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Implications For Classroom Teachers Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5480 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Learning is the “process that results in a relatively enduring change in a person or persons” (Alexander et al, 2009: 186). According to Winn, 1990, learning is a dynamic process whereby the students’ knowledge and skills are different when compared before to after learning. Since ‘teaching’ is the promotion of learning, our knowledge of learning and the corresponding theories in how we learn should inform our teaching (Muijs, 2007).

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Understanding how knowledge is developed can allow teachers to shape the methodological delivery of their subject content to match the theoretical frameworks underpinning how knowledge is enhanced. Attending to the way students learn can be used to foster effective teaching practices, allowing teachers to improve their practice, and ultimately enhacne the quality of the learners’ experience (Macleod & Golby, 2003).

A number of educational researchers, including Vytsgosy 1986, Piaget, 1976, Skinner 1974; Bandura 1986 amongst others, offer learning paradigms to explain how individuals learn. For the purposes of this assignment the extremes of this learning theory spectrum, which are represented by the Behaviourist and Constructivist theories of learning, will be discussed. Inevitably, learning and teaching poses a synergistic relationship, reinforcing the need for teachers to teach with an approach that reflects how students naturally learn (Muijs, 2007), and subsequently consider the implications of the learning theories on their classroom practice.

The behaviouristic theory of learning

Learning, according to behaviourists (Skinner 1974; Bandura 1986), is defined as the acquisition of new behaviour. The focus of behaviourism is the conditioning of observable human behaviour and revolves around the principal conception that a reaction is made in response to a specific stimulus (Prittard, 2009). This reaction leads to a consequence. If the consequence is pleasant and positive, the behaviour change becomes reinforced via positive reinforcement. With consistent reinforcement, the behaviour pattern becomes conditioned and is automatically activated upon stimuli presentation.

Physiologically, behaviourist theories propose that learning is achieved through reinforcement of a particular neural pathway, which links the stimuli and response in the brain. This repeated activation and reinforcement ultimately strengthens the neural pathways and connections between the stimuli and specific responses, resulting in a faster, smoother implementation of certain responses (Pritchard, 2009).

Behaviourists identify this form of learning as ‘conditioning’, where with consistent reinforcement the behaviour pattern becomes conditioned. Classical conditioning involves the reinforcement of a natural reflex or behaviours which occur naturally as a response to a specific stimulus. In contrast, ‘operant conditioning’ involves reinforcing behaviour by praising it, or discouraging undesirable behaviour with punishment (Prittard, 2009).

Constructivist advocates, including Vygotsky 1986 and Piaget (1970; 1976) amongst others, began to criticise the behaviourist approach, as it was seen too teacher centred and directed, void of meaningful learning and the teacher process was focused too much on individual rather than collaborative group work. In addition, the constructivist theorists challenged the behaviourist proposed separation between mental processing and knowledge, which had to be bridged by the role of a teacher (Prittard, 2009).

The Constructivist Theory

The constructivist movement was formed on Piaget’s (1976) and Vygotsky (1986) work who viewed learning as the effect of mental construction, whereby learners combined their existing knowledge with new information, to construct meaning and formulated their understanding (Cholewinski, 2009). The constructivist theory proposes that learning is an active, contextual process, a social activity, centred on constructing meaning and regards the learner as a responsible agent in their knowledge acquisition (Loyens 2007; Cholewinski 2009). In constructivist learning, individuals use world-based experiences in an effort to make sense of what they perceive and establish their understanding of their surroundings (Harris, 1994). Since constructivism involves learners to interact with their immediate learning environment, learning has been considered to be situation-specific and context-bound activity (McInerney and McInerney, 2002).

Constructivism is an umbrella term to encompass the wide range of constructivist perspectives, which can be separated into two branches; cognitive constructivism (Piaget, 1976) and social constructivism (Vygotsky, 1986). Both sub-types believe that knowledge is actively constructed by individuals (Birenbaum 2003), however through the use of different mediums; either through a series of internal, intellectual stages (cognitive constructivism), or by social interaction (social constructivism). The numerous perspectives on constructivism within these two sub-types could be essentially grouped around a rooted assumption about learning. That is, knowledge is actively constructed by the learner (Birenbaum 2003; Harris and Alexander 1998).

