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Theories Of Learning Underpin Teachers Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5499 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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Learning theories are conceptual frameworks which serve to explain how humans learn. Understanding how knowledge is developed allows teachers to shape the methodological delivery of their subject content to match the theoretical frameworks, underpinning how knowledge is developed. Moreover, attending to the way students learn can be used to foster effective teaching practices, enabling teachers to improve their practice, and ultimately enhance the quality of the learners’ experience (Macleod & Golby, 2003).

A number of educational researchers, including Vytsgosy (1986), Piaget (1976), Skinner (1974) and Bandura (1986), Gardener’s multiple intelligence theory (Gardner, 1993 – Pritchard) offer learning paradigms to explain how individuals learn. There is a vast array of elearning theories, and 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 have 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 development of emerging behaviour patterns. 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 (Pritchard, 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 establishing and strengthening specific neural circuits, 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 an automatic behavioural reaction as a reflex response to an explicit stimulus. In contrast, ‘operant conditioning’ involves reinforcing positive behaviour by praising it, or discouraging undesirable behaviour with punishment (Woolfolk, 2008).

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 (Woolfolk, 2008).

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 (Cholewinski, 2009). The constructivist theory proposes that learning is an active, contextual process, a social activity, centred on constructing meaning and views the learner as a responsible agent in their knowledge acquisition (Loyens 2007; Cholewinski, 2009). In constructivist learning, individuals use world-based experiences as a means to help them perceive and establish 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 a 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 are anchored by the fundamental principle that meaning is actively established by the learner themselves (Birenbaum 2003; Harris and Alexander 1998).

Piaget’s (2001) developmental stage theory, which represents cognitive constructivism, presents four age-referenced development stages providing a theory of gradual cognitive development up to the age of eleven years old. Each age range indicates the cognitive abilities necessary for pupils to understand the meaning of their environment.

Social constructivism emphasises the role of language in the development of meaningful understanding. Vygotsky (1986) claimed that dialogue could be used to allow individuals to deliberate, contemplate, reflect, impart, contribute and share beliefs and understanding of concepts. 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 (1986) advocates that the process of learning involves moving into and across a zone of proximal development (ZPD), which is aided by the intervention and support of another individual. The ZPD is a zone representing the extent of understanding, which just exceeds that of the student’s present level of comprehension. Scaffolding is the process of providing support at a timely nature to meet the learning needs of the students, which allows the movement from one space of understanding to another across the ZPD (Pritchard, 2009), promoting learning.

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 educational literature supports pedagogies which reflect and endorse the constructivist theories of learning. The conception that suggests 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) is a consideration. Aforementioned research proposes that understanding is not implied by retaining content and providing a ‘correct’ response, 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 more profound, richer level of understanding. This suggests that academic and subject knowledge learning, based on the behaviouristic theory, may not be academically supported.

Furthermore, the principle of learning using prior experience is also beneficial in promoting a multifaceted and richer understanding (Pressley et al., 1992) endorsing the constructivist theory of learning. Demerici (2009) advises that information which is connected to a learner’s prior experiences is more likely to be retained. This research may explain higher retention rates when a constructivist approach is adopted, compared to the conventional behaviouristic approach. (Demirici & Yavuz, 2009). In addition, aforementioned research suggests that learning through such constructive mediums, like discussion and active participation, are academically successful and associated with learning gains and knowledge preservation (Demirci & Yavuz, 2009). 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) advise that memorisation can serve an effective learning tool during the first stage of establishing meaning, when students encounter irregular and unheard of terminology. This concept, where memorisation is part of profound learning, is defined as memorising with understanding (Marton et al., 1997; Meyer, 2000) and has been conducted by students as a successful revision practice (Entwistle & Entwistle, 2001). Therefore evidence appears to promote the use of memorisation and associated behavioural approaches for learning, particularly as a revision tool.

Fox (2001) suggests that the constructivist theory may imply that remembering is insignificant, and instead the constructivist paradigm is exclusively centred on understanding notions. However, Fox (2001) proposes that neither of these are viable perceptions of learning, and being able to remember knowledge is an important prerequisite of learning. In addition, other educational researchers (Biggs, 1998; Jin & Cortazzi, 1998) have reported that constructivist teaching approaches don’t consistently guarantee teaching effectiveness, and instead evidence success in large sized classes deploying behaviourist teaching approaches.

Fox (2001) contends that constructivism neglects the role of memorisation and mechanical learning techniques. Given the uncontrollable construction of student understanding (Woolfolk, 2008) and the diverse array of student comprehensions (Loyens, 2008), in some cases rote learning and memorisation may be more useful when teaching factual concepts. Rote learning therefore may be effective in facilitating students’ ability to manage and understand specific challenging aspects of work. In addition, Smith (2001, 2002) affirms that rote learning can contribute to understanding. However, teachers must recognise and consider that rote learning is not an approach to develop and deepen students understanding.

