Learning theorists are divided into two main camps: behaviorist theories and cognitive theories. I’ve been thinking a lot about these two theories and have been fixated lately on the idea of the trial and error in behaviorist theories – especially E. L. Thorndike’s work.

Thorndike devised a law of learning that informs how learners need to prepare, how they will learn, and the best way to help them remember what they learned. He famously did this by placing a hungry cat in a box that could only be opened if the cat pulled a loop or pressed a lever to open the door, which led to a small piece of fish. At first, the cat would randomly do things to try and get out of the box and would accidentally press the lever. Over time, the cat learned that pressing the lever opened the door to the fish (Trial and Error Learning, 2016).

thorndike-cat-box
(Thorndike’s Cat Box, 2016

While searching for more information on the topic I came across a blog written, apparently, by a student (P, 2013) who made a few highly salient observations on the implications of Thorndike’s theory (modified in the list below) :

  • Motivation is key to learning, therefore it should be purposeful and goal directed. This is especially applicable to adults when learning is important for their job.
  • Incentive and practice are key, especially when preparing the mind for learning.
  • The more practice and review learners have in the classroom the more likely it is that they’ll retain what they learned.
  • It’s important to link previous experiences with new ones.

I’m more of a cognitive leaning kind of practitioner, but I really appreciate the list above as effective ways to scaffold, teach, and support learners.

Works Cited

P, S. (2013, May 10). http://teachertraineeaide.blogspot.com/. Retrieved from Teachertraineeaide: http://teachertraineeaide.blogspot.com/2013/05/behaviourist-thoery-thorndikes-theory.html

Thorndike’s Cat Box. (2016, February 26). Retrieved from Terrierman’s Daily Dose: http://terriermandotcom.blogspot.com/2012/05/thorndikes-cat-box.html

Trial and Error Learning. (2016). Retrieved from Psychestudy: https://www.psychestudy.com/behavioral/learning-memory/trial-error-learning

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