Creativity thrives on independent thinking.

If students could become more autonomous in their learning then teaching would be a lot easier. It seems like a simple idea, give students the ability to work on their own then lecturers would be more confident in them using their own initiative during lessons and in self-directed study time. This article looks at what can be learnt from teaching theories within an art, design or media teaching environment. It may be particularly interesting for those that have recently undertaken a Cert Ed or PGCE. There could also be benefits for those that achieved their teaching qualification some time ago. It mainly considers how practical teaching can be informed by teaching theories and the potential benefits of using simple behaviourist methods.


One of the most exciting aspects of creative education is the amount of skills and awareness engaged with by students. In any given lesson they will be engaged with practical, analytical and highly evaluative reflective skills. At the same time they will be considering advanced ways of dealing with social and ethical issues. For the lecturer this can be an exciting challenge, but also a daunting prospect as learners need a great deal of individual attention from teachers. This article considers what can be taken from learning theories that can promote independent learning so that learners can continue to develop on their own.

The article will briefly analyse how delivery and structure of art, design and media programmes can be influenced by behaviourist psychology by looking at prominent behaviourists and how their theories can affect teaching practices. It will also attempt to assess some of the shortfalls and where behaviourist psychology may be limiting the potential for learning. Most importantly, focus is placed on learning psychology, that can accelerate learners’ development of higher order skills, which they can use independently.


Behaviourists – an overview

Consider the following analysis of behaviourist theories as a way of understanding simple actions that a lecturer can take in relation to immediate actions within the studio. Lecturer actions, which engage directly with issues such as; disruptive behaviour, lateness or reluctance to engage with the activities. Behaviourists concern themselves with empirical data and what is immediately observable. Their research focuses on the response to stimuli (S-R) in learning (Lefrançois, 2000). Representative theorists of behaviourism include Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson, Skinner and Gagné.

Promoting independence in art and design education

Watson’s work relates to improvement of learning as it focuses on achieving desired responses. For Watson, the teacher can achieve desired responses through conditioning the learner by influencing their experiences. From Watson’s ideas, Lefrançois (2000) ascertains that teachers should maximise pleasant stimuli, minimise unpleasant stimuli and understand whether stimuli are pleasant or unpleasant for learners. It sounds relatively simple to decipher what students find pleasant and make sure they find it within the lesson.

However, Thorndike brought another perspective into consideration. He argued that whether a response is learned depends on its consequence (Lefrançois, 2000). The role of punishment and reward as positive and negative stimuli comes to the fore. Punishment is potentially a strong word in this context but consider it as a means of discipline, such as focusing on emphasising feedback on negative behaviour.

Thorndike looked at what happened with immediate actions of reward or discipline within a learning environment. He argued that discipline in relation to negative behaviour did not actually eliminate an S- R bond and rewarding strengthened an S – R bond (Curzon, 2002). What Thorndike was looking at was how the behaviour of the lecturer, not the content of the lesson, would impact on student’s willingness and ability to develop.

From Thorndike’s theories, Curzon (2002) finds that the behaviour of the teacher and their activities in the classroom should be considered, not simply the delivery of information, but also communication and attitude as these can generate negative associations to the learning process. Lefrançois (2000) finds that Thorndike promoted the idea of setting high values on relevant learning in order to promote a positive association and attitude.

Although teacher centred, Lefrançois (2000) finds positive measures for teachers to take from Thorndike’s work in the attention to learners’ needs. Thorndike accepted that there were factors that affect the readiness of learners to learn. An understanding of the readiness of individual learners can help teachers enhance learners’ readiness for the programme. For behaviourists, this comes in the form of providing necessary underpinning knowledge, whereas cognitivists place more emphasis on improving learner autonomy.


The Neo-Behaviourists

Neo-behaviourists such as Tolman, Gagné and Skinner further modified behaviourist doctrine. For Tolman, learners respond selectively and purposefully to their environment and motivation has a strong impact on learning. Like Thorndike’s work, Tolman proposes the logical construction of schemes of work where learners can see how one change in their behaviour can lead to another in a reflective way.

Promoting independence in art and design education

Interestingly for lecturers in art and design that use highly experimental trial and error approaches, for Tolman learners need to develop their own cognitive maps of how to deal with new situations by having more than one opportunity to test and reflect on their own ideas (Curzon, 2002). This approach may sound familiar to many lecturers within creative disciplines. Providing structured methods of reflecting on situations is the way many courses are designed.