Piagets’ (2001) ‘developmental stage’ theory, which represents cognitive constructivism, presents four age-referenced development stages which provide a theory of gradual cognitive development up to the age of eleven years old. The stages refer to an explicit age range and characterise the cognitive abilities necessary at each stage to construct meaning of one’s environment.

Social constructivism emphasises the role of language in the process of intellectual development. Vygotsky considered dialogue, usually with a more knowledgeable other, as a vehicle by which concepts are considered, shared and developed. The dialogue, which is based on learners’ pre existing and current knowledge (schemas), is then exploited to develop and construct new ideas and understanding. Vygotsky advocates that the process of learning involves moving into and across a zone of proximal development, which is aided by the intervention of another through support. The zone of proximal development is a theoretical space of understanding which is just above the level of an individual’s current understanding. The process of giving support to learners at the appropriate time and level of sophistication to meet the individual needs is termed scaffolding. Scaffolding can allow the movement from one zone to another and assists in the passing through the zone of proximal development.

From reviewing the literature, educational researchers which employ these constructivist principles select aspects from both strands of this learning theory (Biggs, 1979), and use constructivist theories as a generalised term. Therefore, for the purpose of this assignment, the term constructivism will reflect a collaboration of both social and cognitive strands; however specific branches and the implications of these strands are highlighted where necessary.

Critique of learning theories and associated implications upon classroom practice

A review of the literature suggests that behaviouristic learning does not offer students the chance to develop deep meaning and understanding (Entwistle & Smith, 2002), but instead has a tendency to promote superficial learning of skills (Fosnot, 1996). Making a ‘correct’ response and remembering content does not necessarily imply understanding, and consequently the actual understanding achieved through behavioural approaches is challenged. Marton et al, (1997) and Entwistle and Smith (2002) conclude that the use of rote memorisation represents a learning approach to a surface level of understanding, whilst establishing links with current knowledge, as encouraged by constructivists, reflects an approach for a deeper level of understanding. This suggests that academic and subject knowledge learning, based on the behaviouristic theory, may not be academically supported.

Furthermore, from a constructivist perspective, the principle of learning using prior experience is also beneficial in promoting a deeper and richer understanding (Pressley, Harris & Marks, 1992). Demerici 2009 advises that information which is connected to a learner’s prior experiences is more likely to be retained, explaining higher retention rates when a constructivist approach is adopted. (Demirici and Yavuz, 2009). Research suggests that learning through such constructive mediums, like discussion, participation and practice, are academically successful and associated with learning gains and knowledge retention (Demirci & Yavuz, 2009). Dericimi also reported a significant difference in post-test grades and retention learning tests grades, with the constructivist approach being more efficient than the conventional, behaviouristic approach. Cumulatively, the research suggests that constructivist approaches lead to a richer and deeper understanding. It is therefore plausible to suggest that the quality and depth of understanding associated to a constructivist teaching approach is more likely to exceed that of the behaviourist approach.

However, as Entwhistle and Smith (2002) identify, the association between memorisation and surface approach learning may be weak. Kember, (1996) and Watkins and Biggs (1996) reported that memorisation can be used to learn unfamiliar terminology, as the first stage to establishing understanding. This concept, where memorisation is part of meaningful learning, is defined as memorising with understanding (Marton, Watkins, & Tang, 1997; Meyer, 2000) and has been conducted by students as a successful revision tool (Entwistle & Entwistle, 2001).

Controversially, Fox (2001) suggests that the constructivist theory may imply that remembering is not important, and that learning is solely centred on understanding concepts. However, neither of these are true, and being able to remember knowledge is an important prerequisite of learning. In addition, Biggs, (1998) and Jin and Cortazzi, (1998) have reported that constructivist teaching approaches don’t consistently guarantee teaching effectiveness. Instead, traditional, more behaviourist approaches to learning in large classes has proven to be successful internationally, such as in China.

