The Classical Conditioning Theory Of Learning And Its Educational Implications

Babies, toddlers and young children are all born with integrated learning mechanisms and capacities that enable them to learn from their life experiences. From that standpoint, the Classical Conditioning theory of learning and its educational implications are far reaching, as it considers learning akin to forming new habits, which is an outcome of a stimulus-response.

In this article:

  1. What is learning?
  2. What is Classical Conditioning?
  3. Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory experiment
  4. The process of Classical Conditioning theory
  5. Application of Classical Conditioning in daily life

Right from a young age, human beings learn by observing and imitating others, predominantly adults. In addition to that, humans learn through two other basic forms of learning, namely:

Before we get into Classical Conditioning in detail, it is important that you first understand what is learning?

What is Learning?

Learning is defined as a process that results in a relatively consistent change in behaviour, or behaviour potential, based on experience.

Why should the learning process result in a ‘relatively consistent change’?

Let us understand what ‘relatively consistent change’ is through an example. Let us say you want to learn swimming and have taken swimming classes, after some time, you will end up learning how to swim.

Once you have learned to swim, you will also be able to always swim – for life. However, you should realize that those consistent changes may not be permanent or forever-lasting changes.

For instance, if you haven’t swum for a few years, you may still be able to swim as you have already learned how to. But the speed at which you swim may not match even the average speed at which you used to swim earlier.

However, you will be able to get back to your best speed the way you used to before, if you once again train consistently – the second time.

What is ‘change in behaviour, or behaviour potential’?

Most of the learning an individual has acquired, is apparent from the improvement in performance. A simple example can be: Driving a car.

In many instances however, improvement in performance may not be explicitly visible, due to which the improvement cannot be measured. Example: One’s ability to understand and appreciate modern art.

In such instances, you are said to have achieved what is called potential ‘change in behaviour change’ or ‘behaviour potential’.

Why is it ‘based on experience’?

It is important to always remember (as discussed earlier) that we learn, fundamentally, through our experience. And experience includes:

  • Taking in information
  • Assessment
  • Transformation and manifestation of responses that affect the environment

What is Classical Conditioning?

Babies are born into the world with a naturally built-in set of learning mechanisms that enable them to experience and learn immediately.

As already mentioned in the beginning, other than learning through observation and imitation, which comes to them naturally, kids are also capable of learning through Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning.

Through experiments conducted on dogs, a Russian physiologist and Nobel Laureate Ivan Pavlov studied Classical Conditioning in detail, and published the results in 1897.

Classical Conditioning theory of learning in simple words is a form of learning that happens unconsciously, by associating a neutral stimulus with a stimulus that leads to a reflexive response.

This can be understood further by going through Pavlov’s classical condition theory experiment.

Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning Theory Experiment

Reflex response constitutes the crux of Classical Conditioning.

A reflex is nothing but an automatic (involuntary) response to specific stimuli, like blinking and salivating. Bodily reflexes are biologically important for the survival of any organism, including humans and animals.

The accidental discovery of the reflex of dogs in the form of innate salivation at the sight of food, paved the way for Pavlov’s classical condition theory experiment, and consequently the process of classical conditioning theory.

The Experiment

Pavlov’s experiment was carried out by placing a dog in a restraining harness. Once placed, a stimulus in the form of sound of a bell was made at regular intervals, following which the dog was provided with some food.

In the beginning, the dog did not attach any meaning to the sound of the bell by connecting it either to food or salivation. It exhibited a very normal natural response by turning its head to the direction and source of the sound.

However, with frequent and repetitive pairings of the bell’s sound and the food, the dog did not turn its head towards the direction of the sound of the bell, but started to begin salivating nevertheless. Pavlov demonstrated the generality of this effect by using a variety of other stimuli, like a glowing light or a normal touch.

The Process of Classical Conditioning Theory

Overall, classical conditioning involves forming an association between a neutral stimulus and natural stimulus, resulting in a learned response.

The three stages of classical conditioning are:

  • Before conditioning
  • During conditioning
  • After conditioning

Before Conditioning

In the experiment, Pavlov provided a natural stimulus, which is the sight of the food which automatically elicits a response, which is the salivation. In other words, the UnConditioned Stimulus (UCS, the food), produces an UnConditioned Response (UCR, the salivation).

Later, a neutral stimulus (bell) that produces no effect was introduced, following which it was found that the neutral stimulus could evoke a response when paired with UCS (food) several times.

Therefore, the UnConditioned Stimulus (UCS) refers to naturally occurring stimuli that evoke a response, whereas an UnConditioned Response (UCR) is an automatic response that is manifested when subjected to the UnConditioned Stimulus.

During Conditioning

For this stage, Pavlov introduced a neutral stimulus (bell), that was getting repeatedly paired with the UCS (food). Hence, an association between the neutral stimulus and the natural stimulus was facilitated.

If the association could trigger the salivation response, then the neutral stimulus is called the Conditioned Stimulus (CS).

The once neutral stimulus, after being associated with the natural stimulus, eventually triggers a conditioned response, and this stimulus is called as the Conditioned Stimulus.

After Conditioning

Once the association has been made between the UCS and CS, Pavlov found that the CS, even when presented alone without UCS, triggered a response.

In other words, the resulting response of salivation even without food is called Conditioned Response (CR), which refers to the habituated or learned response to once neutral stimulus (as discussed in the Before Conditioning stage).

Hence UCS-UCR connections or provided by nature. But the CS-CR connections are produced by learning through Classical Conditioning.

Application of Classical Conditioning in Daily Life

Few of the real world applications for classical conditioning are:

  • Classical conditioning mechanisms are used by many dog trainers to train their pets
  • Phobias or anxiety problems could also be treated by the principles of classical conditioning
  • School teachers could apply classical conditioning in the classroom setting

For example, an anxious situation of performing on the stage can be paired with a pleasant reward by which the child could learn to stay relaxed and calm on the stage.