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Analysis of learning theories

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 4349 words Published: 5th May 2017

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Education is very dynamic, and new initiatives, focuses and theories are constantly being introduced with the collective aim of enhancing both teaching and learning. The foundations of most educational theories appear to be behaviourism and subsequently constructivism according to Woollard (2010). As a result, this assignment will focus primarily on these two learning theories.

I aim to compare and contrast behaviourism and constructivism with regards to their impact on teaching and learning. Focusing on three areas of the curriculum, I shall also consider how both behaviourist and constructivist approaches are applied and consequently the impact on an individual child's learning. Throughout the assignment I will make considerations for my own teaching and conclude with the implications on my personal philosophy.

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During my time in school I have had the opportunity to observe a teacher in year two and as a result I was able to analyse theory being put into practice. The individual child I have chosen to focus on is aged six and is in year two. For anonymity purposes I shall refer to the child as Child A throughout this assignment. Child A is not recognised as having special educational needs (SEN), but she is currently working at a level 1b which is considered to be 'below expectations' by two sub levels in all core subjects (National Curriculum n.d., online).

Taylor and Mackenney (2008) explain how several theorists have contributed to behaviourism, which have influenced teaching and learning in classrooms today. According to Taylor and Mackenney (2008), Skinner and Pavlov are the major contributors to behaviourism, therefore due to restricted word count, this assignment will focus on their work with regards to behaviourism. Davis and Sumara (2006, p.113) state that the work of Piaget is acknowledged as the major influence on constructivism and in turn is prominent within contemporary discussions of curriculum and pedagogy research. This assignment will focus primarily on Piaget's stage theory of development.

The stage theory of maturational development offers a universal process for learning, however, similar to the behaviourist view that a 'law of learning' can be provided, it may be too over simplistic (Sigelman and Rider 2011). Bruner (1960) questioned whether the stage theory is realistic. He suggested intellectual growth must take natural ways of thought into account. Similar to Piaget, Bruner developed stages of learning and intellectual growth, however, Bruner does not believe that the stages represent different and separate modes of thought at different points of development Bruner (2003). According to Bruner (1961), learning can be achieved at any stage of development if concepts are taught at a simple level initially and revisited with a higher degree of complexity at another time.

Gardner (1992) argued against the stage theory of learning as he claimed that cognitive skills develop at different and unrelated speeds (Gardner 1992, cited in Cohen 2012, p.48). This is also supported by McInerney and McInerney (2009) as they believe that although learning does appear to develop through stages, cognitive development does not progress in the 'neat' stages originally suggested by Piaget.

Piaget did however state that although all children develop through each stage in the same sequence, they do not all develop at the same pace (Nairne 2010, p.113). Gardner (1992) further questioned Piaget's theory, as like Bruner, he believes earlier aspects of learning and ways of thinking are used throughout all stages of development and can be used to support learning in new areas (Gardner 1992, cited in Pound 2006).

Skinner argues children cannot be taught skills they do not naturally posses, this aspect of development is similar to that of Piaget's theory of 'readiness' as both theories imply that before learning can be achieved, the child must be at the appropriate stage of maturation (Elkind 2011, online). Davenport (2002) stated that children are capable of thinking in more advanced ways before the age of seven as Piaget believed. Piaget's experiments have been questioned by more recent researchers as I shall discuss.

It has been put forward that Piaget may have presented tasks in particular ways in order to get specific results. When aged four to seven year old children were asked direct questions opposed to open ended questions, their responses were less artificial (Meltzoff 2007). This could have therefore mislead children and subsequently lead to underestimating children's level of understanding and sophistication. In turn, questioning whether developmental stages undervalue the extent to which children constantly change as they are growing up. Thus again questioning the simplicity of Piaget's theory.

Culture and individual differences appear to be irrelevant in Piaget's theory of learning, as he believed all children are equipped to learn and develop through the same stages (Snowman et al. 2011, p.70). This was criticised by Cole (2006) as he emphasised the role of society on learning and stated that children who live in 'traditional' societies are more attentive to adults and therefore likely to develop a more observational approach to learning, whereas children from a 'less traditional society', are more likely to learn through verbal instruction. He evidenced his theory by conducting an experiment involving aged 6 to ten year old children and found his results were consistent with his theory. 'All children can learn and succeed, but not on the same day in the same way' supports this theory (Spady 1994, p.9).

According to Wood (2012), Behaviourists assume that behaviour is entirely controlled by the environment and prior learning. This theory is very much on the nurture side of the nature nurture debate and as a result many experiments, the majority of which involving animals, have been carried out. The use of animals in behaviourist experiments is criticised by Robins (2012, p.36) for suggesting that animals and humans learn in the same way. Bjorklund (2011) described how humans are complex and behaviour changes of animals are instinctive, whereas human behavioural changes are due to learning. He also argues that humans are separate from animals as we are the only species with powerful intellect. The way in which we think and the technological and cultural innovations afforded by our intelligence set us apart from animals (Bjorklund 2011). The Stimulus - Response theory was an attempt to discover general laws of learning (Wood, 2012).

