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The Theories Of Learning Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3532 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The relationship between teaching and learning and in particular children’s learning is of obvious importance to the education system. Although it may be obvious, it is also necessary to establish the nature of what is to be learned so that we may decide on educational strategies which will enable learning to occur. Additionally, though it may be expected that there will be an explicit correlation between teachings and learning, this is not always the case. How successful children are as learners is determined by a plethora of factors. In this assignment I will look at different aspects of learning, in particular those within the context of the primary education system. Following analysis of the significant social, cultural and personal aspects of learning, I will discuss the dominant theories of learning, followed by the consideration of individual pupil needs.

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It is perhaps easiest to understand the importance of personal, social and cultural aspects of learning by considering how societies have historically prepared children for their adult roles as a member of a wider community. For instance agrarian and tribal societies begin to pass knowledge on to their children as soon as they are able to undertake tasks which benefit the community. Traditionally girls help with domestic tasks and boys concentrate on helping with hunting. Although such defined gender roles are seemingly at odds with current thinking concerning gender, what is highlighted is the specific knowledge which needs to be passed to the next generation for the survival of the society. In this way, children learn the skills and values necessary to be an adult member in that society. This process is called enculturation. Similarly more contemporary aspects of learning are also a process of enculturation. The diverse requirements of this process are certainly more complex, and the educational process must meet the anticipated needs of the individual as a member of an envisioned future society (the recent and ever increasing focus on ICT for example). However the aspects of learning, from the personal to the cultural are similarly geared to shaping children to belong and participate within society. The Every Child Matters agenda and similar initiatives have recently emphasised this.

If a child is to become a successful participant in society it is essential that we understand the importance of the personal, social and cultural aspects of learning. The means to address these are not straightforward, as they must reflect a constantly and rapidly changing world and society. The values of the National Curriculum necessarily address this, orientating itself around a set of purposes and values concerning “self, relationships, society and the environment” (1999, p148-149), which reflect and influence the values of society. These values represent a positive ethic towards the individual, community, and society, and “the rapidly changing world” (1999 p10). The values are further defined as two distinct yet interdependent aims; “to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and achieve” and “to promote pupils spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life”. In this way, the curriculum is explicit about the fact that academic learning is set in the context of and inseparable from other areas of children’s development. Thus it posits a holistic approach to education which addresses the whole child both as an individual and in social and societal contexts.

A strong example of these aspects of learning being addressed in schools is the current provision for subjects such as PSHE and citizenship which encompass aspects of cultural education, alongside more traditional subjects in this area such as history and religious education. While it may be suggested that some subjects are more concerned with the personal aspects of learning (in particular cognitive development.), it can also be argued that even the development of these areas takes place within the community of the primary school. Indeed, it can be argued that the primary school is a fundamental influence in children’s social development, which models how children are to become members of a democratic society, This has been well represented in my base school and in other primary schools which I have visited recently, where children are encouraged to become active and caring participants in their community. I have seen this implemented through the use of a school council, buddying schemes, and target and merit assemblies.

Given the importance of these many aspects of learning, educational theorists have formulated a number of approaches to facilitate them. It is therefore unsurprising that the approaches have differed in terms of their focus and their recommendations as to how to enable learning to take place. Three of the most renowned approaches are behaviourist, constructivist and social constructivist models.

Suggesting that learning is principally a cognitive task, and that learning takes place through the interaction of the child with a particular environment is constructivism. This is the theoretical approach chiefly supposed by Piaget. He theorises that a child’s cognitive structures are thereby changed by this interaction, as they “accommodate” and “assimilate” their experience. A distinguishing feature of Piaget’s theory is the development of cognitive ability through stages, culminating in the “formal operations” stage at 12 years onwards. It is at this point that abstract thought becomes possible. Pollard (1997), suggests that the educators responsibility in a school environment influenced by constructivist theory is to negotiate an area of work, and an activity with the child, and then to evaluate learning after the child has experienced and made sense of the activity. In my experience this method is one which is very much in use in the EYFS, and which lends itself suitably to this environment. The children are free to experiment, learning through play in accordance with their own strengths and interests using the stimulating enabling environments created by staff. At my base school for instance there is an extremely well designed and utilised outdoor play area for the EYFS, providing fun and challenge. In some ways the constructivist theory of learning, in this way very much addresses the personal aspects of learning, “casting the learner in a very active and independent role” (Pollard 1997).

