Classical Conditioning


Pavlovian Conditioning
Pavlovian Learning
Respondent Conditioning


Affecting reflexes and other involuntary behaviors by manipulating environmental stimuli

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … repertoire of behaviors
  • Knowing is … behaving (triggered by stimuli)
  • Learner is … an organism (individual-in-context)
  • Learning is … changes in behavior (specifically: associating stimuli with reflexive responses)
  • Teaching is … classical conditioning (training the subject to manifest a reflexive response when a stimulus is presented)




Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning are two branches of Behaviorisms that are more properly understood as advice on teaching than as theories of learning. Both are concerned with manipulating and managing behaviors controlled by environmental stimuli, although they focus on different categories of behavior and employ different methods. Classical Conditioning is concerned with reflexive, nonvoluntary behaviors that are not under the learners’ control (e.g., salivation), and it deals with training learners to use neutral stimuli (e.g., a bell sound, versus the value-laden rewards and punishments within Operant Conditioning) to elicit those behaviors. The principal strategy is to present the stimulus when the target behavior occurs so that the learner forms an association between them.


See Behavorisms for global critiques, especially as this theory relates to human learning. The main issue with Classical Conditioning, with regard to formal education, is that very few curriculum goals fall into the category of nonvoluntary responses. That said, Classical Conditioning has proven especially effective for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, various phobias, and other emotionally taxing conditions.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Ivan Pavlov; John B. Watson

Status as a Theory of Learning

Within the very limited scope of reflexive behaviors, Classical Conditioning is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Classical Conditioning is a more appropriately regarded as a theory of teaching than a theory of learning. With its focus on manipulating behavior, Classical Conditioning falls among mechanistic conceptions of teaching associated with Correspondence Discourses of learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The foci, processes, and interpretations of Classical Conditioning are clearly articulated and supported by a substantial body of uncontradicted evidence. However, Classical Conditioning falls well short of a theory that can inform activity in formal education, and so in our analysis is classified as limited theory.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Classical Conditioning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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