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New era of language learning.


The two general learning streams in psychology, namely behaviorism and cognitivism, have so far provided the agenda for the education system. With the tremendous and multi-faceted changes and demands of the new millenium, it is a propitious time to infuse fresh inspirations into the education in general and second/foreign language education in particular. Thus, this article reconsiders behaviorism and cognitivism on philosophical and theoretical grounds, attempting to show that the two theories are not removed from each other. This fact justifies the introduction of a new learning theory, i.e., constructivism in the area of second/foreign language learning.


The education system is in constant change to remain consistent with and responsive to the requirements of the new millenieum. The belief is that traditional approaches to education can no longer help with the learning phenomena effectively. The two general views of learning, namely behaviorism and cognitivism, have so far fed the education system in general, and language education in particular. The reductionist view of learning or behaviorism, which was modelled on the animals' behaviour, was soon recognized inefficient and replaced by a mentalistic view called cognitivism. The idea was developed in linguistics as a result of Chomsky's introduction of transformational grammar. Over the past decades, cognitivism has diversely exerted influence on the language learning in the context of communicative approaches. Though cognitivism dismissed a pure instructive and prescriptive model of language pedagogy as claimed by behaviorists it has not accounted for the failures and drawbacks of the behaviorism. It seems that cognitivism is theoretical behaviorism and behaviorism is experimental cognitivism (Harnad, 1982).

The fact that cognitivism is not far removed from behaviorism justifies the emergence of a new competitive learning theory. Learning in this epistemology (constructivism) is an active process handled by an individual and likely to lead to various results. Therefore, the language pedagogy should also enjoy the fresh draught and comply with the changes. The post-communicative era is thus supposed to stay faithful to the new vision to bear fruit. This article is intended to explore the dimensions of behaviorism and cognitivism, and contend that an epistemology change in the second/foreign language learning milieu is necessary at present.

Philosophical background

Objectivism or realism is a philosophy which underlies both behaviorism and cognitivism (Driscol, 1994). This school in philosophy maintains that knowledge is objective and independent of the learner, and that the teacher can convey the objective knowledge to his students. Nolla (1998: 32) believes that objects, phenomena, and processes are in this philosophical position considered independently viable, even if no human exists to perceive and conceive them. It is noticeable that behaviorism and cognitivism both share this philosophy to explain knowledge and learning, but apparently on different scales. For behaviorists instructional objectives are externally defined, and a unified reinforcement principle guarantees learning. However, for cognitivists an internal mechanism takes over the responsibility for the knowledge reception, and the principle of the knowledge being objectively defined in the outside world is not violated. The computer metaphor, the computationality of the knowledge, and information-processing framework undoubtedly hold to the same position.

In contrast with the objectivist position lies a philosophy which has recently proclaimed its presence and has brought about changes in many aspects of today's life. Unlike objectivism, relativism does not try to verify or falsify the external status of the truth, but argues that the truth is socially and psychologically determined by individuals. Bickhard (1998) asserts that in this philosophy, every thing is judged according to what already exists. The new learning epistemology (constructivism) is based on this philosophy and has emerged through the works of Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky, and many other prominent philosophers. It has opened a new avenue and set a guideline for the issues of knowledge and learning.

Behaviorism and cognitivism: Revisited

A shift from behaviorism to cognitivism was thought to end the educational problems successfully. The shift has undoubtedly influenced teaching and learning, the development of materials, and curriculum design over the past two decades. Cognitivism at the time of behaviorism prevalence made a big and welcome move ahead through the introduction of the internal mechanisms in the process of learning as contrasted with the external parameters claimed by the behaviorists. Behaviorism claimed to study the behavior and rejected all other subjective and theoretical assumptions of what behavior is as scientifically invalid. On the other hand, cognitivism claimed that the right way is to look for the origin of behavior, not at the behavior itself. But the question remains- is cognitivism really far apart from behaviorism? The answer is to compare and contrast the two epistemologies on the following philosophical and theoretical grounds:

1) Underpinning philosophy: As it was already stated, both cognitivism and behaviorism have a rigid commitment to the influence of the external goals, and the direct impact they can have on the learners. This rigid, and invariable status is attributed to the objective philosophy of knowledge and learning.

2) Domain of activity: In behaviorism performance data is taken as the most objective and scientific indices of realities. Cognitivism theoretically makes an assertion about the study of the generator of the performance data, using different techniques such as introspection, think-aloud, etc. Examining the two areas, one clearly notices that both are ultimately collecting sample behaviors, one directly and the other indirectly. The truth is that the quality of the elicited behaviors in cognitivism is no better, if no worse, than those in behaviorism. The only difference lies in the methodology adopted in the two approaches.