However, based on the discussion of the social and cultural aspects of learning, I would question to what extent it would assist coverage of these aspects of learning. One noteworthy criticism of Piaget’s theory is that the stages underrate children’s abilities. Pollard (1997) cites research which shows this. In my base school I have witnessed children engaged in the type of abstract thinking which Piaget thought only to be possible from children above the age of 12, raising the question of whether it was Piaget’s method of minimum adult involvement which informed his stage theory. It is possible that his stage theory is completely accurate if children are left to their own devices. However with greater adult intervention it may be possible for children to achieve and develop at a greater pace. It is also possible to question how particular aspects of learning could be facilitated through the environment without very exact instruction. This is not to say that the idea of creating facilitative learning environments are without value. As educationalists trying to educate the whole child, this is one aspect of our practice which can provide a concrete foundation on which to promote other learning opportunities. The design of the classroom is a cornerstone of one’s approach to teaching being reflected in the standard “establish a purposeful and safe learning environment conducive to learning and identify opportunities for learners to learn in out of school contexts.” (Q30).

A further constructivist theory is ‘social constructivism’. However this differs noticeably from Piaget’s method through the role of the social structure in learning, its principal proponent Vygotsky, saw the role of the adult as being instrumental to the learning and experiences of the pupil. In essence this is due to the difference between what the child can achieve them, and the achievements they make with help of an adult. The gap between the two was conceptualised by Vygotsky as the Zone of Proximal development (ZPD). By structuring the experience of the child through the use of ‘scaffolding’, therefore ensuring that learning is taking place, Vygotsky suggested that the ZPD was bridged. As such the learning is social and involves interaction. However it is not always essential for an adult to be present for the ZPD to be bridged; a more experienced peer could perform the same task (i.e. mixed ability talk partners). This learning also remains social, involving the negotiation of the social tools of interaction, chiefly language and other social conventions. This approach is one which primary schools and teachers are familiar with and a part of day to day teaching and learning. It begins by breaking down each taught concept into its component parts. Pollard (1997) remarks that “the process is cyclical, with the teacher reviewing the child’s progress at each stage.” This process requires a high level of both subject knowledge by the teacher and an understanding of the children in their care. Fitting well with the view of learning as enculturation, the method addresses the personal, social and cultural aspects of learning identified above, and demonstrates learning as a relational activity. It also fits well with the social setting of the primary school as being the principal agent in the process of learning. From my experience to date I would query how ably it is possible for a teacher to dedicate enough time and attention to each child in a possible class of thirty-five, and whether it is feasible to tailor teaching to always work optimally within each child’s ZPD across all subjects. However, I have also experienced differentiation of lesson aims towards this, and maybe the recent emphasis on individual assessment and learning (i.e. Assessing Pupil Progress) will assist more efficient learning in this way.

Whilst the constructivist and social constructivist approaches are concerned with the immediate cognitive method of learning, there is also a crucial factor which it is essential to have in place for learning to occur – behaviour. In fact this may be considered as the vital pre-condition of learning. Dealing explicitly with this and perhaps going some way to addressing the method of learning itself is the behaviourist approach and theory of learning. Pollard (1997) gives the example of behaviourist teaching as that of “learning by rote, drilling subjects and learners.” It is the task of the teacher to deliver the material and to indicate whether or not pupil’s responses are correct. It is down to the learner to work out why responses may be incorrect and to try and understand where they went wrong. According to existing practice, this approach therefore falls short as a process of enabling learning. However it can be useful in particular situations. I have, for instance experienced an extremely fast-paced French lesson oral starter which took a behaviourist approach. It seemed directly relevant to the learning of vocabulary, in which there is only a correct or incorrect answer. The pupil is then able to clearly see whether or not their response is correct and can then choose another response without a great deal of cognitive burden or adult involvement required.

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Perhaps the main focus of behaviourist approaches is in their application to behaviour management, a fundamental pre-condition for learning. The research of Skinner was concentrated on stimulus-response mechanisms using rodents. It could be argued that this is unsuitable for children, as their responses to given situations are not only physiological but also both emotional and cognitive. However, the extensive use of both punishment and more commonly rewards in primary schools is in fitting with the stimulus response mechanism. An outstanding behaviour management policy will engage all aspects of the learner, enabling the child to become an active participant in their own behaviour. This involves the children understanding that choices can be made which will result in consequences, be they pleasant or not, which remain at the heart of behavioural methods.

It may be pertinent to ask how exactly these systems motivate children to engage with the learning process. It is necessary to have behavioural rules so that members of the class are free from interference from other members of the class. At my base school, behaviour does not seem to be a problem and I believe this is largely down to rewards and recognition systems which the school has in place. This leads me to question whether the fear of punishment itself actually motivates children to learn. In many ways, the motivation to learn must be intrinsic, that is internal to the individual. As an adult this may be immediately recognisable, and anyone undertaking studies as an adult will be aware of this necessary self-motivation. However the world of a child is one in which there is always a presence of extrinsic motivation, usually communicated through adults – those things which are deemed pleasing and necessary by the adults in a child’s life. Therefore the type of motivation implied by punishments and rewards is perhaps a necessary condition of learning, both for the individual and learning community of the classroom. The specification of these rewards and punishments is perhaps best fitted to particular learning environments. For example, Roland Fryer, an American economist and educational advisor is an advocate of financial rewards for inner-city high school children when exams are passed (New York Times, 2008). Though my own response to this was initially critical, but Fryer’s system does reflect a principle on which the adult world largely works – that of financial reward for effort. On the other hand, there is an argument that learning should be motivated by the desire to learn for the enjoyment of learning. I would suggest that in the primary school rewards are indeed necessary, but much of the intrinsic motivation to learn can be communicated through the teacher’s planning of innovative and creative lessons, A varied system of rewards and punishments is perhaps then the best support for this approach so that the motivation of the pupils consists of both pull and push factors.