Piaget studied children and not animals, however Seltman and Seltman (2006) criticised Piaget's research methods, as his theory of how babies develop was almost wholly based on his own children. This could suggest that his research samples were limited and therefore weakening validity (Robins 2012).

The argument by behaviourists that behaviours are dependent upon prior learning and the environment implies that people have little or no control over their own actions Engler (2008, p.226). Popovic (2008) believes behaviourism offers no explanation for, and does not consider the possibility of behaviours being a result of mental events such as beliefs. Popovic (2008 p.87) also points out that if this was true of all learning, then we are unable to have any beliefs that we have not previously acted upon or verbally expressed, going against all sense of logic.

Pastorino and Doyle-Portillo (2011, p.207) argued that Behaviourism is ignorant of the mental process, and disregards the activities of the mind, as only measureable and objective behaviours are regarded as 'learning'. Put simply, if no explicit change in behaviours take place, then no learning has occurred. This strongly suggesting only quantifiable displays of knowledge are valid and any mental process is meaningless (Mingers 2006, p.11).

Although in general, a change in behaviour is a result of learning, it may not always necessarily be the case (Lefrancois, 2006). Lefrancois (2006) offers an explanation as he describes how losing a hand modifies behaviour and states that the loss itself is not learning. He believes a person may learn to compensate for the loss of their hand by learning new skills, therefore changes in behaviours does not necessarily result in improved learning.

One must question how children are able to solve problems without the trial and error method deemed essential by behaviourists, as Bandura (1977) suggests that observational learning and mental processes both contribute to development, as children learn by imitating behaviours and noting mentally the possible consequences of their own behaviours.

Behaviourists believe that the teacher is responsible for all learning and as a result are 'in charge'(Huerta 2007, p.36). It may be argued that children will not be encouraged to work and learn independently, and creatively, therefore individuality and discovery will be nonexistent (Overall, 2007). Denby (2012, P.136) supports this by claiming that children are passive learners and purely learn what they are 'fed' by the teacher. Palmer (2001) explains that simply teaching is not sufficient learning and supports her argument by stating 'Einstein's teachers did not teach him that e=mc²" (Palmer 2001, p.41). This thought provoking quote supports the need of discovery and independent learning. Palmer suggests purely acquiring knowledge which is 'taught' and from prior experience, is not true learning.

Piaget (1972), was also opposed to this theory as he suggested that teaching should not place emphasis on the passing on of knowledge and that children learn by discovery as they are naturally curious and well motivated to learn (Piaget 1972, cited in Kail and Cavanaugh 2012, p.124). He also believed that children should respond to their own curiosity and that education is making creators and not just resembling another adult (Piaget 1972, cited in Davenport 2002).

As previously mentioned I have observed three separate lessons in year two and have been able to witness theory being put into practice. These lessons included Mathematics, Literacy and Science. Each lesson followed the same structure in which they began with a clear lesson objective and 'steps to success', with all the children on the carpet, developing on to the task and concluding with a plenary. The children appeared to be familiar with the structure of the lessons and due to the lesson objective and success steps, were aware of what they could expect from the lesson and in turn what was expected of them.

Most children can learn curricular skills when the concepts are broken down into little steps and in the classroom a clear Learning Objective and Success steps would achieve this (Slavin 2000). This suggests that the children's abilities to complete a learning objective gives a clear indication of what children do and do not know (Deiner 2009, p.121).

This lesson structure appeared to be a behaviouristic approach to teaching as the lesson was broken down into small steps, however it may be criticised for discouraging spontaneity and not allowing for individuality if all the children are required to follow the same sequence (Curzon 2004, p.157).

Some teachers do not care for the child who gives answers which do not comply with predetermined 'correct' answers, which could be seen as inhibiting learning and development and promoting conformity (Sarsani 2005).

A quantity of children are unable to work in an unstructured environment as they are reliant on consistency and the continuity and structure allow children to feel safe and secure (Tassoni 2002, p.238), which is, according to Maslow (1970), a basic need in order to learn effectively.

During the literacy lesson of which I observed, the teacher read a story to the whole class on the carpet and afterwards dictated to the children the differences between thoughts and feelings. The teacher then asked the children to independently write down examples of thoughts and feelings offering a sticker for good examples. Although the children were being active, this appeared to be a behaviouristic approach as the children were told the information and worked alone with an extrinsic incentive. Child A failed to write any ideas on her board and as a result did not receive a sticker.