3) Generation power: Cognitivists recognize the weakness of the behaviorist's concepts such as stimuli, reinforcement, reward and punishment. They are believed to be insufficient to generate the behavior capacities or performance. In response, cognitivists do not seem to have supplied a generative model. They have actually eclipsed the situation further by citing an obscure mental picture, the functioning quality of which is not yet clear.

4) Input / output: Both cognitivism and behaviorism do not have separate views on the qualitative characteristics of the input/ output. Though cognitivism adopts a different methodological approach to the grasp of input, it does not differ from behaviorism in terms of the input/output differences. Thus, in relation to the static nature of input and output, cognitivism is once more reformulated behaviorism.

5) Learning model: The two theories do not provide two different models for learning. They both maintain that the truth is externally determined and is knowable. Therefore, it is not assumed that learners build up knowledge actively. Cognitivism gives way to the internalization of the external reality and for behaviorism it is also the external reality being conditioned. The two models represent the transmissional models of learning.

6) Knowledge source: Knowledge in the two theories is assumed to exist independently. The implication is that knowledge survives even if there is no such organism as humans to acquire it. However, cognitivism differs a little and considers the background knowledge to have a role in the knowledge grasp.

7) Instruction: In behaviorism, instruction has the first and foremost role. It means the transfer of knowledge through special behavioral techniques. In cognitivism the only difference lies in the manipulative procedures taken by the learners, though the instruction has a paramount role.

8) Teacher: In both theories, teachers are construed as the most reliable sources of knowledge and should direct and transfer the knowledge to the learners. In cognitivism, though the teacher may function additionally as the supplier of the strategies to the learners, s/he is still the main source of knowledge.

9) Learner: In behaviorism, the learner receives the supplied information very passively. However, the learner in cognitivism is less passive, and he has to process the information strategically. Here, the mind has an important role to play; hence, the more the teacher and learner organize the information, the more likely the mind receives, retains and retrieves it. This conceptual link in behaviorism is thought to be achieved through practice, repetition and finally overlearning. The conclusion is that the learner in both theories is passive with regard to the knowledge quality.

10) Peer group's role: In both theories peers can not be very influential. In behaviorism, peers may not be and are actually not good models for others. It is the teacher who can provide the best model, and whose behaviors can be copied flawlessly. In cognitivism, since priority is given to the mind's role in the reception of the information, then every individual is independent of his/her peers, though they may speed up the flow of information. As shown above, behaviorism and cognitivism are more similar than dissimilar. Though the change in terminology has cleared air for some changes in education, cognitivism is believed to be behaviorism with a theory (Harnad, 1982).

Constructivism and Language Learning

In view of the complexity of the grammatical structures, mental lexicon and multiplicity of functions of language, Schwarz (1992) describes language learning as the most impressive mental operations of the human mind. As to how to learn this gigantic task, theories of learning have fuelled and influenced several methods and approaches to the language learning. Second/foreign language learning enjoyed the dominant psychology of the preceding era, which was that of behaviorism and cognitivism, as discussed above. As an alternative to the instructional paradigm of behaviorism and cognitivism, constructivism takes a radically different approach to instruction. Upon the rejection of the rote learning of the language, cognitivism appeared in the context of the second/foreign language through communicative approaches. While the behavioral approaches assumed a dominant role for the teacher and the materials, cognitive ones added some heuristic and problem-solving aspects to the learning environment. Cognitive approaches focused on developing learners' experiences through providing challenging tasks, which could function as intellectual scafolding (Robyler, Edwards, and Havriluk, 1997).

Cognitivistic theories are now being challenged by a new approach which views learner, teacher, learning, knowledge, instruction, differently. The emphasis in this new approach is on the construction as opposed to the transmission of knowledge. The constructivist view argues that knowledge and reality do not have an objective absolute value. The learner interprets and constructs a reality based on his own experiences and interactions with the environment (Berk, 2000). Such a conception of knowledge has led to a conception of learning which contrasts sharply with traditional views. Learning requires self-regulation and building of conceptual structures through reflection and construction (von Glasserfeld, 1990), and learners are active constructors of meaning or external world. Instruction is no more than the the provision of the opportunities, and the teacher's role is also that of a coach, co-learner, analyzer of the strategies, and purveyor of the learning opportunities, and not as a transmitter of knowledge. Fosnot (1996) defines constructivist view of learning "as an approach to teaching that gives learners the opportunity for concrete, contextually meaningful experience through which they can search for patterns, raise their own questions, and construct their own models, concepts, and strategies. The classroom in this model is seen as a mini-society, a community of learners engaged in activity, discourse, and reflection".

