Theories of learning underpin teachers’ classroom practice. Critically examine two or more theories analysing their implications for classroom teachers.
Theories of learning fill the pages of books related to education and classroom practice, with each one offering a different account of how people learn. One of the root causes of this variation in theory is due to the fact that each theory presents its own definition of learning. However, what unites these theories is their aim to provide a guide to strong teaching practice that will lead to an improvement in the knowledge of learners. (Sotto, 2007: 126).
The theories of learning are not engraved in stone and the strengths and weaknesses of each are transparent. However, it is the implications of these theories upon teaching that gives them a strong foothold within education. Theories of learning place learners in a particular position and depending on the theory, the learning either happens to the learner by an outside force or it is something they do themselves as a result of internal processes or practice. Whilst this is not the only way in which a learner can learn, the majority of learning theories aim to lead pupils to the stage where they can use the learning tools they have acquired on their own to create their own learning.
Regardless of which theory of learning is being examined, it is essential that teachers enable an open and flexible approach to their practice. Each pupil has individual needs and slightly different ways of learning and it is because of this individuality that there will always come a time when learning theories fail to enhance any sort of learning. (Sotto, 2007: 127). This suggests that for there to be an effective use made of theories of learning they should be used simultaneously, drawing on the benefits and overcoming the limitations of each. (Sotto, 2007: 134). It is this view that this essay takes through critical analysis of two key theories of learning: Behaviourism and Constructivism.
The essay is sectioned into two parts: the first addressing Behaviourism and the second looking at Constructivism as described by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Each section will give a brief description of the theory before moving on to discuss the implication the theory has had upon teaching. Discussing the implications of each theory on classroom practice will consider why it can work to increase learning, but also examining its hindrances to learning.
This essay takes the approach that Behaviourism suggests that in order to have learning the learner must be actively engaged and being rewarded immediately must reinforce their activity. (Sotto, 2007: 35).
The implication of this on learning is that it must be active and praise must be given. The problem with this argument is that it is insufficient as a learning theory and takes away the intrinsic value of learning. The biggest problem with Behaviourism is that it does not show that the pupil has any control over his or her own learning. Further to this, it cannot be predetermined that pupils will respond positively to praise and active learning in all cases. (Sotto, 2007: 35).
The Constructivist line of thought set up by Piaget and Vygotsky argues that learning takes place in a social context with the responsibility of learning on the learner themselves and the teacher acting as a facilitator by providing learning scaffolds. This has led to an open approach towards teaching by encouraging group work and class discussion.
Problems with this line of thought stem from the fact that it requires a high level of ego-centrism within the pupils and the pupils are highly dependant upon the scaffolds. It cannot be guaranteed that without these scaffolds pupils would still learn. Also there is the problem that if the scaffolds have errors within them, it becomes difficult for the pupil to build up correct information and calibration is often difficult.
It is not being claimed that these are the only theories of learning that will prove beneficial to learners; research into the field of learning has been vast. However, it is beyond the scope of this essay to examine any more than Behaviourism and the contribution of Piaget and Vygotsky towards Constructivism. Both theories have much to offer and their implications for teaching have much strength. At the same time, they both do have many limitations and so it can be argued that if implemented together, they would successfully overcome the limitations and allow learning to take place at a greater rate than if used in isolation of each other.
Behaviourists maintain that all people have key instincts that drive them towards action. This can be factors such as hunger, the need for sleep or thirst. When people experience these drivers they act in particular ways to overcome their desires. Behaviourists argue that when we reduce these drives by acting appropriately, even if it goes against our natural instincts, being rewarded will make us repeat the action we took. This concept can be applied to teachers and learners as teachers can reinforce the positive behaviour of their learners by rewarding them. The idea is that after being rewarded, the learner will repeat the actions and thereby establish a suitable means of learning. (Sotto, 2007: 35).