Therefore where possible, rote learning should be an early approach taken to introduce new subject knowledge, followed by subsequent teaching approaches to help promote more substantial understanding (Pritchard, 2009). For example, teachers could consider actively engaging students with the subject content, marking criteria and provoking enquiry-based discussion with the students. Group work may also play a very important role in reinforcing subject knowledge in accordance with the constructivist learning theories, and working together and collaborating with peers could be a useful teaching and learning tool (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).

Ultimately, it appears that behaviouristic learning approaches can be beneficial for particular tasks, in particular establishing standard school and classroom routines and expectations for behaviour (Muijs & Reynolds, 2003). 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 explicitly 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.

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 (Pritchard, 2009). 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 teachers must adhere to using consistent strategies, as the same stimuli are presented for a specific response.

Behaviourism relies on reinforcement to condition the traitand therefore reinforcement is apinnacle tool for learning. Consequently, rewards and punishments for behaviours must play a crucial role and be actively administered within classroom practice. Behaviourism approaches for learning may subsequently 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 (Pritchard, 2009). Rewards and praise have been shown to enhance intrinsic motivation (Cameron & Pierce, 1994), and serve as an effective behaviour management tool; yet 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 approachsuits their learning styles, needs and ability. For example, Pritchard (2009) reports that behaviouristic methods are more advantageous for those pupils displaying anxious tendencies and low motivation. In contrast, those of higher academic ability perceive drill and practice unsatisfying and dull. In addition, some students demand understanding, yet adhering to behaviouristic learning approaches does not accommodate this requirement (Pritchard, 2009). In other situations, learning concepts without understanding can fuel frustration, lead to misconceptions and generate a difficult learning environment (Pritchard, 2009). Therefore, teachers need to consider whether the learning is academic or behavioural, and importantly account for the pupils as individuals, by personalising their teaching style.

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A common criticism of the behaviourist theory is that such a traditional approach does not take account of mental cognitive processing involved in learning (Woolfolk, 2008). 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’ (Jonassen & Rohrer-Murphy, 1999). However, if the construction of knowledge is down to the learner, then what learners can understand is dependent on what theyconstruct (Duffy & 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, unmatched to reality. In addition, Duffy and Cunningham (1996) 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 an enhancing learning tool.

Similarly, as the actual act of knowledge construction is on behalf of the learner (Bruner 1966, 1971), what is constructed cannot be controlled or regulated 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 the teachers construction and understanding, resulting in multiple understandings (Phillips, 1995; 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.

To accommodate these pre-requisites of learning, an individual’s knowledge needs to be continually assessed. As a regular classroom practice, formative assessment could be used as a frequent approach to assess existing and new understanding, before moving to the next lesson. Formative assessment is an 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 & Wiliam, 1998). Giventhat learning is an active and evolving process, formative assessment can be used by teachers to assess, monitor, challenge unclear perspectives and adapt classroom practices to accommodate the constructivist principles of learning. Teachers need to use formative assessment to plan and then deliver new learning material to assure that subsequent teaching is tailored to the students’ current comprehension (Fosnot, 1996). Therefore, to align teaching approaches to learning theories, it is important for teachers to conduct formative assessment naturally and regularly in the classrooms, which Atkin et al, (2001) reports as being valuable classroom practice.

Since formative assessment is associated with learning gains (Black & Wiliam, 1998), it can be suggested that learning is positively influenced indirectly via adopting teaching strategies which are aligned to learning constructively. Formative assessment may be undertaken through questioning, feedback, teacher and pupil discussion, peer and self-assessment and interaction with peers. Formative assessment will also identify pupils’ individual learning needs, aiding teachers to incorporate effective differentiation. This structured and differentiated delivery approach may help identify those who need more support than others and thus assure pupils are moving across their ZPD and optimise learning gains. Ultimately, this will allow tasks to be designed and geared towards the individual’s learning ability.

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

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

The constructivist theory may imply that learning differences stem from individuals’ knowledge processes (Fox, 2001). However, as Fox (2001) and Bredo (2000) highlight, constructivism discounts the role of innate, talent, motivational and genetic factors in knowledge construction, which have been proven to play a role in cognitive development and learning (Carey & Spelke, 1994). Importantly, 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) suggest that some teachers moulded the students’ construction of a concept to align with their personal concept interpretation. Einswistle and Smith (2002) conclude that the form of understanding impressed onto students is largely dependent on the teacher’s personal interpretation of the subject content. In a similar vein, students have personal conceptions even before being taught, which can affect their forthcoming learning (Phillips, 1995). Therefore, although the constructivist theory assumes that the construction of understanding is exclusively the product of the learner’s interpretation , the constructivist theory does not account for the interplay between teachers’ and learners’ comprehension (Phillips, 1995).

Another pitfall of the constructivist theory is that it assumes students actively search for and utilise resources and experiences, and therefore their understanding is anchored by experiences and their pro-active use to establish understanding (Renkl, 1999). Therefore, this approach to learning relies on students encountering experiences and applying these to their pre-existing knowledge to develop understanding. However, such experiences and world-based interactions may not be feasible or available to students due to their lifestyle circumstances. Consequently, if a constructivist approach to learning is adopted, teachers need to be aware that understanding and meaning may be limited to the students’ individual experiences.However, in accordance with this assumption, the constructivist theory can explain the discrepancies between pupils’ conceptions and meaning (Taber, 2000).

