Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

Theories of Learning for Classrooms

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5496 words Published: 5th Oct 2017

Reference this

Learning is the “process that results in a relatively enduring change in a person or persons” (Alexander et al, 2009: 186). Learning is a dynamic process whereby the students’ knowledge and skills are different before to after learning (Winn, 1990). Teaching is by definition the promotion of learning and ought therefore to be informed by the best of our knowledge about learning. Learning and teaching poses a synergistic relationship; that is teachers need to teach with an approach that reinforces how students naturally learn (Muijs – brooks book).

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

A number of educational researchers offer learning paradigms to explain how individuals learn. The way students learn can be used to foster effective teaching practices, and ultimately align teaching with positive learning and educational experiences. Understanding how knowledge is developed and comprehended can allow teachers to shape the methodological delivery of their subject content to match the theoretical frameworks, underpinning how knowledge is processed. Attending to the nature of student learning can allow teachers to improve their practice and in turn the quality of the learners’ experience (Macleod & Golby, 2003). The extremes of this learning theory spectrum are represented by the Behaviourist and Constructivist theories of learning.

Behaviouristic Theory of Learning

Learning, according to behaviourists (Watson, Pavlov), is defined as acquisition of new behaviour. The focus of behaviourism is on the conditioning of observable human behaviour and is based on the principal conception that a reaction is made in response to a specific stimulus. This reaction leads to a consequence. If the consequence is pleasant and positive, the behaviour change becomes reinforced. 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 activation and reinforcement results in a faster, smoother implementation of certain reactions and responses. The connections between the stimuli and specific responses are built correctly and then reinforced over time through practise and repetition, which ultimately strengthens the neural pathways, resulting in a more efficient response to the stimuli. (Pritchard).

Behaviourists term this form of learning ‘conditioning’, whereby 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 a behaviour by praising it, or discouraging undesirable behaviour with punishment. The rewarding phases of this conditioning processing is known as ‘reinforcement’. However, this ‘stimulus-response’ relationship discounts any mental processes which may be involved in learning.

Researchers, including Vygotsky 1962 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 perspective challenged the implied separation between mental processing and knowledge, which had to be bridged by the role of a teacher.

Constructivist Theory

The constructivist movement was formed on Piaget’s (1976) and Vygotsky (1986) work who view learning as the effect of mental construction, whereby learners combine their existing knowledge with new information, to construct meaning and formulate their understanding. The constructivist theory proposes that learning is an active process, a social activity, contextual, centred on constructing meaning and regards the learner as a responsible agent in their knowledge acquisition (Loyens 2007. In constructivist learning, individuals draw in their experience of the world around them and work to make sense of what they perceive in order to build an understanding of what is surrounding them (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 including interactions with world based, external experiences (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’ ‘developmental stages’ 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 but not always 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, Cunningham, 1996), and use constructivist theories as a generalised term. However, as Mathews and Lui highlight, combining the plethora of constructivist variants is questionable, and generalisations made may have less significance and loss of meaning. 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 (Einworth and Collins), 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. Hounsell, & Entwistle, 1997 conclude that the use of rote memorisation represents a learning approach to a surface level of understanding, whilst establishing connections with current knowledge reflects an approach for a deeper level of understanding.

In contrast, from a constructivist perspective, the principle of learning using prior experience is beneficial in promoting a deeper and richer understanding (Pressley, Harris & Marks, 1992). Demerici 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). According to Fosnot, the focus of attention in constructivist perspective is concept development and deeper understanding. This research suggests that constructivist approaches lead to a great, 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 may be weak. Kember, 1996; Watkins & 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) In addition, (Smith, 2001, 2002a) affirms that rote learning can contribute to understanding.

Therefore, it appears that behaviouristic learning approaches can be beneficial for certain tasks such as establishing classroom behaviour (Fulton). Teachers could consider deploying beahviorusitlic approaches to the learning of classroom behaviour, especially for pupils who display anxious tendencies and low motivation (Prittard; Fulton). Those of higher academic ability perceive simplistic drill and practice unsatisfying and dull (Prittard). In addition, some students demand understanding, yet adhering to behaviouristic learning approaches does not accommodate this craving. In other situations, the concepts of learning without understanding can fuel frustration, lead to misconceptions and generate a difficult learning environment (Prittard).