Initially, learning theory had generally stressed consciousness and introspection, but Behaviourists define learning as something that “people do in response to external stimuli”. (Elliot, 2007: 46). Psychologists B. F. Skinner, Pavlov and Thorndike were responsible for the development of the theory of Behaviourism in the 1920s and 1930s and whilst this does make it a slightly outdated theory, its strong influence on educational practice is apparent and has added much to the study of learning. (Elliot, 2007: 46, 47).
B. F. Skinner was classed as a radical behaviourist and claimed that only behaviour that can be seen is scientific and that all behaviour that cannot be seen is unscientific. Therefore Behaviour Learning Theory examines the change in behavioural patterns as the main outcome of the learning process. Behaviourists claim that our actual behaviour is the true indication to what we are thinking and learning. (Sotto, 2007: 37, 38).
They stand against ‘mentalism’ and claim that external factors cause changes to our behaviour as a result of conditioning. Operant Conditioning suggests that if a response to stimuli is followed by a reward or encouragement, that response becomes more probable in the future. This leads to the idea that if a pupil is praised once they behave well in a classroom, they are likely to behave well again another time. (Piaget, 2007; Elliot, 2007: 47).
Implication for classroom teachers
According to Behaviourist theory, learning occurs when two premises are met. Firstly the learner is actively engaged and secondly the learner’s activity is reinforced by a reward immediately. (Sotto, 2007: 35). When the reward is pleasurable, it strengthens behaviour, while unpleasant consequences, or punishers, weaken behaviour. (Skinner 1974 in Elliott 2007: 48).
The initial implication of Behaviourism for teaching was to introduce programmed manuals. This took the form of a paragraph of text followed by a question about that text, and a blank space for the learner to write the answer. If the answer was correct they were praised. If incorrect they were instructed to begin again. This was followed by another piece of text and another question and the method continued until the end of the manual. Through this the learner was active and there was an immediate reinforcement of correct responses. However, this was accepted as too mechanical and ignorant of meaning and therefore not enforced in schools over a longer period of time. (Sotto, 2007: 36, 40).
Despite this, the idea of rewards and active learning are prevalent in education today and has proved highly beneficial. Wittrock (1986) has emphasised active learning as key to the learning of pupils. Wittrock claimed that classroom learning best occurred when pupils formed relationships between themselves and what they are trying to learn. He suggests that pupils learn about stories by relating them to their own life experiences and goes on to give the example that geographical ideas are adapted through being linked to field trip experiences. (Wittrock, 1986). This suggests that it is through active learning that the mind will be able to learn what is new and for this to happen links must be made to the world that exists for the pupil. Active learning is advocated by Behaviourism and has been seen to make the learning experience enjoyable and relatable. This allows pupils to have some grasp on the new concepts they are learning as well as an idea that it is attainable. (Cullingford, 1995: 8).
Praise is a further way by which Behaviourism has impacted teaching. The benefits of this are intrinsically present and one of the key reasons for this is that it forms a link between the pupil and the teacher. Praise breaks away from the monotonous relationship of teacher and pupil which exists in classrooms and breaks down a power barrier. Although it can be difficult in a class of thirty pupils, any small form of praise can show the pupil that their efforts are recognised and that they are as much a part of the classroom as much as anybody else. Assessment for Learning has allowed this to develop as a strategy in recent years. Assessment for Learning has impacted upon marking strategies and the idea has come forward that marking should be formative and the idea of “two stars and a wish” can be applied. This recognises the pupil’s efforts, gives them two positive points and then goes on to give an area for improvement. The idea is that when coupled with the praise, the pupils will take on board what they need to do next. (Ashcroft and James, 1999: 76).
The benefits of Behaviourism appear strong but it has been seen to be a limiting theory and unable to adequately capture the complexities of pupil learning and behaviour.
It is insufficient to claim that learning occurs purely as a reaction to external stimuli. Activities such as recognising objects, sorting through them to form an order are classed as ‘mentalist’ activities; they occur in the head and this cannot be ignored.
While the external stimuli do exist, behaviourist theory cannot account for the way that information is processed once we have been confronted by the stimuli. (Elliot, 2007: 47).