Furthermore, although we learn by acquiring knowledge from our environments through interacting with the external world, Fox (2001) highlights that the environment also acts upon learners. That is, we act and respond, and learning can be achieved from both encounters. However, constructivism appears to fail to acknowledge adaptive instinctive reactions as automatic conditioned forms of learning (Fox, 2001).

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 broad array of work which is differentiated to the learners’ intellect. Teachers need to offer a 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 retained and effective learning (Woolfolk, 2008). Personalisation is also crucial to ensure genetic, socio-economic, innate, learning difficulties and background differences that may affect their learning are accounted for.

Piaget’s (2001) 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 specificity of the Piaget (2001) stage of development has been condemned since it is unclear and presumptuous to assume children will pass through the stages at explicit ages, however, as an embryonic process; this theory is informative and valuable in teaching practices (Pritchard, 2009).

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; Brooks and Brooks, 1993), and according to Blooms Taxonomy (1956) 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 essentially already pre-determined and explicit. Pupils ideally 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, using enquiry-based and problem solving questioning, and further elaborating on students’ responses (Brooks & Brooks, 1993)

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 (Brooks and Brooks, 1993). 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 (Woolfolk 2008). Such actions promote the infusion of newly delivered information to become embedded within the existing knowledge bank, contributing to or modifying the students’ schema (Jonassen et al, 1999 – Pritchard). By forming these links, students can activate and recall their pre-existing knowledge, and use this foundation to build and integrate new concepts. Activating earlier subject knowledge could be achieved by mind-mapping or utilising a K-W-L grid (Wray and Lewis, 1997), a tool to encourage students to record what they know, what they want to know, and what they have learnt.

As already discussed, scaffolding is crucial for the learner to pass through their ZPD, and can be undertaken by the teacher. Scaffolding can be practised in the classroom in many ways, and teachers need to appreciate that this is fundamental to the educational progression of students. Support materials need to be widely available, such as a writing frame to scaffold a particular style of prose, or a list of words to help in the process of completing an exercise, ultimately 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 real-life to their learning to help construct profound 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 (Wray & Lewis, 1997). In addition, by asking what students understand before embarking on a new learning material would help students form links between new and previous knowledge (Jonassen et al, 1999). This reviewing practice could be done as a starter, but also plays a role at the end of the lesson, forming a plenary. Teachers should therefore incorporate a suitably constructed plenary to consolidate knowledge, allowing students to visualise their progression within the lesson, as well as providing informative evidence to facilitate planning for the sequential lessons. Time to reflect upon what has been undertaken and the subject material is likely to provide 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 personal experiences (Selinger, 2001), increases the probability of engagement with the task and supports findings that learning in a familiar context is most effective (Kuhn & Pease, 2006). Authentic tasks are likely to secure the concentration and fulfilment of children, and lead to a deeper level of engagement than with non-authentic or less authentic tasks (Bruner, 1996). Favourably, the constructivist principles match those fundamentals associated with effective contextual learning. Therefore, teachers need to consider the context of the subject content, and try to relate this to the childrens’ real-lives.

Macleod and Goldby (2003) suggest that learning occurs in ‘real-life’ contexts and is actually linked to a context. Studying new concepts is more effective in engaging students when the subject matter is presented in a known and safe context, as opposed to new and foreign parameters (Kuhn & Pease, 2006). Therefore teachers should strive to include more authentic tasks and set learning concepts which are aligned with students’ familiar contexts. Meaningful contexts for learning are very important; however, there may be a discrepancy between students’ and teachers’ perceptions of what is a meaningful context (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). The association between the concept of learning in situ and the need for authentic learning tasks is paramount (McFarlane, 1997) since context does effect the productivity of learning . However, the recommended approach by Lave & Wenger (1991) to situation learning in meaningful context has been condemned. Walkerdine (1988) for example argued that if school learning became situated solely within real life daily experiences, the opportunities for thinking ‘outside the box’ would be suffocated and limit students learning to their immediate environment only.

An active learning approach can be achieved by encouraging students to explore concepts and ideas, and to follow their instincts (Wray & Lewis, 1997). Given that exploration can promote sequential ideas development, it is likely to assist in the construction of new knowledge. 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 provides a vehicle to develop understanding using social interaction, accommodating the social constructivist paradigm of learning.

According to Winn (1990), student knowledge is not static, instead it constantly changes; that is knowledge and skills after learning are distinctly different to that of before instruction. In addition, students bring with them current understanding, and conceptions then change in response to experiences, inside and outside the classroom. However, behaviourist approaches have been criticised for not addressing this dynamic nature of learning (Schunk, 2000). Moreover, behaviourism theory does not appreciate that students come into class


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