In this new approach, learning takes precedence over teaching and is defined as "an active and collaborative process of knowledge construction, as an autonomous process to be regulated by the learner's expectations, as a process of experimentation based on previous knowledge, and as a process supported by a rich and authentic learning environment" (Berk, 2000). In relation to the second/foreign language learning, it is generally agreed that sheer focus on the instruction of structural and vocabulary knowledge does not result in real linguistic proficiency. In addition to the communicative competence propagated in the 80s, the second/foreign language program also needs special attention to the language awareness, and skills in knowledge perception, production and knowledge construction. Thus the post-communicative era is viewed not as a return to the traditional concepts of drill and practice, but as reliance on a new methodological basis for real innovation in foreign language learning (Wolff, 1994). This new approach attempts to develop life-long learning competence in learners.

Constructivism and Language Assessment

With regard to the evaluation, the second/foreign language education has remained faithful to the objectivist method of evaluation. The objectivistn theories (both behaviorism and cognitivism) have heavily relied on the quantitative methods such as multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, true-false, etc to guarantee the reliability & validity. However, constructivism considers rethinking the assessment system for the contemporary language education. Raimes (1992), for example, shows that the second/foreign language teachers can evaluate the learners through the analysis of their multiple drafts as they attempt to develop a piece of writing. Constructivism, dwelling on the meaning construction by the learners, then requires the assessment methods, which aim at the naturalness and integrity of the learning. In this paradigm, such methods as portfolio assessment or peer assessment could be used. To control for reliability and validity indices, the proponents of constructivism suggest having more than one rater interpret the responses independently. Kvale (1996) calls this, "dialogical intersubjectivity", and as an equivalent to the interrater agreement used in the objectivist paradigm to guarantee reliability.

Constructivism and Research

Language studies are predominantly carried out through quantitative scales. Constructivism differs in this regard and adopts a qualitative approach, focusing on the internal processes and developmental aspects of the processes. This epistemology lets the language researchers feel at home with what was once rejected as being subjective. For constructivist proponents and practitioners, no prepacked and clear- cut criteria are assumed for the judgement about the outcome, but human interpretations in step with their goals find primacy. Constructivist approach thus corroborates the researches which are restricted to special situations and special subjects, without any urgent need for unlimited generalization, since scientific truth may under different circumstances be observed variably. This new epistemology, while approving of the qualitative studies, could further take the research track back to the domestic environment. Language researches in different parts of the world and also in Iran have advanced in the footstep of largely American universities sweeping aside domestic problems. Now we could resort to a special theory for the induction of different and locally based plans into the language pedagogy system.


The traditional approaches to learning are not rich enough to face the new educational requirements. As it was delineated the two general streams of learning, behaviorism and cognitivism, have not offered satisfactory grounds for learning. Though an improvement over behaviorism, the pure cognitivistic theories are now being questioned by another epistemology-constructivism-which is also integrated into cognitive science. This approach perceives learners as active constructors of meaning (Scott, 1987). One major drawback of cognitivism, i.e., explicit teaching and instruction, is to be compensated for in this new epistemology. Wolff (1994) claims that active learning in terms of knowledge construction (constructivism) rather than traditional instruction is essential for the development of a coherent conceptual framework in a learner's mind. We believe such an epistemology that views learning as a self- constructed and self- regulated process of knowledge construction, and the learner as a self- governed creator of knowledge could serve as a very promising guideline for all the agents involved in designing, developing and practicing a new program in the second/foreignlanguage learning environment.


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Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Fosnot, C.T. (1996). Constructivism: A psychological theory of learning. In C.T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

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Von Glaserfeld, E. (1990). An exposition on constructivism: Why some like it radical. In RB. Davis, C.S. Maher & N. Noddings (Eds, Constructivist views on the teaching and learning of mathematices (Journal for Research in Mathematics Education Monograph No. 4, pp. 19-30). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Wolff, D. (1994). Der Konstrukivismus: Ein neues paradigma in der fremdsprachendidaktik? In Die Neueren Sprachen, 93/4: 403- 429.
Akbar Afghari, Isfahan University, Iran
Gholam Reza Zarei, Isfahan University of Technology, Iran

Akbar afghari received his PhD in applied linguistics from Standford University. He is the author and co-author of several textbooks for university students. Gholam Reza Zarei is an instructor at IUT, and a PhD candidate.
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Author:Zarei, Gholam Reza
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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