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Evaluate The Contemporary Theories Of Learning Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 2860 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This assignment intends to evaluate the contemporary theories of learning which underpin pedagogical approaches in 14-19 education. This will be related to the subject of science and the ways in which the current national curriculum supports and enables these theories to be applied in practice. All theories will be critically evaluated and supported with actual examples from secondary science lessons observed during a placement in school. Not all learning theories are currently applied in science and so the focus of this assignment will be on the theories which have the strongest influence in the subject. However all the fundamental theories of learning will be addressed throughout, giving context as well as explanations as to why they are not presently significant in science. The two major theories of learning that must be addressed are the Cognitive, which centre on neurological or mental processes of learning and the Behaviourist arguments, which are based solely on external responses to a stimulus. Within these two major categories theorists such as Pavlov, Skinner, Piaget or Vygotsky have developed more specific definitions as to how pupils acquire knowledge. This assignment will therefore attempt to link these different theories and explain how they are being employed in modern science lessons.

Constructivism – Piaget

Arguably the most infamous name in child psychology is Jean Piaget (1896-1980) who focused on the cognitive or mental processes of learning. His study of how children learn generated decades of further study by scientists into how a child’s brain acquires information. The past fifty years has seen Piaget develop the Cognitive Development theory of learning which states that a child constructs their knowledge rather then it being imposed by conditioning and reinforcement (Wellington, ud). He suggested that the learner builds their understanding and knowledge in “ages and stages” through adaptation, by which children’s brains are only capable of processing more difficult information as they grow. “Piaget developed four stages of learning, ranging from years 0-2 (Sensory-motor), 2-7 (Pre-operational), 7-11 (Concrete operations) and 11 onwards (Formal operations).” (Wadsworth, 1996)

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Therefore as a student grows, the mind will develop in large steps rather than gradually and are fixed to certain ages. The assumption that as a child ages they are able to understand more complex ideas lead to the current structure of the educational system. For example, science national curriculum teaches the most basic scientific process, such as the difference between hot and cold, at Key Stage 1 following Piaget’s Pre-operational model. By Key Stage 5, pupils should have developed Formal operations and therefore have built the mental capacity to understand the most complicated and abstract ideas, e.g. electron transfer in boiling water.

This model has been applied in schools for many years yet has some obvious flaws, the most obvious being the rigid structure that is applied in Piaget’s model.

“Inevitably, the haste to formulate a neat and tidy unfolding of events at prescribed ‘ages and stages’ in the child’s development overlook the part played by differences in mental and environmental factors” Lovell and Ogilvie, 1960, 1961).

So many genetic and environmental factors affect a child’s cognitive ability that Piaget’s theory is no longer accepted by psychologists as being a robust model that can be applied today. Another major weakness of cognitive development in relation to science is that misconceptions are easily formed. Many scientific ideas are simplified when taught to younger students as it is believed they do not have the cognitive ability to process particular subjects. By simplifying a scientific process children can form misconceptions that are difficult to rectify in later life and can become a barrier to learning. An example observed in school is the teaching of electricity. At key stage 2 the science curriculum leads children to be taught that electricity flows from a power source around a circuit. However when pupils reach KS4 they are then taught that electricity is not the flow of power from a cell but rather the transfer of electrons within particles. Many pupils struggle to adapt their knowledge of electricity to the more complex model given at G.C.S.E level and exam results are impacted. It could therefore be argued that Piaget’s model is no longer appropriate in science and the curriculum should be altered. However Cognitive development theory has been adapted and developed to form Sociocultural theory and then Social Constructivism which presently has a large influence on the science curriculum.

Sociocultural theory was hypothesised by Lev Vygotsky(1896-1934) proposing that learning is influenced by the social context, i.e. family or friendship situation, culture and the tools employed by the teacher (Wellington, ud). Thereby emphasising how meanings and understanding grow out of social encounters.