Fox, 2001, argues that constructivism neglects the role of memorisation and mechanical learning techniques Arguably, due to the varying nature of meaning which is uncontrollably constructed by students, in some cases, rote learning and memorisation may be more useful when teaching factual concepts and where clarity in understanding is required. Rote learning may be used to help students cope better with some aspects of work that they find difficult. In addition, Smith (2001, 2002) affirms that rote learning can contribute to understanding. However, teachers must consider that rote learning is not an approach to develop understanding and therefore where possible, should be followed by attempts to encourage and promote understanding. For example teachers could consider engaging with the subject content and provoking discussion of the content in an effort to encourage more meaningful understanding. Group work may play a very important role in reinforcing subject knowledge and working together and collaborating with peers could be a useful teaching and learning tool.

Ultimately, it appears that behaviouristic learning approaches can be beneficial for particular tasks such as establishing classroom behaviour (Prittard, 2009). For example, Muijs & Reynolds (2003) report that standard school and classroom routines and expectations for behaviour can be successfully learnt through behaviouristic approaches. Therefore, teachers need to consider whether the learning is academic or behavioural before teaching the class.

In the case of behaviour management, a strategy to quieten the class, such as raising of the hand, or counting down from three could be effectively used. In this case, the stimulus, such as the teacher raising their hand or calling out the number three, must be fully explained to the class. In addition, the stimuli must be fully visible and audible to the students, which is possible with a clearly risen hand or an assertive voice. The response desired, such as a student raising of the hand and silence, must be fully understood by students.

It is important that the stimulus-response occurrence is repeated by the teacher and used regularly. The same strategy should be employed every time the teacher wants to quieten the class, establishing consistency of stimuli and behavioural response. This repeated activation strengthens the pathways, affording for a smoother and faster implementation of the response. Pupils should be made aware of the negative and positive consequences if they do not respond to the stimuli as desired and the consequences need to be kept consistent. Therefore, consistency of behaviour management strategies is crucial and classroom practice must adhere to the same strategise as the same stimuli is presented for a specific response.

Behaviourism relies on reinforcement which is employed to condition the behaviour, and therefore is essentially the tool which brings about learning. Therefore rewards and punishments for behaviours must play a crucial role and actively administered within classroom practice. Behaviourism may therefore stimulate and encourage more use of positive reinforcement which has been a well recognised effective classroom practice (Elliott and Busse, 1991). However teachers must consider that rewarding children who are already highly motivated may not be as effective, and may actually lead to a loss of interest (Prittard, 2009) Rewards and praise have been shown to enhance motivation, and serve as an effective behaviour management tool, however, praising students may not come naturally to teachers.

Behaviouristic approaches to learning appear to be more favourable to certain individuals, and teachers need to consider the pupils concerned and whether this approach to learning suits their learning styles, needs and ability. For example, Prittard (2009) reports that behaviouristic methods are more advantageous for those pupils who display anxious tendencies and low motivation. In contrast, those of higher academic ability perceive simplistic drill and practice unsatisfying and dull (Prittard 2009). In addition, some students demand understanding, yet adhering to behaviouristic learning approaches does not accommodate this requirement. In other situations, the concepts of learning without understanding can fuel frustration, lead to misconceptions and generate a difficult learning environment (Prittard 2009)

Another important consideration is that behaviourist approaches don’t take account of mental cognitive processing involved in learning. In contrast, constructivism emphasises that the learners must develop their understanding for themselves and constructivist researchers’ advocate that mental activity is the lifeblood of learning and the extent of what is learnt (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999).

However, the constructivist theory may imply that all individual differences in learning come down to the consequences of each learner’s history of learning (Loyens, 2008). Furthermore, although we do learn by acquiring knowledge from our environments through interacting with the external world, Fox highlights that the environment also acts upon learners. That is, we act and react, and learning can be achieved from both experiences. However, constructivism appears to fail to acknowledge adaptive instinctive responses as reactive forms of learning (Fox, 2001) and the role of talent in cognitive development. Furthermore, Fox (2001) and Bredo, (2000) argue that constructivism discounts the role of innate, motivational and genetic factors in knowledge construction, which have been proven to play a role in cognitive development and learning (Carey & Spelke, 1994).