Further to this, Behaviourism also struggles to account for the learning that takes place without reinforcement, such as the learning of a language. Behaviourists do not account for the memory in any significant way and by only talking about habits, our ability to fully understand learning is hindered. To gain a complete understanding of how people learn, we have to accept the ‘mentalist’ account of learning. This would encourage teachers to look at the workings of the brain and examine quantitative data taken from measuring actual reactions to external stimuli whilst providing a method that is stronger at enhancing learning. (Elliot, 2007: 48).
Secondly there is the question of what would happen if the pupil had to do something for which they were not going to be given any praise or couldn’t actively learn it. Their learning should not stop in that situation, and praise should not be used as a bribe. (Elliot, 2007: 47). When the learner is placed in a situation where the mental stimuli they have learnt to respond to is not present it is important that the task at hand is organised so that learners find it intrinsically rewarding and a reward will not be needed. The learning should provide enough of a reward to the learner and they should be actively involved in this process. The more responsibility the learner has for their own learning, the greater their intrinsic reward will be. (Sotto, 2007: 43).
Wittrock, (1986), has argued that pupils vary widely in the extent to which they believe they have control over the success of their own learning and this variation is related to the amount of educational success that pupils go on to achieve. The extent to which pupils see the outcome of their classroom activities as depending on their abilities and on their own efforts have a very important influence on both their learning activities and achievements. (Wittrock, 1986). This has not been accounted for in the strategies that Behaviourism suggests for learning. The ideas of praise and active learning sound good, but if pupils do not themselves believe that they control their own learning, they cannot use previously learned skills when acquiring new ones. An increase in a student’s sense of personal control can lead, in turn, to greater self-responsibility, achievement motivation and learning (Wang and Palincsar 1989: 76) and Behaviourism has not left much room for this in the learning process.
The extent to which pupils are aware of their own learning techniques is also related to the effectiveness of their learning. Pupil understanding of material they are trying to learn has been shown to be linked to the extent of their use of strategies for monitoring their own understanding of the material. Peterson and Swing (1982) found that when other ability differences were controlled for, the pupils that achieved the most out of a class of fifth and sixth grade pupils, were those who could effectively describe how they learnt during lessons. (Peterson and Swing, 1982). This suggests that if pupils can recognise when they do not understand and can decide what the next appropriate step is, their learning can be enhanced and Behaviourism falls short in catering for this. (Weinstein and Mayer 1986: 323).
Thirdly, whilst using Behaviourist theory a teacher has to be careful, as there is great variation in need for and response to praise. At one end of the spectrum, excessive sensitivity can seriously inhabit action and create crippling anxiety. At the other, indifference to the judgements of others produces behaviour we label psychopathic. Praise can be regarded as a process of feedback and some theories depend heavily on its use for the purposes of motivation and control. We do not have to be behaviourists to recognise the importance of the part played by praise in almost all aspect of social life, including classroom life, but the feelings aroused by formal appraisal and evaluation procedures are intimately connected with our personal response to praise and to blame. (Taylor, in Moon and Mayes, 1994: 164).
One reason why appraisal and evaluation need to be undertaken as close as possible to the actual work setting is the need to take fully into account the personality characteristics of those assessed or evaluated. What means nothing to one person may mean a whole lot more to somebody else. By depersonalising appraisal and evaluation one would eliminate its purpose, but there is need to ensure that the assessment dialogue is task-orientated so that it appears as a true reward for the action r behaviour taken. This suggests that praise may not necessarily be the best basis for learning for everyone and should be undertaken with caution. (Taylor, in Moon and Mayes, 1994: 164-165).
The arguments against Behaviourism are stacked high but as limiting a theory as it is, some of the criticism appears to be present simply because there has been a dislike of the findings rather than because of what the evidence has suggested. Behaviourism does not give room for free will and human individuality and this is never a view that will be liked, especially when held so strongly. However, this does not make it entirely inaccurate. There are times when Behaviourist models can predict the behaviour of people and this is shown by the fact that behaviourist techniques are being used throughout schools, i.e. rewards, and they have been seen to be successful. Whether one likes the findings or not, does not mean that they are wrong. (Barnes, 1999: 55).