The teacher may have interoperated this as Child A not understanding the task or having any ideas, when in fact, she may not have been confident in writing her suggestions or quick enough to complete the activity. Perhaps the children could have worked in pairs to discuss ideas and have the lower ability (LA) children paired with a 'more able' child. If children have the opportunity to work with other children who are at a different cognitive level, they are likely to be encouraged by the more mature child, therefore advancing to higher understanding of the material (Wood 2008, online).

As previously mentioned, the children were offered a sticker as a reward for completing their work. Kohan (1993) states that offering extrinsic rewards will reduce intrinsic motivation, which according to Piaget (1970) children are self motivated therefore extrinsic rewards are not necessary (Piaget 1970 cited in Groark and Eidelman 2011, p.40).

Child A failed to complete the task and as a result she was upset because she did not receive a sticker. Slavin (2000) criticises offering rewards for completing work as it may lead to children only completing any task if a reward is given and suggests the emphasis should be on the process of learning and not the end product. Slavin (2000) continues to explain how the children may not always complete a task, but they have developed their knowledge and understanding through the process.

I feel this is particular constructivist view of learning is very important for my own teaching practice, as it is important to recognise individual achievement which is likely to differ highly between children. Something which is taken for granted for one child, may be a big accomplishment for another.

Following on from this, the children were then set tasks involving describing characters. Child A being in the LA group, was given a worksheet with a list of adjectives, in which she had to circle appropriate words to describe her chosen character. This was with adult support, who read out all the words and child A circled the ones she deemed appropriate. This appeared to be a constructivist approach as the adult could be said to be acting as a facilitator, however if the adult had asked Child A to attempt to read each word, rather than doing it for her, she may have improved her decoding and blending skills as well as highlighting knowledge and areas for development.

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The fact that Child A had to circle adjectives which were already provided on a worksheet, was perhaps not the most effective way of developing understanding, as Child A chose both 'evil' and 'kind' to describe the same character. This task does not necessarily demonstrate understanding. A behaviourist may argue that because Child A has circled many appropriate adjectives, she has displayed learning, when in fact she has chosen words at random or words she is familiar with.

This activity could have also been made more active for the children by allowing them to study pictures and props and having to produce adjectives themselves following manipulation and assessment. As a result, a more accurate demonstration of understanding could be produced. Piaget believed children learn for themselves rather than being taught, and therefore construction is superior to instruction (Santrock 2001). Child A may be missing out on this opportunity and according to her maturational stage of development she should be focusing on physical reality and should teach herself through direct experiences (Smart 2011, p.95).

The teacher could then follow on from this lesson by looking at the describing words the children came up with, and building on their prior knowledge to develop their skills by introducing alternate (more complex) adjectives and lead on to produce a descriptive sentence. Piaget believed children can build on existing knowledge in order to concrete knowledge (Brain and Mukherji 2005, p.77).

The children then had a fifteen minute phonics lesson which included 'nonsense' words. Child A struggled to decipher which words were real words which appeared to have a negative impact on her self esteem as Clark (2012, online) suggests that the latest phonics tests do more damage than good. He continues to criticise the nonsense word strategy by questioning whether it demonstrates the children's abilities to decode words rather than their ability to understand words in context.

The maths lesson I observed was the introduction of estimations and sorting. At the start of the lesson the children chanted the three times tables and Child A participated confidently. The teacher then asked individual children a times table at random and when asked, Child A was unable to give the correct answer.

It may be possible that Child A had learned to regurgitate the times tables in sequence, but has not got any reasoning or logic. It may be criticised that Child A has not been allowed enough opportunities to develop a depth of understanding (Tassoni 2007).

An article in TES magazine (Brettingham 2007, online) reported that the rote learning focus devised from the numeracy strategy resulted in an increase in number skills, but a decrease in problem-solving. This was also supported by an analytical report of the Rose review, as it states children need not only to learn what to study but also how to study (Baker 2009, online).

More recently, school Minister Paton (2012) claimed that children will increase their confidence with their number knowledge if they learn times tables by heart and rote learning should become a fundamental part of primary education.

Ward (2012, online) criticises this theory of learning as he states that lessons should focus on logic not solely arithmetic. He claims that by placing greater emphasis on children knowing pairs of numbers by the end of year two instead of year one, there is a danger of assuming the children is successful however having no sense of reasoning or calculation.

Mathematics does however appear to be gearing towards rote learning as recent article in the NUT confirmed that the 'Government are proposing by 2014 and teaching will be more directed, with rote learning a key method of delivery' (Anon. 2012, p.23).

Following the mental starter children were then shown a meter stick and the teacher modelled how an estimation would be made of the board. A child was asked to stand next to the meter stick and the teacher asked the children to estimate how tall the child was. Child A gave the answer 'sixty meters'.

It could be criticised that estimation is too abstract for year two because at age six, Child A is considered to be in the 'pre-operational' stage of development, suggesting that she should not be able to understand the concept of logic or abstract thinking Sigelman and Rider (2012). Perhaps this particular lesson or unit of work was not appropriate for Child A in relation to her developmental stage.