Promoting independence in art and design education

Much of the research into the educational impact of Skinner’s work focuses on the use of reinforcers and their potential for improving learning. The way a learner operates or responds and the frequency of the response to their environment and stimuli is determined by the quantity and frequency of reinforcement (Curzon, 2002). However, this is not just a simple situation of rewarding whatever a student actually does.

Skinner distinguished reinforcement from reward. To reward is to compensate for achievement and does not always result in the increase of desired behaviour, whereas positive reinforcing actually increases desired behaviour. Reinforcing can take many forms such as confirmation of a correct answer to in depth feedback of progress and achievement. As a lecturer, it is sometimes difficult to determine how positive or critical to be as students, especially those with low levels of confidence, will react instantly to discipline, reward or reinforcement.

Following from Thorndike, educational theory based on Skinner’s work finds that punishment is less effective than negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is the elimination of stimuli, which increases desired behaviour. Positive reinforcement is simply the increase of stimuli that augments the probability of desired behaviour. What this suggests to the lecturer wanting to increase productivity within the studio and across a project is that lecturers should try and consider how they are teaching and put find ways of putting students into situations that they don’t actually have to discipline.

One way of looking at this is to reflect on the behaviour that is disrupting a students learning and try and find a way to put it to positive and creative use, as opposed to stating that it is having a detrimental or negative effect on their learning. This would be defined as negative reinforcement.

For learners that are progressing well, rewarding of positive behaviour according to the neo-behaviourists is also less effective in the long run than providing situations and input that actually increases the chances of students producing work to expectations.

Promoting independence in art and design education

So what is rewarding? It can be anything from giving prizes to students that achieve highly, to saying that they have done really well in a project. The difference is that the impact comes after that actual desired behaviour rather. Positive reinforcement is actually generating situations that students will find encouraging and motivating in the first place. For students that are struggling, this can make all the difference. For a lecturer unsure of whether to incentivise students through competitions and prizes, this can be a difficult issue to deal with, especially if expectations of students is high.


Caution of the Reinforcer

So neo-behaviourists seem to want lecturers to avoid using simple reward or discipline and ask them to produce a learning programme that is motivational from the outset. This seems lieka simple enough approach.

However, Curzon (2002) cautions the use of reinforcers in teaching as they may bring about unanticipated behaviour. The use of negative reinforcers may only elicit temporary changes in behaviour. The most effective teaching based on Skinner’s theories according to Curzon (2002), applies continuous reinforcement at early stages in the programme and then progressively less as students develop more underpinning skills that allow them to be more autonomous of the lecturers rewarding, discipline and reinforcement. This would mean making early objectives within the programme easy to achieve in order to maximise positive reinforcement. Activities then become more difficult as the ability of the learner increases.

Despite being highly teacher-centred, Skinner argues that teaching should involve some learning of problem solving, discovery learning and original behaviour (1984). All of which promote independence in the learner. Further emphasis on the learner is also apparent in Skinner’s insistence on the learning programmes consideration of the clarity of what is being taught for learners and their paces (1984).

Gagné proposed that more significance be placed on building up skill levels to reach higher order skills such as concept learning and problem solving skills that might increase learner autonomy (Minton, 2005).

What does this mean for an art, design and media lecturer? Minton (2005) argues that the conclusions to be made from Gagné’s work are that learners need some autonomy in setting their own goals, such as engaging them in the objectives setting within the lesson. He also suggests that feedback should be used continually in a formative way rather than at the end of learning.


Moving away from the teacher

However, Gagné’s system of instruction remains teacher-centred as it is based on reinforcement by the lecturer. But, what if lecturers are having less and less contact time and need students to become more autonomous on their own?

Minton (2005) argues that there is little room for producing independent learners and thinkers as these would produce responses that would be too unpredictable for the type of structured and objective based learning behaviourism demands. This bears much significance for a creative courses that frequently place significant emphasis on learners’ ability to respond in a personal and independent way.

Reece and Walker (2004) identify art as a low consensus subject area where it is not always possible to identify right and wrong. One of the real challenges with art, design and media courses, is that there is no way of saying that what a student has produced is an incorrect result as there are so many factors to consider.

Promoting independence in art and design education

As such, it is far more difficult to base learning on simple reinforcement of correct answers. Reece & Walker (2004) suggest that the choice of teaching method depends on the topic and type of learner. Most art, design and media lecturers would want to avoid being simple behaviourists that use simple reward or reinforcement.