Further to this, there are cases where the ideas advocated by Behaviourists are successful. Claudia Mueller and Caroline Dweck of Columbia University undertook a research project that looked at the effects of two different approaches to giving praise. They found that pupils praised for intelligence did less well and were less persistent than those who were praised for effort. The pupils praised for intelligence looked for tasks in which they were sure to do well whereas those who were praised for effort wanted more challenging tasks where they could learn something. After a failure, children who had been told they were intelligent displayed less persistence than those praised for hard work. This suggests that there is a validity in the idea of praise and that it cannot be wholeheartedly disproved of, it simply needs to be used in the right context to deliver the best results to those who need it. (Barnes, 1999: 55).
Piaget and Vygotsky – Constructivism
The theory of Constructivism suggests that learners construct knowledge out of their experiences and ideas and many psychologists have added to the debate about how this happens.
The theory was formalised by Jean Piaget who claimed that people construct new knowledge from their prior experiences through the processes of accommodation and assimilation. People assimilate when they integrate a new experience into their already established mental framework and accommodate when they reframe their mental representation of the world to incorporate their new experience. When the experiences of pupils coincide with their internal representations of the world, pupils add the new experience to their learning. When the new experience does not align with their views, they may decide it is an unimportant experience and dismiss it. Or, they may change their perceptions to fit their internal representations when their experiences contradict their internal representations. (Elliot, 2007).
Accommodation is seen to be the part of this theory that suggests that even failure can lead to learning. Pupils often expect the world to work in a particular way, and something happens to suggest otherwise, they make mistakes. However, by accommodating this new experience into their representations pupils learn from the experience of failure, or others' failure. (Elliot, 2007).
Piaget’s work differed from the Behaviourists quite significantly. His theories were not classed as scientific experiments but he simply observed children.
Piaget examined the development of the ability of pupils to solve problems and then went on to develop the idea of experiential learning.
Piaget looked that how the thinking of children changes qualitatively. He looked past learning as the accumulation of new facts but towards the tools that pupils use to learn. At different stages of development the tools that children use to think and learn changes and this gives them a different view of the world. (Piaget 2001).
According to Piaget, there are certain natural elements that influence children’s cognitive development the most. Firstly, there is maturation that occurs naturally as children grow older. Secondly, there is activity. Increased maturation leads to an increase in the amount that the child will interact with their environment. This allows greater opportunity for them to learn from their actions and change their preconceived notions of the world. Thirdly there is social transmission; the process of learning from others. The more that children act with their environment the more they interact with others and therefore learn from them. The amount that a pupil learns from their peers depends on their development stage, but Piaget claimed that these were the ways pupils developed their learning ability. (Elliot, 2007: 47).
Bruner and Haste (1987) proposed a view of learning that described learning as a complex link of language, interaction and cognition. They claimed that it is through interaction and the exercise of communication that people learn and that the teacher’s role is to create a situation where the learner can compile their own interpretations by using the interpretations of others around them. This form of negotiating an interpretation enhances the view of Piaget as there is a need to share information before a negotiation can take place. (Bruner and Haste 1987: 116)
Teachers would do this through the creation of scaffolds. This is where the teacher provides a means for pupils to apply already existing skills to acquire new knowledge.
Vygotsky secured the underlying view of Bruner and Haste by claiming that learning is dependent on socio-cultural influences. (Bruner and Haste 1987: 116-118; Vygotsky 1978: 116).
Vygotsky was a supporter of Paiget’s work, but disagreed with Piaget on one key point. Vygotsky did not believe that maturation itself was enough of a means to allow children to access higher order thinking skills. He advocated that it was the interaction of children with one another, through language, that influenced the level of conceptual understanding they could reach above all else. (Vygotsky 1978: 116).
