms — and evaluate ways in which factors such as age, culture, gender, and physical and social environments influence human learning. They leverage educational theory and practice based on the latest research related to human development to understand the emotional, cognitive, and social aspects of human learning.

Educational psychology can influence programs, curricula, and lesson development, as well as classroom management, approaches. For example, educators can use concepts from educational psychology to understand and address the ways rapidly changing technologies both help and harm their students’ learning. In addition, educational psychologists play an important role in educating teachers, parents, and administrators about best practices for learners who struggle with conventional education methods.

As psychologists, these professionals often work directly with children — and in collaboration with parents and teachers — to improve a child’s learning outcomes. However, educational psychologists can also pursue careers as researchers, consultants, and teachers in a variety of
contexts, including schools, community organizations, government research centers, and learning centers.

Behaviorist learning theories first emerged in the late 19th century from the work of Edward Thorndike and Ivan Pavlov. They were popularized during the first half of the 20th century through the work of John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, and others. Behaviorism defines learning as an observable behavioral change that occurs in response to environmental stimuli. Positive stimuli — or “rewards” — create positive associations between
the reward and a given behavior; these associations prompt one to repeat that behavior. Meanwhile, negative stimuli — or “punishments” — discourage the behaviors associated with those stimuli.

Through this process of conditioning, people learn to either repeat or avoid behaviors. Because early behaviorists tried to legitimize psychology as a science, their theories emphasized external, scientifically measurable behavioral changes in response to similarly measurable stimuli Although they admit that thought and emotion influence learning, behaviorists either dismiss these factors as phenomena beyond the realm of scientific inquiry (methodological behaviorism) or convert internal factors into behavioral terms (neobehaviorism/radical behaviorism).

Assuming that changes in behavior signify learning, methodological behaviorists see no fundamental difference between human and animal learning processes, and they often conduct comparative research on animals. Behaviorism relies on the prediction or analysis of behavior based on causal stimuli, while education uses the process of positive and negative reinforcement to encourage or discourage behaviors. This school of thought emphasizes behavior’s learned causes over its biological one; therefore, behaviorism deeply values the ability of education to shape individuals.
Behaviorist learning theory distinguishes between classical and operative conditioning.

The former involves natural responses to environmental stimuli, while the latter involves the reinforcement of response to stimuli. Using a process often called “programmatic instruction, “educators use operative conditioning to reinforce positive and correct negative learnings that often
accompany classical conditioning.

Behaviorist theories ascribe to a reductionist approach, which dictates that breaking the behavior down into parts is the best way to understand it. Other schools of thought critique behaviorism for underemphasizing biological and unconscious factors, denying free will, equating humans with animals, and overlooking internal learning processes or types of learning that occur without reinforcement.

Behaviorism has significantly shaped the disciplines of psychology and education, illuminating major influencing factors in human behavior and learning. In psychology, both behavior modification and behavior therapy owe their origins to behaviorism. Meanwhile, behaviorist insights underlie many of the teaching methods still used today in homes, classrooms, workplaces, and other contexts. The widespread use of learning objectives, for example, breaks down larger learning goals into a series of specific skills and behaviors desired by a student.

Behaviorism also influences the sequence and methods used during the teaching and learning process. Teachers work toward their desired objectives by using external stimuli, explaining and demonstrating a skill or behavior, and then inviting student practice and providing feedback that
reinforces the behaviors or skills they wish students to learn or unlearn.

The behavioral perspective

The behavioral perspective suggests that all behaviors are learned through conditioning. Psychologists who take this perspective rely firmly on the principles of operant conditioning to explain how learning happens. For example, teachers might give out tokens that can be exchanged for desirable items such as candy and toys to reward good behavior. While such methods can be useful in some cases, the behavioral approach has been criticized for failing to account for such things as attitudes, cognitions, and intrinsic motivations for learning.

The developmental perspective

The developmental perspective focuses on how children acquire new skills and knowledge as they develop. Jean Piaget’s famous stages of cognitive development are one example of an important developmental theory looking at how children grow intellectually. By understanding how children think at different stages of development, educational psychologists can better understand what children are capable of at each point of their growth. This can help educators create instructional methods and materials best aimed at certain age groups.

The cognitive perspective

The cognitive perspective has become much more widespread in recent decades, mainly because it accounts for how things such as memories, beliefs, emotions, and motivations contribute to the learning process. Cognitive psychology focuses on understanding how people think, learn, remember, and process information. Educational psychologists who take a cognitive perspective are interested in understanding how kids become motivated to learn, how they remember the things that they learn, and how they solve problems, among other things.

The constructivist approach

The constructivist approach is one of the most recent learning theories that focus on how children actively construct their knowledge of the world. Constructivism tends to account more for the social and cultural influences that impact how children learn. This perspective is heavily influenced by the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who proposed ideas such as the zone of proximal development and instructional scaffolding.

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