Low level learning solutions or the move toward active learning

The simpler the tasks the more effective it is to teach through behaviourism as this can easily reinforce, negatively and positively, surface level behaviour. On most art, design and media programmes, only certain skills need to be reproduced in the correct way, but learners accomplish these early on in the programme and quickly need to become innovative and personal in their approaches, whether this is at level 1 or 4. Important deeper learning takes place where learners make their own personal and autonomous responses.

These could possibly be accomplished through a neo-behaviourist model, but it would be very complex to modify personal behaviour and know that the right results were going to be achieved. For most art, design and media lecturers, in order to accomplish the deeper learning, cognitivist and humanist approaches are employed that promote an increase in learner autonomy.

Many teaching theorists have moved away from the behaviourist stress on teacher-centred learning and emphasised the importance of facilitating active learning, which encourages learners to take responsibility.

Walklin (2002) makes a case for learners to become more active, emphasising the importance of Heuristic teaching activities in this process. For Walklin, enabling learners to reflect and place the emphasis on learner-centred teaching is the most effective process. This reduces the demand on lecturer’s response and tries to make learners more aware of their own habits and learning styles.


Difficulties in reinforcing and rewarding

There is little doubt that reward and reinforcement can change behaviour. Although apparently simple, the use of reinforcers in the classroom is deceptively difficult to master. Skinner’s formulaic methods of the use of positive reinforcers in a structured way, do not always take unpredictable learners’ characteristics into consideration. It is so hard to determine how a student will react to reward, discipline, negative or positive reinforcement.

It is also quite easy to reward positive behaviour without considering the importance of long term behaviour changes that would benefit from an increase in autonomy. For some students, as long as the lecturer is present and undertaking rewarding, discipline and positive or negative reinforcement, they will produce the goods. It may be more beneficial to keep in mind what is still to be done and not simply rely on what has already been achieved.

Placing value on attitudes to learning suggested by Thorndike, seems to be the most rewarding of behaviourist methods. Through simple introductions in lessons that relate behaviour objectives to a wider context of employment and progression possibilities, it is possible to generate high levels of motivation and a shift of responsibility for learning to the learner.


So what does this mean for lecturers that have been trying to use positive reinforcement? They may have found considerable success has come about by reinforcing positive attitudes toward independent achievement, positive attitudes to learning and critical and reflective skills in feedback, assessment, introductions and reviews of lessons. Greater autonomy is also achieved through continual formative feedback that looks at the progression of the learner, not just in terms of production of work, but also in terms of capability and potential for learning.


And the learner’s role?

The behaviourist school does seem to give some insight into how to behave in the studio with learners, how to encourage them with feedback and rewards. However, these behaviours appear to relate more to teaching lower level skills. Functional behaviours, which produce skills in technical manipulation of materials and creative processes that can easily be measured and identified by both lecturers and students.

However, it does little to identify positive learner attributes that may increase independent learning potential. Whereas cognitive theory suggests that learners have to develop an awareness of themselves as learners and develop critical, creative and effective thinking abilities (Lefrançois, 2000).

Promoting independence in art and design education

Alexander and Judy (1988) found two critical facts that improve the ability to learn, which have far reaching implications for teachers. The first is that teachers must facilitate learners’ development of an awareness of themselves as learners. This might mean implementing strategies that don’t always focus on the achievement of the assessment criteria, such as doing peer reviews or self-assessment. The second is that teachers must help learners develop their own strategies for effective thinking. Both of these are vitally important in improving the effectiveness of teaching time on art, design and media programmes.

For Dewey (Reece & Walker, 2004), the teacher has to organise a lesson around facilitating reflective learning. It is incredible to consider that one of the areas that learners seem to enjoy the least and find the most difficult is potentially the most important. Gibbs (Ashcroft & Foreman-Peck, 2002) even goes so far as to maintain that it is possible to generate deeper approaches to learning through designing a course, which encourages independent thinking.

Placing too much control and not allowing for any autonomy by using simple behaviourist or neo-behaviourist models can encourage passivity and over-dependence on the lecturer. A situation that not many lecturer in creative disciplines can afford.

Promoting independence in art and design education

Bruner (Reece & Walker, 2004) argued learners need to be taught how to become independent and actively think for themselves. Bruner promoted the use of discovery learning as a means, not just to understand, but to experience learning in its own right, not only learn techniques and processes. For Bruner this was much more effective in enabling learners to obtain generalizable, or transferable skills (Minton, 2005).