Vygotsky believed that pupils learn optimally from their peers, whether they are of the same age or of a higher age and developmental stage. Vygotsky made reference to the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and suggested that there is a difference between what a person is able to do on his or her own and what they can achieve with the help of somebody who has greater knowledge than them. He claimed that if a teacher can provide scaffolds during this time then the child’s knowledge could be brought to a higher level as they learn from each other. Once the learning process is complete, these scaffolds are no longer needed and can be by-passed. Alongside this, it was pointed out that not all pupils learn to the same extent. Some children as able to learn more in the ZPD than others as well as some pupils not needing as many scaffolds as others. (Vygotsky 1978: 116).
For Vygotsky, it is peer work and cooperation that lies at the heart of learning. It is the responsibility of parents or teachers to transmit knowledge to those who are less knowledgeable through formal and informal means. The way that people become more knowledgeable is through increased actions and interactions with the environment, as Piaget suggested, but it is essential that pupils interact with their peers to gain a true experience of what they are learning. (Vygotsky 1978: 116; Elliot, 2007: 48).
The idea of learning as socially constructed formed the main aspect of Constructivist theory and this influenced classroom practice enormously by bringing about the development of collaborative learning programmes. (Elliot, 2007: 48)
Implication for classroom teachers
Pupils bring schemas of their own into a classroom and whilst some will be shared, others will be kept personal and this idea needs to be kept in mind by teachers in their planning of classroom tasks. (Bennett et al., 1984).
The teacher must take on an active role and understand the individuality of each of their pupils before group work can be applied. Whilst it may take a long time to personalise this type of observation, it can be done through closer examination of the child’s work, through specified questioning and through observation of social behaviour. (Bennet and Dunne in Moon and Mayes, 1994: 54).
Firstly, the teacher must judge an appropriate level for a task or activity and they must make sure this is as accurate as possible to ensure the development of learning. In this context, the Zone of Proximal Development is important. Vygotsky believed that
The best type of learning takes place when the pupils are expected to develop skills that are slightly beyond their grasp.
This is similar to the ‘match’ concept proposed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate which said that tasks planned for pupils should be neither too difficult nor too easy. Despite ‘match’ and ‘appropriateness’ being differently defined by Vygotsky and HMI, their relationship to diagnosis is the same. Without analysing the abilities of pupils, the judgements of the teacher will not be as accurate as they could be. (Bennet and Dunne in Moon and Mayes, 1994: 54). Having made decisions about content, teachers then present tasks to pupils. This presentation needs to be done in a way that shows the pupil how the work of that lesson fits into what they have been previously doing, and what they will go on to next.
Secondly, there are significant implications on classroom management when it is suggested that learning is optimised through talk and co-operation. The way the teacher talks, sets up the classroom, moves, and sets work, all need to be carefully considered to allow peer tutoring and co-operative working between pupils. Classrooms need to be places where teachers create environments in which the pupils feel encouraged and secure enough to be able to express and explore their thoughts, feelings and emotions. The difficulty is ensuring that all talk is tentative and explanatory. Drawing clearly from Constructivist ideas, it is claimed that pupils should be able to use speech and communication to make connections between what they already know and any new experiences and ideas they may encounter. (Bennet and Dunne in Moon and Mayes, 1994: 54).
Thirdly, teachers should reflect on their own questioning techniques to ensure that questions are open-ended without an expected answer. Pupils should be expected to discuss thoughts with their peers and teachers should be the propeller of all discussion. The emphasis should be on the language used, not the communication of what is already known, but as a tool for hearing what pupils think out and as a means of extracting ideas and clarifying thought. Once pupils have learnt something new they should go on to exchange ideas and views with other pupils and request feedback from the teacher in order to consolidate their learning. (Elliot, 2007: 48; Bennet and Dunne in Moon and Mayes, 1994: 54).
The role of the teacher is to build scaffolds for children’s mental explanations, a cognitive climbing-frame – built by children with their teachers. Talk between teachers and children help build these scaffolds and discovery, in the absence of such a communicative framework, may, in cognitive terms, lead nowhere. (Bennet and Dunne in Moon and Mayes, 1994: 54).