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Teachers therefore cannot assume that the products of learning are solely the teachers’ effort and thought; instead learning is externally and internally influenced. Importantly, teachers need to provide activities which engage and challenge learners. This demands a board array of work which is differentiated to the learners’ intellect.. Teachers need to offer scope of activities where the accustomed effort and activity falls on the learners’ responsibility. Differentiation is a critical implication in the classroom to assure that all pupils have to apply mental effort and take an active role in their own learning. Such opportunities would afford learner engagement and optimise the possibility of effective lasting learning taking place (Prittard, 2009). Personalisation is also crucial to ensure all learners, despite genetic and innate differences which may affect their learning are accounted for. If a pupil is set tasks which do not require thought or challenge, learning constructively will fail.

Piaget’s stage developmental theory offers guidance covering the level of complexity that may be expected in a child’s thought processes at approximate stages in their development. Piagets Theory may guide a teacher’s differentiation as to the ability of pupils, and the required scaffolding and support in order to facilitate the movement between zones of cognitive development. Whilst Piaget’s developmental stage theory influences principally primary school teaching practices, given the ages this theory is related to, the appreciation and awareness that cognitive ability develops with age is important to consider when teaching all ages. The exactness of the Piaget (2001) stage of development has been criticised since in it unclear and presumptuous to assume children will pass through the stages at specific ages, however, as a developmental process; this theory is useful in teaching practices

Another implication for teachers is the questioning they employ within the classroom. To allow pupils to construct their own knowledge and understanding, questions need to be higher order and exploratory Moursund (2003), in accordance with Blooms Taxonomy (1956) , to include command words such as ‘evaluate’ and synthesise’. Moreover, questions need to be open-ended and allow pupils to develop their personal understanding though answering the questions, rather than simple closed questions, where the answers are already pre-determined. Pupils need to be given the opportunity to gradually learn processes and construct their own answers. Teachers can promote this using questions which encourage students to gradually construct their understanding, such as evaluate, synthesise and analytical questions.

Another pitfall of the constructivist theory is that it assumes students actively seek resources and experiences, and therefore students understanding is dependent and anchored by their experiences and pre-existing knowledge. In addition, it is assumed that learners utilise the construed data to actively construct their knowledge (Renkl, 1999). Therefore, this approach to learning relies on students encountering experiences and applying these experiences to their pre-existing knowledge to develop their understanding. However, such experiences and world-based interactions may not be feasible or available to students due to their lifestyle circumstances. Consequently, teachers need to be aware that understanding and meaning is limited to the individual experiences of the students. In accordance with this assumption, the constructivist theory can explain why pupils’ conceptions and meaning do vary between each other (Taber, 2000). In addition, if the construction of knowledge is the activity of the learner, then the learner can only understand what they have constructed (Duffy & Cunningham).

Therefore, constructivism may be seen as subjective and relative (Duffy and Cunningham, 1996). This may lead to marking criteria discrepancies, confusion and inconsistency, and student misconceptions, which do not match reality. In addition, Duffy and Cunningham propose that if the constructions and meanings are different amongst students, the little shared understanding may challenge the ease of communication between learners and the class. This may jeopardise the effectiveness of class discussions and social interactions as a tool to enhance learning.

Similarly, as construction is activity on part of the learner (Bruner 1966, 1971), what is constructed cannot be controlled by the teacher. Instead the learner has autonomy and self-regulates what understanding is established. Therefore the students constructed understanding may not parallel with other students, with reality or with the teachers construction and understanding, resulting in multiple understandings (Choleweskni, 2009). Consequently, teachers must not assume that the construction and understanding of a concept is universal between all students. Instead teachers must actively access and consider the alternative perceptions and understanding of the learners, hence why a transmission teaching approach is fruitless.

On the other hand, teachers come into the classroom with their own construction and conceptions of subject content, and according to Patrick (1988), are not ‘neutral’. Therefore, a teacher’s understanding can colour the students understanding, and together, Patrick (1998) and Marton and Booth (1997) suggested that some teachers ‘moulded’ the students’ construction of a concept to align with their concept interpretation. Einsworth and Collins (2002) conclude that the form of understanding impressed onto students is largely dependent on the teacher’s personal interpretation of the subject content. Therefore, although the constructivist theory assumes that the construction of understanding is the product of the learner’s interpretation exclusively, the constructivist theory does not account for the interplay between teachers’ and learners’ comprehension.

To accommodate these pre-requisites of learning, the individual’s knowledge needs to be continually assessed. As a regular classroom practice, formative assessment could be used as a regular approach to assess existing and new understanding, before moving to the next lesson. Formative assessment is a regular, informal mode of assessment, allowing teachers to monitor students’ progress, gain an appreciation of what has been learnt and adapt their teaching practices to optimise further learning (Black and Wiliam, 1998). Accordingly, given that learning is an active and evolving processes, formative assessment can be used by teachers to assess, monitor, challenge unclear perspectives and adapt classroom practices to accommodate the constructivist principles of learning. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that constructivist approaches to learning favour the use of formative assessment and may prompt its use in the classrooms, which Atkin et al, (2001) reports as being very valuable.

Since formative assessment alone is associated with learning gains, (Black and Wiliam 1998), learning is positively influenced indirectly via adopting teaching strategies which are aligned to learning constructively. Formative assessment may be undertaken through questioning, teacher and pupil discussion, peer and self assessment and interaction with peers. Formative assessment will also identify pupils’ individual learning needs, supporting teachers conduct in differentiation to assure pupils are moving forward, across their ZPD and optimise learning gains.

However, with behaviourism, the opportunities for feedback are confined to only whether the response desired is correct or not. There is little scope for learning, or how to improve in order to meet the desired response. Therefore, under behaviourist approaches, feedback cannot be used for learning purposes, therefore opportunities for assessment for learning, which have shown to enhance learning, may not be fruitful. Consequently, limited feedback combined with the objective outcomes of behaviourist approaches mean that individual student needs are not necessarily part of the formulae when considering teaching strategies and subject content. The need to consider individual needs is undeniable, therefore such constraints of feedback extent presents a multitude of problems to the teaching and learning of students.

Importantly, to help progressive learning and avoid developing misconceptions, teachers need to provide a clear focus and goals, with explicit learning objectives (Clarke, 2001), which are rooted within pupils’ existing knowledge. The clear objectives allow students to construct their ideas using current knowledge and understand the overarching direction and progression of their learning. Activating prior knowledge is important to elicit pre-knowledge, allowing teachers to decipher the students’ current levels of understanding.

Teachers need to highlight the links between students’ existing knowledge and the new subject knowledge, to help the learner form bridges and facilitate their mental construction and cognitive processes (REF). By forming these links, students can activate and recall their pre-existing knowledge, and use this foundation to build and integrate new concepts. Teachers should encourage students to relate new knowledge to current knowledge and external experiences, allowing the new subject content to become embedded within the existing knowledge structures, contributing to or amending to the students schema.

Since learning constructively is based on the addition of new content to current knowledge, the learner must have sufficient levels of understanding before new content can be used to construct more complex meaning and progress. Teachers and educators need to recognise and appreciate that new content cannot be built up until the foundations, such as current knowledge, is secured. Therefore constructive pedagogies include regular formative assessment to assure students understanding.

When constructing new concepts and developing understanding, reviewing and reflecting on what has already been learnt also helps to establish and secure students’ previous knowledge. In addition, by asking what students understand before embarking on a new concept would help students form links between new and previous knowledge (Fulton). This reviewing could be done as a starter, but also plays a role at the end of the lesson, forming a plenary. Teachers should consider, incorporate and plan for well managed plenary to consolidate knowledge. Time to reflect upon what has been undertaken, the processes and the content gives the opportunity for internalisation and for a deeper level of understanding to be developed.