For the art, design and media student that is continually facing new projects on very different themes. Learners on these programmes will need the confidence and ability to take risks and come back from failures. In relation to Bruner’s ideas, early parts of creative programmes should cover foundation study skills so that learners are later able to gather their own information and learn quite different skills. They will then be able to respond in more personal ways in new situations. This kind of structuring should promote independence and autonomy.


Reflection in art, design and media

It seems that an increase in reflection is potentially the greatest asset that a student can achieve. Reflection as a skill can come about by learners keeping reflective diaries, having structured reflection and evaluation sections of lessons and engaging in self and peer assessment (Ashcroft & Foreman-Peck, 2002).

Reflection can take many forms. It is a space that learners use to practice techniques and experiment with new ones. Moreover, they can make mistakes, be self-critical and evaluate what worked well and where to improve. This is as important for assessment of skills as the creation of final products.

Many lecturers will have facilitated activities that will promote this kind of practice, but potentially are unaware of the theoretical underpinnings behind them. These practices could include peer critiques or open discussions.

Further reading on reflection and evaluation:


Is there a downside?

There are arguments against the use of discovery learning. Ausubel criticised the discovery approach as being less effective (Lefrançois, 2000), finding little evidence to support it. Moreover, the process was deemed to be too time consuming (Lefrançois, 2000). Lefrançois (2000) also finds a downside in the potential it has to generate misconceptions if left wholly to the learner. Most lecturers will have found that when left unaided, students can easily go off on a tangent or misunderstand the objectives.

This sets out a conflict between the use of discovery as a learner-centred approach and more expository and teacher-centred learning, which Ausubel tries to resolve by analysing the effects of the reception of information in the classroom.

Promoting independence in art and design education

Ausubel’s focus is on the exposition of information and the form this should take for the level of learner. Ausubel found that discovery learning, while useful for early stages of learning, becomes less useful as the learner becomes more able (Lefrançois, 2000). The solution to this comes in the form of structuring the exposition of information by ensuring new concepts are communicated simply and in relatively final form (Lefrançois, 2000).

As a teacher of art, it has taken considerable reflection on the relationship between learners’ abilities and the exposition of new ideas in the classroom in order to find the best means for learning to take place.


Advance organisers

Perhaps the most significant changes have not been in the activities that learners participate in, but the way new concepts are communicated in the studio. The use of what Ausubel terms advance organisers has made a big impact on developing learners’ ability to learn. These are complex sets of concepts that are presented during an introduction to a class and which help learners structure the information they receive (Lefrançois, 2000).

Grippin and Petters (1984) define advance organisers and the way they should be used. Essentially, they need to be related to what learners have already learnt and will act as refreshers. They should also be more generic and abstract than material covered in the lesson in order to help learners make sense of what they are going to learn. Most importantly they should make absolutely clear the relevance of what they are going to learn in the lesson in relation to the programme as a whole.

As such, advance organisers can be part of the objectives and even relate to the higher order objectives, but most importantly they should be introduced at the start of learning. Consider a programme that needs the students to understand basic colour theory. Many students find this frustrating and respond quite negatively. However, through the use of advance organisers that introduces the concept of colour and how it is critical to producing all visual products. There could be a video of how a designer uses colour theory in their products and will significantly increase the students willingness to take on the new information in a more autonomous way.

Promoting independence in art and design education

Imagine all of the lessons where it has been difficult for students to appreciate and take ownership of the learning. Where the learning has been teacher focused and depended on direct reward or reinforcement from the lecturer. Now, assess how many of these lessons were about topics that students couldn’t properly relate to in terms of connecting to previous learning or actually understanding the need for the particular skill. Some students will see the potential in everything creative and get excited, but others will need advance organisers to help them engage and learn.


Feedback and autonomy

For many lecturers, the use of feedback is an integral part of learning and is central to lessons. Despite being a positive move toward more learner centred teaching, the feedback doesn’t always enhance learners’ own ability to reflect. Minton (2005) argues that this would be better achieved through facilitating a means for learners to measure their own progress by facilitating feedback that concentrates on the learners’ ability to self-evaluate.


What is being suggested here is a means of students actually learning how to learn and evaluating that through metacognition. Sternberg (1984) argues that developing metacognitive skills is integral to the learning process.

Behaviourists do not seem to provide a means to fully exploit the phenomenon. Lefrançois (2000) suggests metacognitive skills can be developed through teaching methods that involve the use of carefully planned questions that foster specific and independent thinking skills, which can vastly improve the quality and effectiveness of feedback. Lecturers can also promote reflective thinking that helps learners look at their own effectiveness of learning activities. As each learner may need development in different strategies for learning, this type of feedback is the most effective in catering for this.



Vygotsky also investigated how learners could become more independent. The main method to achieve this is to consider learners’ ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD). The ZPD can be found by contrasting what the learner may be capable of without the support of a teacher with what they might achieve with support. The most effective learning will focus teaching within the ZPD and be slightly in advance of what learners are capable of in order to enhance potential for learning.


Support should increase learners’ potential to learn and focus more on what learners may be able to do with certain kinds of support. Vygotsky resolves the problem of dependence on the teacher through the promotion of scaffolding as a support mechanism (Lefrançois, 2000). Lefrançois (2000) finds that inherent to Vygotsky’s scaffolding is a means to help learners become more independent through the reduction of support as they become more capable.

Vygotsky is important to teaching creative subjects as he focuses on the development of personality and creative potential. In contrast to behaviourist modes of teaching, Vygotsky’s approach is not to force a will on to learners, but rather to bring about a collaborative approach to learning with higher levels of autonomy than expected by behaviourists (Lefrançois, 2000).

This can be done by negotiating outcomes that are gradually more difficult. To a certain extent learners need to choose which directions to take their work and how to apply the skills they have gained in class that depend on their own understanding of their own abilities. They can decide on directions and the teacher can then ensure that they have targets, which are situated to the upper levels of their ZPD.

Promoting independence in art and design education

So how does this look in terms of a programme in art, design and media and how does it impact on the overall structure? Vygotsky’s scaffolding suggests having units early in the programme that have more constraints and less directions students can actually go in. Later, as they develop more abilities and underpinning skills, the constraints can actually be reduced. The scaffolding that is supporting them can be removed little by little in most teaching scenarios, but the combination of setting up a programme like this and using metacognitive activities and advance organisers that are learner centred will speed up the learning curve.



One of the challenges for lecturers wanting to maximise learning potential within their lessons is that there don’t seem to be any clear rules for using learning theory. Learning takes place over a long period of time and is affected by so many variables. Clements (1997) agrees that educational psychology does not provide clear instructional rules that can be applied in the classroom, but rather a philosophical approach to teaching.

Teaching theory is continuously evolving and new strategies are brought about by government and stakeholders all of the time. Because of the broad spectrum of approaches it seems that there is no single best approach, but that behaviourist approaches that appear mechanical at first and that have been widely discounted by lecturers, can actually prove fruitful.

There are many positive applications of behaviourist approaches to teaching, especially at the start of lessons or programmes. Learning programmes today give teachers a huge amount of autonomy. However, this autonomy presents significant challenges when structuring a learning programme.

Promoting independence in art and design education

In personal experience, it is interesting to note that while early efforts with more humanist strategies to try to make teaching as collaborative with learners as possible, the structuring of programmes has reverted back to the use of much more behaviourist methods. This is especially true in relation to Skinner’s ideas of using continuous reinforcement earlier on in the programme and then reducing the amount of reinforcement as the programme progresses. This is because of the immediate and obvious behaviour changes that can clearly be measured.

Significant success has been achieved simply by focusing on personal behaviour in the classroom and simple reinforcement techniques that were neglected earlier. However, there is a renewed personal approach of trying to accelerate learners’ development, specifically aimed at increasing learner autonomy. The basis for this is the frustration with the level of achievement and recognition of greater potential where learners are less dependent on the teacher. The kinds of strategies that enable this can be taken from Vygotsky, Ausubel and Bruner. Interestingly, this personal approach is perhaps far more philosophically based on humanist ideas such as those presented by Rogers and Maslow than previously expected (Reece & Walker 2004).



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  • Ashcroft, K. & Foreman-Peck, L. 1994 Managing Teaching and Learning in Further and Higher Education, The Falmer Press, London.
  • Cottrell, S. 2001 Teaching Study Skills and Supporting Learning, Palgrave, Basingstoke.
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  • Walklin, L. 2002 Teaching and Learning in Further and Adult Education, Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham.
  • Wallace, S. 2001 Teaching and Supporting Learning in Further Education, Learning Matters, Exeter.



Daniel Freaker Daniel Freaker Educational Consultant, Painter, Writer, Designer