Pollard (2012, p.18) states that teachers have to start from where pupils are in their learning. He also says the Government need to set the framework and let the teachers take control, suggesting that concepts will be more individualised to suit children's abilities.

Constructivists believe children need time to practice and master skill as Piaget stated that teachers should not try to speed up the learning process, as children can only learn at their biological maturation level and therefore understanding would be incomplete (Hill 2001). One must be concerned about the children who may not be ready to move on as well as the children who grasp a concept quickly as Slavin (2000), suggested children who learn quickly will receive less instruction than others, therefore they will be held back and have to wait for others to catch up and consequently the children do not learn as much as possible. Guskey (1982) said work should be highly individualised and differentiated and the learner should not wait for others to comprehend a concept.

The final task in mathematics was sorting shapes by their properties to understand classification. Child A seemed to lack concentration and barely attempted the task. Perhaps the teacher could have chosen something to sort that was of interest and relevant to Child A so she would be self motivated as when a child is self motivated, they are more engaged and likely to further their own development (Hill 2001). Donaldson (1978) argues that children need meaningful context in order to learn and understand why they are completing particular tasks.

During the science lesson the children worked in the same groups as Literacy and Mathematics, (ability groups). While grouping by abilities may be appropriate in mathematics due to wide varieties of skills and understanding, science is an opportunity for children to work in mixed abilities. Whitney and Dean (2005, p.32-33) suggest that ability groups can be damaging to self esteem and result in teachers having lower expectations of LA children. The teacher could be denying Child A the opportunity to develop and extend her knowledge as Whitney and Dean (2005, p.33) also state that less able children are often stimulated when working in mixed ability groups and the more able do not appear to suffer. One of the possible reasons for teachers not placing children in mixed ability groups could be the fear of being marked down by OFSTED inspectors claims Harris (2012, online). In this recent report by Harris (2012, online) Michael Wilshaw (2012) the head of OFSTED, claimed it is 'critical' to have high quality mixed ability teaching, if a child with low abilities is placed next to 'Oxford potential'. He describes the ability to teach an individualised curriculum as 'hugely difficult' and due to a combination of low expectations and inadequate mixed ability teaching, the brightest children are failing (Wilshaw 2012, cited in Harris, 2012, online). Despite this, Smith (2006, online) argues that science education in junior schools could be transformed by mixed ability grouping pupils as children lean to be more independent and communicate better with each other(Smith 2006, online).

As stated in the introduction, Child A is said to be underachieving in all core subjects. It may be fair to suggest that she has not been given the chance to develop in science and due to her 'below average' literacy and mathematical skills, has been generalised to be underachieving in all core subjects and Eshach (2006) argues that although scientific concepts may be hard to grasp, it does not mean that children are unable to think abstractly about scientific concepts.

The terms 'below average expectations' and 'lower ability' are used often in schools. One must raise the question as to what is deemed to be 'average' in order to establish expectations. Egan (2012 p.98) suggests the stage of maturational development theory highly influences the expectations set by teachers and the Government, as the National Curriculum is broken down into 'Key Stages', and years groups are determined by ages rather than abilities. It is argued by Kincheloe (2005, p.22) that this works by a 'one size fits all' rule, which could prove detrimental to those deemed to be 'below average'.

A report by The Department for Education (Richardson 2011, online) stated that children who are slow to develop in early primary stages fail to catch up to where they should be as they move through school. This may be supported by theories of how the brain develops as Taylor (2002, p.23) states that there can be no doubts that learning is dependent upon the speeds with which nerve messages move and are sorted within the brain therefore learning is restricted the maturity stage of a child's brain. Newberger (1997) argues that childhood is the optimum time to provide children with new knowledge as the brain continues to grow throughout childhood and due to its plasticity it can grow in response to new experiences.

Through critically analysing both behaviourism and constructivism and observing applications of both theories within the classroom, I have reached the conclusion that in order to reach each child and maximise potential, approaches are used hand in hand. Despite its criticisms, behaviourism is still an important aspect of education (O'Hagan 2003, p.37). My researched has allowed me to consider my personal philosophy for teaching and pedagogy, and my observations have further enabled me to see the implications of learning theories and strategies on an individual child's development. Through distinguishing between practice which appears to work effectively and practice that may not, I recognise the importance of understanding the stage of development each child is at and how my teaching must reflect that as a result.

I feel that having high expectations of all children, allowing children to discover, construct their own knowledge and express individuality is important, alongside encouraging individuals to share ideas and learn from one another in both ability and mixed ability groups. The most prominent aspect, which shall impact on my emerging educational philosophy as a result of all my research, is that all children are individuals and one approach to learning and teaching is not effective to ensuring children fulfil their potential.


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