Alongside the multitude of theories of learning is the concept of learning style. It is now widely recognised that the way in which individuals are inclined to approach learning has an influence on their performance and achievement. Suggesting that “reason, intelligence, logic, knowledge are not synonymous…” Gardner (1983) suggested a new analysis of intelligence. In his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner extended the theory of intelligence to also include areas not previously considered. Defining intelligence as “the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting” (Gardner and Hatch 1989), Gardener formulated a list of seven intelligences. These are defined as; logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, musical, bodily kinaesthetic, and the personal intelligences – interpersonal and intrapersonal. Whilst the intelligences are in essence separate from each other, Gardner suggested that they rarely work independently and are instead used simultaneously, complementing each other as individuals and their skillet develop. In keeping with the process of enculturation, he also recognised that culture plays a crucial part in the growth of the intelligences. All societies place significance on different types of intelligence, hence while particular intelligences may be extremely developed in many people of one culture, those same intelligences might not be as evolved in the individuals of another. As the theory states that all seven intelligences are required to productively function in society, the acceptance of this approach has several implications for the classroom. It is necessary for educators to think of different types id intelligence as equally important, which contrasts hugely with the traditionally emphasised mathematical and verbal intelligence. Alongside this is the implication that teachers should present information in a style which engages all pupils whenever possible. For instance whilst I agree that the introduction of interactive whiteboards to the classroom offers support for some learners, I feel it is vital to ensure that as I progress in my own practice I find ways to engage all of the learners in my class as often as possible. Only by directing my own practice in this manner can I ensure a deeper understanding and bringing about of learning for those in my care.

Approaches to learning such as those described are continually evolving to meet the requirements of changing societies, and those above can be understood to have evolved out of the socio-historical contexts of those who formulated and worked with them. Current practise in the UK is towards an inclusive learning environment with a strong focus on the individual. Children are assessed using strategies such as APP which provide an in-depth and individual look at pupils’ progress and development. Pupils may also have individual tuition and targeted booster sessions, and an Individual Education Plan. Furthermore, pupils with Special Educational Needs may have additional full-time adult support in the classroom. However a focus on both inclusiveness and individuality generates a tension. It can be argued that a classroom and school community of diverse individuals has many social and cultural benefits. It reflects society and celebrates diversity. From a learning point of view however there may be disadvantages to this approach. How well can individuals actually be catered for when there are so many different ability levels in one classroom, and limited resources to meet those individuals’ needs (my own Year 6 base class has an even spread of literacy ability levels from P to 5C )? Can both Gifted & Talented and SEN pupils within a classroom be taught at an appropriate level within the same space and time? Can all lessons be differentiated to the extent that all learners are working at their optimum? The present focus on differentiation of lessons is an attempt to ensure that this happens, but practical constraints can often undermine attempts. In my own experience I have noticed that G&T learners may not be being stretched enough in all lessons. In any classroom with many diverse needs, it may be difficult for a teacher to simultaneously address all learners in the most effective manner. For example, when a number of factors are present in the classroom, such as ADHD, emotional and behavioural difficulties, EAL and G&T learners, it is difficult for a teacher to simultaneously utilise a number of different approaches in order to successfully target all of these learners. There may therefore be an argument in some instances for the setting of pupils into targeted ability groups, so that their needs can be better met. This takes place in maths lessons in my base school, which are set between two-year groups, i.e. year 3 & 4 sets, and year 5&6 sets. My own observation is that this makes planning and delivery of lessons more effective, and that children can learn at a rate which suits them. It does however require close and careful assessment and review.

It is apparent that learning is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. Psychologists and educators have investigated the processes of learning and as yet, there is no definitive understanding of how learning takes place or how it can best be facilitated. Given the diverse range of children in school, it is necessary for teachers to be familiar with the range of learning styles and teaching methods which will best serve their pupils. The three main approaches to learning outlined about should be understood as starting points from which to formulate a theory of learning, and new approaches are being constantly developed to address the changing requirements of children and society. This is in fact very empowering for the development of the teacher, who by taking a reflective approach towards their work, can innovate a constantly evolving practice to facilitate children’s learning.



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