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 Ortazzi, (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. 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 understanding.

Standard school and classroom routines and expectations for behaviour can be learnt through behaviouristic approaches. 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 should be 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 long standing effective classroom practice (Elliott and Busse, 1991 – fulton book). 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 (Fulton) 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.

However, 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 (Howe 1999). Teachers cannot assume that the products of learning are solely the teachers’ effort and thought; instead learning requires effort on the part of the learner. Teachers need to offer scope of activities where the accustomed effort and activity falls on the learners’ responsibility. Such opportunities would afford learner engagement and optimise the possibility of effective lasting learning taking place (Prittard).

A vast array of supportive literature endorses the success of constructive approaches. Research informs that learning through such constructive mediums, like discussion, participation, practice, are 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.

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) argues 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 ealrning Carey & Spelke, 1994).

Find Out How UKEssays.com Can Help You!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

Another assumption refers to an epistemological assumption that students actively seek resources and experiences, which are anchored by their pre-existing knowledge. In addition, it is assumed that learners utilise the construed data to actively construct their knowledge (Renkl). 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). Given that learning is achieved through the constructing activity of the student, the individual can only understand or know what he or she has constructed (Dunn and Cunningham, 1996).

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. 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 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. Ellisowth’s review concludes 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.

Importantly, to help progressive learning and avoid developing misconceptions, teachers need to provide a clear focus and goals, with explicit learning objectives, 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 oftheir learning. Activating prior knowledge is important to elicit pre-knowledge, allowing teachers to decipher the conceptual frameworks they are operating within.

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 consider that new content cannot be built up until the foundations, such as current knowledge, is secured.

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 Lamon, 2001 reports as being more 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 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. Formative assessment can be achieved in the classroom, through discussion, questioning, peer assessment, self-assessment and feedback.

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.

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 learning.

This active perspective of constructive learning (Phillips, 1995) is often contrasted with behaviourist stimulus-response relationship, which has been defined as a passive view in learning. However, reading and listening are included within this constructive approach to teaching, which could be argued to be more passive approaches. Whilst this suggests that all cognition is active, to talking and writing, listening and reading are relatively passive. Traditionalists do not deny the importance of dialogue, and this may be utilised in questioning and answering, it is more that behaviourists place greater emphasis on knowledge and on the teacher as being knowledgeable, rather than learners and their existing knowledge (Fox). A balance is needed between emphasis on the teachers and learners, since too much emphasis on either part can lead to prescriptions for teaching which may ignore the students’ needs or dismiss the teachers as a significant resource of knowledge.

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, opposed to being static and prescribed (Sudizna). The use of resources promotes more interactive learning and interest, which are both shown to positively influence learning.

Behaviourist approaches have been criticised for not addressing this dynamic nature of learning as its theory assumes a static and standardised view of knowledge learning. Supported by Winn 1990, student knowledge is dynamic and changes, that is knowledge and skills are different before learning to after instruction, and behaviourism does not take this into account. 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 accounts for the role of social learning and potential of interaction and recognises the importance of social interaction (Phillips, 1995). Incorporating social interaction opportunities, using language as a medium to construct ideas in groups of varying sizes, both with and without the teacher are encouraged and popular in classroom practice today (Jones and Brader-anjerie, 2002).

Dialouge is proposed to constitue a crucial component of the constructivism paradigm ((Greeno et al. 1996; (Steffe and Gale 1995).Loyens, 2008. Discussion is fundamental and can be used through augmenting, debating, discussing concepts, teacher questioning and pupils’ presenting. Teachers should encourage students to work collaboratively, in pairs or small groups, and allow them to help each other and construct their own meaning in their own words of a concept. Dialogue with others allows additional and alternative perspectives to be taken into account when developing personal conclusions. Different knowledge, points of view and understanding can be given and considered before moving on. Teachers should listen to pupils, and use their words for explaining concepts and draw on other opinions of class members.

Constructivist theory also takes into account that learning is contextual. 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 xxxxxxx?

The exactness of the Piaget stage of development has been criticised, that is to say children may pass through the stage, but it is not clear that they will pass through the stages at specific ages, however, as a developmental trail, this theory is useful in teaching practices. 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. 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 c


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: