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  • Destiny Yarbro

Do I Create a Behaviorist or a Cognitive Foreign Language Classroom? [Infographic]

In my teaching of minority languages (specifically sign language at the university level), it is evident that both behaviorist and cognitive principles are found in my classroom management, lesson plan construction, and instructional delivery.

Classroom Management

Fundamental to my teaching philosophy is that the ideal student is not a perfectly behaved, well-trained automaton but someone who tries, explores, errs, and progresses at their own speed. Cognitive theory posits that “because we learn from our mistakes, errors are in fact good for learning” (Agarwall & Roediger, 2018). My goal is not to “shape” my students by rewarding those who follow prescribed behaviors and punishing those who act otherwise. I strive to “facilitate learning;” to “find out what [they are] fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it” as Dewey (1916) put it (Schunk, 2012, p.99; McLeod, 2018, p.10).

For example: I begin each class by acting out a famous Disney movie or TV show. As the students laugh and make guesses, the perfectionist tendencies that are very common in the private college realm fade away. Students feel more comfortable with trying, laughing, making mistakes, and just “making do” with whatever gestures they can manage at that point in their language acquisition.

Lesson Plan Construction

While completing the readings, I believe I have both behaviorist and cognitive practices in my lesson planning. One behaviorist practice is that I sequence learning to some degree, arranging “prerequisite skills into a learning hierarchy” (Borich & Tombari, n-d). However, I believe that student-led, exploratory learning should take precedence over “the acquisition of pre-determined skills,” (Talebi, 2015). Behaviorists tout objectives that are “easy to measure” but in my opinion, these lead to an inflexible curriculum, an assessment-centric learning environment, and teachers who “ignore educational outcomes involving complex intellectual skills” and “assume that only what is measurable is valuable” (Borich & Tombari, n-d; McLeod, 2018).

The following examples show that even with having native teachers, my language learning experiences varied greatly due to the teacher’s behaviorist or cognitive preferences:

1. German: The course I took focused on recitations of generalized, hypothetical conversations. It was based on behaviorist practices; focusing on rote learning, memorization of phrases, and pronunciation. When I moved to Germany six years later, I couldn’t remember a single phrase from the course.

2. Arabic: This course almost exclusively focused on written language. One of my classmates spoke with the teacher saying, “I am being shipped out to the Middle East in a couple of months, I need to know how to speak and understand Arabic!” The teacher dismissed his concern saying that “this is how languages are learned.” When I moved to Turkey and later traveled to Qatar, I could only remember “hello” from the course.

3. Hungarian: I learned Hungarian in a three month intensive, experiential, mainly self-paced program. Our goal was clear: Be able to communicate and connect with the people we would meet while serving a two year mission in Hungary. Due to health reasons, I was only able to live in Hungary for a couple of months after the intensive program, but 12 years later the language is still accessible to me. The success of the program was not that it was intensive or "immersive" as we were mainly surrounded by other Hungarian newbies, but because we had a common and meaningful purpose in learning the language. Yes, my conjugations get confused and my grammar may be appalling at times, but I am able to have meaningful conversations with every Hungarian I meet.

In my strong opinion, language learning is not about precise grammar or perfect conjugations (i.e. what is easily measurable), it is about communication and connection. Because language is inseparably connected to people and culture, I refuse to waste precious time on tradition-entrenched linguistics and prefer to focus here: Can my students communicate with members of the minority language community, show respect for their language, and connect with them by discussing common needs, passions, and goals?

For example: I am trying to teach new minority languages as if they were pidgin languages. Pidgins were all about simplicity and reaching communication as quickly as possible. Rather than teaching fingerspelling as the foundational knowledge of an American Sign Language class, I teach VGC (complex gesture patterns) so that students learn how to communicate even before formal signs are memorized.

Instructional Delivery

As with the two domains above, I lean heavily toward cognitive theory in my instructional delivery. A behaviorist is focused on “minimizing mistakes” at all costs (to ensure that only desirable behavior is repeated and engrained), so they use prompts, hints, and other stimuli to help a student “make the correct responses” (Borich & Tombari, n-d). Honestly, this reminds me of lawyers using leading questions in the courtroom. The teacher holds all the power; the student scrounges for the answer the teacher wants. In contrast, I believe that students thrive when there is a healthy, interdependent relationship between teacher and student; when students problem-solve and find meaning in what they are exploring. When intelligence is not seen as a “fixed trait” but as a skill that comes readily to students with a growth mindset (McLeod, 2018, p.1; Dweck, 2016).

For example: My assignments are not made up of predetermined vocab lists or summative testing. My goal is that students walk out of my classroom each day more and more adept at communicating in their own environments. Rather than asking leading questions, I want to make sure that my assignments encourage them to learn the language concepts that matter most to them such as the ability to take an order if they are a waitress at Red Lobster, the ability to talk about roofing a new home if the student is into home repair, or the ability to communicate various concepts in VGC so a student traveler can converse with Deaf people worldwide.

My preference for cognitive theory across these three domains is clear. Interestingly, this preference is not because the idea of a student-centered, mistakes-welcomed learning environment is natural to me. Rather, I was the “perfect” student, well-behaved, scholastically adept, but absolutely terrified to try and fail. For this reason, I am determined to create a learning environment where my language students build grit and nurture enthusiasm for trying and experimenting.


Agarwal, P. K. & Roediger III, H. L. (2018, November 26). Lessons for learning: How cognitive psychology informs classroom practice. Phi Delta Kappan.

Borich, G. D. & Tombari, M. L. (n-d). “Behaviorism in the Classroom.” Lumen Educational Psychology.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. Macmillan.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.

Hays, M.J., Kornell, N., & Bjork, R.A. (2013). When and why a failed test potentiates the effectiveness of subsequent study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 290-296.

McLeod, Saul. (2018). Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development. Simple Psychology.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: an educational perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.


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