Similarly, learning is most effective when learners become engaged, which means that teachers need to adopt an active approach to learning and involve engaging tasks to promote learning in the classroom. Learning using authentic tasks, which allow pupils to relate to their own experience inside and outside the classroom (Selinger, 2001) increases the probability of engagement with the task and supports findings that learning in a familiar context is most effective. Authentic tasks are likely to hold the attention and interest of children, and lead to a deeper level of engagement than with non-authentic or less authentic tasks (Fulton). Favourably, the constructivist principles match those fundamentals associated with effective contextual learning.

Evidence suggests that learning occurs in ‘real-life’ contexts and learning is actually linked to a context, as deduced by Macleod and Goldby 2003. Children working with new ideas in a familiar content are more likely to engage with the ideas, than if the same ideas were present in an alien context. Therefore teachers should strive to include more authentic tasks and set learning concepts which are aligned with students’ familiar contexts. If a learning activity falls beyond the cultural understanding of the learning, then learning is likely to be less successful than if it had been situated in a more familiar setting. .Meaningful contexts for learning are very important; however, what is meaningful for a teacher is not necessarily meaningful for the student. The association between the concept of learning being situated and the need for authentic learning tasks is evidence (McFarlane, 1997).

However, the recommended approach to situation learning in meaningful contexts (e.g. Lave & Wenger, 1991) has been argued against. Walkerdine, 1988, for example argued that if school learning became situated solely within the lived world of daily experiences, the opportunities for abstract reasoning and reflective activity, which are all constituents of constructivism, would become limited and sacrificed, whilst confining students to their local environment.

An active learning approach can be achieved by encouraging students to explore concepts and ideas, and to follow their instincts (Wray and Lewis, 1997). Given that exploration can promote sequential development of ideas, it is likely to assist in the construction of new knowledge; the roots to constructivism. Classroom practice could be based on a discovery-based approach (Huitt, 2004);, where students can find answers out for themselves, answer their own questions through experimenting with new ideas and discuss their beliefs and thinking patterns with their peers. Importantly, engaging with each other reflects social interactions, which can be a vehicle to develop understanding using social interaction.

Unlike behaviourist approaches where the teacher is the primary resources of knowledge and is influenced by their interests and perspective; knowledge construction offers the opportunity of learning to become dynamic and varied (Sudizna, 1997). The use of resources promotes more interactive learning and interest, which are both shown to positively influence learning.

Supported by Winn (1990), student knowledge is dynamic and changes, that is knowledge and skills are different before learning to after instruction and Behaviourist approaches have been criticised for not addressing this dynamic nature of learning. In addition, behaviourism theory does not appreciate that students come into classrooms with prior knowledge. Conversely, the constructivist theory acknowledges that pre-existing knowledge is requisite of learning and that students enter classrooms with pre-conceptions, knowledge and beliefs which they deploy in constructing new understanding. (Jones, Carter, & Rua, 1999)

As already discussed, scaffolding is crucial for the learner to pass through their zone of proximal development, and can be undertaken by the teacher. Scaffolding can be practiced in the classroom in many ways, and teachers need to appreciate that this is fundamental to the educational progression of students and how this may be achieved. Support materials need to be widely available, such as a writing frame to support a particular style of prose, or a list of words to help in the process of completing an exercise, designed to assist understanding The provision of practical apparatus, especially in science, may help to explain the solution to a problem and is an engaging approach. Students can evidence reality and attach a sense of perspective and reality to their learning.

Given the exploratory nature of constructivism, classroom practice needs to be supportive and generate an environment where the student feels safe to ask for help and comfortable in approaching the teacher. The teacher must be aware of the different supportive needs of the class, and meet these through differentiation and allowing time for class discussion, misconceptions and any lack of understanding. To help the teacher identify those who need more support than others, formative assessment can be incorporated to highlight the students’ individual needs that need to be addressed. Ultimately, this will allow tasks to be designed and geared towards the individual’s learning ability.

Unlike, behaviourism theories, constructivist theory appreciates the important rol


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