Cognitivist vs. Behaviourist Paradigms: Points of Convergence and Divergence

Is cognitivism and behaviourism two different world views or do they explain the same phenomena from different lenses?


This paper attempts to highlight points where the cognitivist and behaviouristic paradigms converge and diverge from a learning, education technology and instructional design point of view. In discussing this, the author is wondering whether these two paradigms offer entirely different world views in explaining the discussed concepts or do they attempt to explain the same phenomena from different lenses.

Ertmer & Newby (1993) cites empiricism and rationalism as two opposing positions on the origins of knowledge that has shaped many of the learning theories during the first half of the century. Empiricism “takes the view that experience is the primary sources of knowledge” while rationalism “takes the view that knowledge derives from reason without the aid of the senses” (Schunk, 1991 as quoted in Ertmer & Newby). The influences of these epistemologies are seen within the paradigms under discussion.

The most basic difference between cognitivist and behaviourism would be that the latter claims the creation of observable changes in behaviour (Mergel, 1998) as the cornerstone in learning, and education technology and instructional design is used to support this notion. Cognitivism focuses on the learner’s mind (Mergel, 1998) in explaining learning, and educational technology and instructional design is used to strengthen this association. Cognitivists attempt to build mental models through representation and behaviourist focus on the stimulus response process in the classical condition perspective and the use of an antecedent, operant and consequences through a process of reinforcements in the operant condition process. Do these differences make these viewpoints entirely different paradigms/different world views or are they really trying to focus on different parts of a common process?

The following sections will attempt to take a closer look at some of the concepts associated with learning, education technology and design in unfolding this question.


Learning has been defined in various ways, but universal agreement of any single definition does not exist (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). This is mainly due to the fact that different paradigms define learning through their own perspectives. In understanding learning more closely, concepts such as how learning occur, factors that influence learning, feedback process, the role of memory, the concept of knowledge, the view of an expert, is discussed below.

In terms of how learning occur, the cognitivist stresses the acquisition of knowledge and internal mental structures as important parameters of learning which is closer to the rationalist epistemology (Ertmer & Newby , 1993). It focuses on the conceptualization process and addresses issues of how information is received, organized, retrieved by the mind (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). Gardner (1987) highlights how symbols, rules and images are represented between input and output action for learning to take effect. The emphasis is not so much about what learners do but how they acquire, organize and retrieve information (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). As for the behaviouristic perspective, learning occurs with the changes in the form (law of effect, Skinner 1954) and frequency (through reinforcements, Skinner, 1954) of observable behaviour. Learning is accomplished when a proper response is demonstrated to a specific stimulus (Ertmer & Newby , 1993)  in the case of classical conditioning and voluntary behaviour shown through the interaction of an antecedent , operant and a consequence for the operant conditioning principles.(Wise, 2010). No attempt is made to determine the structure and the mental process associated with it.  (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). If one considers the input, process and the output of events, the cognitivist focus mainly on the process that takes place (in the mind) while the behaviourist emphasises on the output and the input components and treating the process as a black box.  This may be considered as the main difference, a point of divergence between the two paradigms. This may suggest that behaviourism would have a tendency to ignore the existence of the mind, conciseness or even deny the active participation of the learner in the process, but it is a false characterisation. Behaviourist following Skinner’s view “do not deny the notion of consciousness, mind” and accepts it as “private events but has a problem in stating that mental activity causes behavioural activity” (Quoted by Wise, 2010). The above discussion does not suggest that these two learning theories are entirely different world views but it seems like an attempt to explain different parts of the input, process and the output model in the context of how learning takes place. With regard to this assertion, the author would state that the two paradigms would converge with the intention it attempts to explain different components of a common learning process. 

In terms of which factors influence learning, behaviourists claim that “environmental conditions receive the greatest emphasis. The most critical factor is the arrangement of stimuli and consequences within the environment” whereas cognitivism “emphasizes the role that the environment plays in facilitating learning” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). The divergent point would be the treatment of the environment as a focal starting point under behaviourism while considering it as a facilitator in the cognitive movement. But the fact that both pays attention to the environment and the context in different degrees, could this be treated as an opportunity for these views to converge considering the environment as a common incubator for learning to take shape?