“Vygotsky’s view that children’s learning of scientific concepts depends on the interaction between these and the child’s own spontaneous everyday concepts, revealed that school based cognitive skills became more important where there is an increased demand for scholastic-type activities outside school.” (Bartlett 2007)

Observation and Culture

Sociocultural theory or social constructivism – Vygotsky (300)

“Psychological activity has socio-cultural characteristics from the beginning of development.” (Vygotsky 1978)

Applied science

Scaffolded learning/Social Constructivism – Bruner (300)

“a theory of instruction, central to which is the notion of systemic, structured pupil experience via a spiral curriculum where the learner returns to address increasingly complex components of a topic as the develop over time.” (Bartlett 2007)


For effective learning and student progression to occur in the classroom behaviour must be managed appropriately. The teacher should ensure control throughout the lesson so that an environment is created were children can work to their potential. This is accentuated in a science lab, in which dangers and risks are increased with the use of scientific equipment, substances and chemicals. Student’s behaviour must be at a sufficient level in order to safely give pupils the responsibility of using these potentially dangerous materials. It is therefore essential that students are conditioned to behave in a safe and appropriate way during practical and theory based lessons. This can be linked to the Behaviourist theory of learning, in which understanding is measured by a pupil’s change in response and behaviour. “Learning in which voluntary behaviour is strengthened or weakened by consequences or antecedents” (Woolfolk 2004). Behaviourism is divided into Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning, which differ regarding the nature of a child’s response and also the source of reinforcement.

In Classical Conditioning a response is controlled by the person conducting the experiment because they control the stimulus and therefore the reaction. This theory was put forward by Ivan Pavlov in the late 19th Century. He famously discovered that he could cause dogs to salivate simply by ringing a bell. This was achieved by conditioning the dogs through ringing a bell before they were given food, causing the dogs anticipate being fed when it hears the bell again. Therefore classical conditioning suggests that a pupils mind is a ‘blank slate’ and so the child is passive during the learning and the response is involuntary. This infamous experiment became the basis for all the behaviourist theories presented since; either supporting or rejecting Pavlov’s assumption that a response is involuntary.

A Stimulus-response model was then proposed by psychologist John Watson in 1913 in his article “Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It”. His fundamental conclusion from many experimental observations of animal and childhood learning was that stimulus-response(S-R) connections are more likely to be established the more frequently or recently an S-R bond occurs (Child 2004). Therefore a child is more likely to repeat a successful action than an unsuccessful one. Watson hypothesised that rewarding a successful response was more effective than negative reinforcement, such as punishment, in managing behaviour. E. L. Thorndike (1874-1949) expanded this theory into his Law of Exercise, which states that “dissatisfaction does not necessarily extinguish responses rather, it causes the respondent to look for alternatives and seek out satisfactory solutions” (Bartlett 2007). This trial and error method of learning was observed commonly in animals and applied to theories of childhood development.

Classical conditioning has been the basis of the reward and discipline procedures in most schools for many years and is still believed to be the most effective behaviour management technique teachers can use. However, the main assumption is that a child’s response to stimulus is involuntary and based solely on their external behaviour. The association of automatic response with new stimuli is difficult to apply in the classroom today. Yet teachers are able to apply classical conditioning in the class by creating a positive classroom environment to help students overcome anxiety or fear. Pairing an anxiety-provoking situation, such as performing in front of a group, with pleasant surroundings helps the student learn new associations. Instead of feeling anxious and tense in these situations, the child will learn to stay relaxed and calm.

The Classical Conditioning approach has become less popular in education today but Operant Conditioning still remains a key theory in modern classrooms. Developed by B. F. Skinner in the mid 20th Century it also focuses on the observed behaviour of children and ignores what may be occurring in the mind. “The human organism is a machine and, like any other machine a human being behaves in lawful and predictable ways in response to the external forces that impinge on it” (Skinner, 1953). Yet it differs from Classical conditioning in that the focus is on reinforcement and the effectiveness of reward and punishment.