The emphasis placed by feedback, Ertmer and Newby (1993, page 60) states that “Many of the instructional strategies advocated and utilized by cognitivists are also emphasized by behaviourist, yet used for different reasons. An obvious commonalty is the use of feedback – behaviourist use feedback (reinforcement) to modify behaviour in the desired direction while cognitivist make use of feedback (knowledge of results) to guide and support accurate mental connections”. However, Wise (2010) states that “I would add that a behaviourist justification relates to the need for the learner to associate the reinforcement with the operation they performed, whereas a cognitive justification refers to the efficiency of giving feedback while the problem/attempted solution path is still in the working memory of the learner. From a behaviourist position, if the feedback isn’t immediate, it is useless; but from a cognitive position, it is just less efficient”. (Wise, response to a statement made by the online moderator of the class online discussion, week6). This sounds like an efficiency verses an effectiveness argument with regard to the use of feedback by both paradigms. The author would like to claim that this is an attempt to explain the phenomena of feedback from different points of view than presenting feedback as an entirely different process.

A key difference between the two views would be the concept of memory. Behaviourist “typically does not address the concept of memory although acquisition habits are discussed and  little attention is given how these habits are stored and recalled” while memory is given a prominent role in cognitivism since “ learning results when information is stored in  memory in an organized and a meaningful way”. (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). This does not highlight that memory is disregarded by the behaviourists but this concept is not addressed. A point that relates to this would be the concept of knowledge. Knowledge in the behaviourist perspective is a “repertoire of behaviours” while in cognitive perspective it is related to as “mental models of the world with abstract representations such as, schemas/scripts” (Wise, 2010, Classroom Material). In this context, is knowledge something that one acquires or is it something that relates to “legitimate peripheral participation”? (Safard, 1998). It is clear that in the cognitive paradigm, knowledge is considered to be an acquisition process since “learning is stated as an act of gaining knowledge”; it stresses “the individual mind and what goes on in it” (Safard, 1998). The acknowledgement of existence of the mind and memory in the cognitive domain will further provide a basis for this point of view. However, in the behaviourist realm where the repertoire of behaviours which is equated to knowledge, how could knowledge be acquired in the absence of a discussion of a mind or memory? If one uses the deductive methodology to argue this point, can the behaviourist point of view of knowledge be explained through the participation metaphor? Safard, 1998 states that “the participation metaphor does not relate to knowledge, concepts but introduced a noun as knowing which indicates action”. Therefore can we dismiss the participation metaphor and claim acquisition? Safard, 1998 goes on to state that

“One may oppose the classification of learning theories as purely acquisitional or participational. The act of acquisition is often equivalent to the act of becoming a participant. It would be a difficult argument to consider these as separate or mutually exclusive. Theories can be classified as acquisition oriented or participation oriented only if they disclose a clear preference for one metaphorical ingredient over the other”.

So in this context, while it is clear that the cognitivist paradigm relates more to acquisition, the behaviourist paradigm cannot be clearly classified as acquisition or participation, then they can converge or diverge depending on the strength of each case.  

As for the concept of an expert, to achieve the state of being an expert, one needs to move from a lower level to a higher level performer in a given field, profession (Wise, 2010,). The National Research council (2000) presented six principles that would differentiate a novice from an expert. These reflect on knowledge acquired and seem to suggest expertise from a more cognitive view. If we relate to an expert from a behavioural perspective, an expert could be one who does something with fewer errors, does it faster meeting the benchmarks, ability to discriminate between effective and efficient actions (EDUC932, Class Discussion). If we consider this, expertise could be viewed from a behaviourist perspective since an expert could also build complex behaviours. Thus, the notion of expertise would be common to both cognitivist and behaviourist although it is built differently.

Reviewing the facts so far that converge and diverge the two paradigms for a learning point of view, it seem to suggest that both cognitivism and behaviorism has attempted to explain learning from different lenses rather than pronouncing to be extremely divergent world views that explain learning.

Education Technology

Saettler (1990) states that it is difficult to pin down to one definition of what education technology is, since it is intertwined with various historical, philosophical and psychological perspectives. He highlights several paradigms of education technology. They are namely the physical science or media approach to technology which identifies educational technology with media that aid instruction. The communications approach to technology, “focus shifts to the entire process of communicating information from the source to the receiver from mere media” (Saettler, 1990).

In further looking at education technology through any of the above paradigms of technology, one can draw on differences of how education technology is used both in cognitive and behaviourist realms.

Anderson et, al (1995) highlights how cognitivist could use media such as computers in building cognitive tutors using principles such as production rules, communicating goal structures, problem solving, maximising working memory, providing immediate feedback on errors etc. (8 Principles of building cognitive tutors). The whole focus of using media in the cognitive movement is to allow students to assimilate knowledge by creating representations to acquire and internalizing knowledge through the provision of feedback.