In Operant Conditioning we must wait for the desired response to appear before learning can proceed. Only when this response is emitted can reinforcement occur therefore the individual must act or operate on an environment in order to be rewarded (Child 2004). This theory suggests that when a successful response is followed by a reward the student is more likely to repeat the action. This has formed the basis of most behaviour management systems in schools, following the “Operant Conditioning Apparatus” (Brooks 2007). In the science classroom this is most effective when pupils are aware of the consequences of their actions. When a child understands what rewards or punishments will be administered for an action they are more likely to behave in the appropriate manor. However, for the behaviourist theory to succeed the consequence must be relevant to the individual and the behaviour in question. If this theory is to be applied in the science lab a pupil can be trained to behave in a safe and productive manor by administering a stimulus that will produce an instinctive response. For example, a teacher assembled pupils into six groups of five children giving each a different colour name. Points were awarded for appropriate behaviour or actions and taken away for poor behaviour. Pupils were informed of what was considered good and bad behaviour and made aware that the group with the most points at the end of the term would receive a reward. This was an effective Operant Conditioning Apparatus as it instilled into students the correct response to a stimulus by reinforcing the action with a reward or alternatively a punishment. This is why Skinner’s theory has become so prevalent in science classrooms today.

Although still widely used in schools Behaviourist Theories of learning are often criticised. The most common critique of the theory is its disregard for the mental processes which occur within the learner. Behaviourists use solely the indicators of outward behaviour and response to the stimulus to base their theories on. Those who disagree with behaviourism believe that learning can occur internally and not be shown in a child’s behaviour, thus effecting a teacher’s assessment of progression.

It was Bandura who then took aspects of behaviourism to develop Social Learning Theory as a bridge between Behaviourism and Cognitivism.

“Social learning theory in its earliest formulations was an attempt to integrate two modern trends in psychology- the stimulus-response or reinforcement theories on the one hand and the cognitive of field theories on the other” (Rotter 1982). While based on many of the established concepts of learning theory, Bandura suggested that direct reinforcement could not explain all types of learning. His theory added a social element, arguing that children learn new information and behaviours by watching other people and discovering the outcome of their actions. This became known as observational learning or modelling and has been argued to be a contributing factor to people’s choice of career (Krumboltz, 1976), smoking status (Akers 1996) or even violent and aggressive behaviour (Mihalic, 1997). Thus, in the classroom a teacher’s behaviour is just as important as their explanations or reinforcements.

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Social Learning Theory has a strong influence on science teaching in that the teacher must be aware of their actions in front of pupils. Practical experiments should always be modelled and demonstrated before learners carry out the investigation themselves. By watching the teacher perform, students will unintentionally copy their actions as this is the only experience they have to build on. This becomes even more important when using potentially dangerous materials and so the teacher must ensure they carry out demonstrations safely and correctly. Yet it is not only practical scientific skills that students will ascertain unconsciously. In Bruner’s theory a teacher’s interaction and manor with pupils and colleagues is hugely important to the learner’s development of communication techniques. Teachers must therefore always be aware that their behaviour in the classroom is constantly influencing children.

“It would be difficult to imagine a culture in which the language, mores, vocational patterns, familiar customs, and educational, social and political practices were shaped in each new member through the gradual process of differential reinforcement without response guidance of models who exemplify the accumulated cultural repertoires in their own behaviour.” (Bandura 1970)

Humanistic approach- Maslow Hiaracy of needs (300)

Conclusion (250)


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Rotter, Julian Bernard The development and applications of social learning theory : selected papers . – (Brattleboro, VT) : Praeger, 1982

Karen, Robert L An introduction to behavior theory and its applications . – New York : Harper & Row, 1974 .

Skinner, B. F. (Burrhus Frederic), 1904-1990 Reflections on behaviorism and society . – Englewood Cliffs, N.J : Prentice-Hall, 1978 .

Alternatives to Piaget : critical essays on the theory / edited by Linda S. . – New York : Academic Press, 1978 . –

Ratner, Carl Vygotsky’s sociohistorical psychology and its contemporary applications . – New York; London : Plenum Press, 1991 .

Bandura, Albert, 1925- Social learning theory . – Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; London : Prentice-Hall, 1977 .

Jerry Wellington A rough guide to learning

Susan Capel et al (4th ed) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School, Chapter 5 Helping pupils learn

Lovell, K. and Ogilvie, E. (1960) ‘ A study of the conservation of substance in the junior school child’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 30, 1109-18

Lovell, K. and Ogilvie, E. (1961) ‘ A study of the conservation of weight in the junior school child’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 31, 138-44


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