Skinner (1954) also advocated the use of teaching machines to support learning using behaviouristic principles. The argument to use such media in this movement would be to manage the sheer numbers of contingencies of reinforcement used to shape as well as to strengthen the observable behaviours created through stimuli. Keller’s(1968) principles which represents behaviouristic learning concepts presented using computer based media (Math Emporium) is another example of how computers as media could be used to “develop a skilful program which moves forward a series of progressive approximations to a final complex behaviour” (Skinner, 1954). The emphasis on shaping or successive approximations to achieve desired behaviours (Case & Bereiter,1984) was the focus in using media which contrasted from the cognitivist use of media to provide clear information, thoughtful practice and informative feedback (Reighluth, 1999) to support learning.

It is clear that behaviourist and cognitivist application of technology is somewhat different. However, this difference is not on the way they believe how it would impact learning but on how it is applied to the different input, process and output stages of the learning process. So are these differences significantly divergent or is it more about an application to different parts of the same equation?


Instructional design theory “offers explicit guidance on how to better help people learn, develop, a knowledge base that guides educational practice” (Reigeluth, 1999). Perkins as quoted in Reigeluth, 1999, highlights “theory one”, guidelines of what instruction should be to foster cognitive learning. Perkins state that a good instructional design theory in the cognitive realm should provide “clear information” about the goals, expected performance of instruction, include “thoughtful practice” to provide a learner to engage actively in the learning process, “informative feedback” to provide “thorough counsel to learners about their performance” and “strong intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to learners”.

In contrast to the above, Case & Bereiter (1984) highlights behaviouristic design guidelines to start with “identifying the potential reinforces”, “identify the desired behaviours ”, “describe the initiate behaviour of the learner”, “define the series of behaviours”, “move students through a sequence” and “reinforce behaviours”.

A closer look at the above will highlight some points of convergence and divergence between the cognitive and behaviouristic instructional design practice. Both paradigms highlight objectives of instruction, but the behaviourist highlight what the “person does” than what a cognitivist would highlight what a “person achieves” (Case & Bereiter, 1984). The behaviourist emphasize “on a sequence of activities leading to the final outcome where each successive behaviour representing a small modification of the preceding one” (Case & Bereiter, 1984). Gegne (1984) is suggesting a hierarchical task analysis which states that “a higher order intellectual skill is based on lower level skills” (on an on) seem to suggest a parallel with the behaviourist realm. Although Gegne states that this process is not linear in the cognitive realm, the fact of a progression seems to be an idea that both cognitivists and behaviourists could share in the instructional design process. Also the work of Gegne (1984) in introducing cognitive behaviourism as a solution to overcome the weakness of some of the principles of behaviourism in instructional design theory is another example of how these two paradigms could be used together in instructional design theories.

Also for the purpose of comparison on a more micro level of instruction, setting learning objectives in both realms are compared and contrasted in this section. In setting learning objectives, both in the behaviouristic and in the cognitive realms “refer to the learning outcome and not the process of getting there” and the “objective refers to the student and not the instructor”. However, behavioural objectives tend to be more “observable and specific” and “pre-requisite and successive criteria would be more clear and specific” than cognitive objectives.   (Quoted by Wise, 2010). Also cognitive and behavioural objectives set at the lower level tend not to be that different while at the higher levels, setting them for these realms tends to have varying levels of difficulties (Class Discussion, week 6). The author is raising the question whether both cognitive and behaviourist objectives could be combined in designing a given instructional activity?

Once again while the differences between both the cognitive and the behaviouristic realms are evident in instructional designing theory, are these differences significant enough for these two approaches to be categorised as two different paradigms?


As stated in the introduction, the objective of this paper was an attempt to highlight how both cognitivist and behaviouristic paradigms converge and diverge in the areas of learning, education technology and in instructional design. There were situations that some differences were highlighted and also some situations where these realms found common ground to some degree. In articulating this view, the main question that the author raised was whether both cognitivism and behaviourism are different world views/paradigms or do they attempt to explain the same phenomena from different lenses? It was the attempt of the author to argue supporting the assertion that both cognitivism and behaviourism attempts to explain the input, process and the output elements that is associated with the human learning process from different angles using different language, than presenting themselves as two different world views as painted in some literature. Neither of these views will truly converge nor will be considered as divergent since it explains different parts of the same process. Wouldn’t it be beneficial if these views are used to explain learning, technology and the design from a more wholistic point of view than merely compare and contrast them which will explain two sides of the same coin anyway?


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