This idea of the social side of learning is beneficial to all as everybody learns through communication with others. One particular group of pupils that benefit greatly from this are those who struggle with the language of the classroom. For example those with speech and language difficulties or those who have just arrived in the country and cannot speak the national language, the best way for them to learn is to be exposed to the pupils around them so that they can place their learning in a mixed environment. This is also particularly relevant to younger pupils as they learn how to communicate with their peers. The aim is to get them out of isolation and mixing with others to improve their learning. (Kidd and Czerniawski, 2010: 119).
Whereas constructivist theory has been highly influential, it does appear lacking in certain areas.
Firstly, Piaget’s theory itself has been criticised for being too rigid with claims made that young children can acquire higher order thinking skills at an age earlier than proposed. (Elliot, 2007: 49). Piaget was also seen to underestimate the impact that social and cultural background had on the differences in the way that children develop. Further to this, he did not take into account the amount children can learn from each other and attached all of his emphasis on the stages of development. (Elliot, 2007: 48)
However, in response to that, his theories have withstood the test of time and have remained a valuable tool to learning theory. This is also enhanced by the fact that Vygotsky continued the constructivist thought and focused on the way that pupils learn from each other. Whilst Piaget was criticised for focusing strongly on developmental learning, Vygotsky’s work was seen as skipping over the natural development of children and the relationship this has to their learning. (Wertsch and Tulviste, 1992 in Elliot, 2007: 50).
Vygotsky’s work has often been seen as incomplete and while his attention was focused on social aspects of learning it has been argued that it would have made more of an impact if complemented with some work on brain functionings to make it a much more succinct argument. (Elliot, 2007: 48).
Secondly, if it is accepted that learning is social interaction, it follows that circumstances that make this interaction desirable become a necessary prerequisite of effective learning. This hinders the effectiveness of the theory as it shows that learning cannot be continued if any physical attribute was changed and this limits the durability of this type of learning. (Cooper and McIntyre, 1996: 21)
Furthermore, it can be argued that interaction between a pupil and his or her peers requires a particular quality of the pupil’s self-image: his or her sense of self-worth and belief in his or her ability to take on and solve problems should be strong enough to sustain discussion when ones own thought is countered in public. This requires an environment that is supportive of individual thought, one in which the pupil feels valued and respected by the other people that they are expected to interact with. If this is not available then the pupil may struggle to learn and this type of dependency is not optimal for learning. This shows that learning from others may not be the best way for learning to take place within a classroom environment, as it cannot be sustained outside of the classroom. (Cooper and McIntyre, 1996: 21).
Thirdly, this transactional model requires calibration (Bruner 1987) so that there is development of the idea of intersubjectivity. Calibration occurs when teachers and pupils test their understanding against those held by others, and adjust their utterances in order to make them accessible to others. Teachers and pupils must learn how to project their knowledge on to each other effectively so that others can have optimal access to it as well as be able to accept and adapt their own views when the discussion has taken place. This is difficult to do and limits the practicality of the theory whilst suggesting that the Constructivist thought is not entirely all that is needed to allow learning to take place. (Cooper and McIntyre, 1996: 20, 21).
Woods makes a distinct claim in 1990 saying that pupils should be understood as creative strategists, drawing on diverse cultural resources. However in their ways of coping with school, there is no evidence of them bringing such strategic thinking into their classroom learning. In this situation the teacher would have to “make them” work and as most pupils enthusiastically or reluctantly collaborate with their teachers, one might expect at least some of them develop ways of setting about learning. (Woods, 1990: 20).
If one looks at research on pupils’ learning strategies, one finds that the emphasis is very heavily on teaching pupils to use appropriate learning strategies. (Weinstein and Mayer 1986; Wang and Palincsar 1898). As pupils get older and more experienced in classrooms, they develop their strategies for learning.
When they reach secondary school, pupils tend to make more extensive use of their imagination to relate to what they are seeking to learn and so to facilitate their learning as well as using more sophisticated strategies for learning such as organisation of material for learning on the basis of meaning rather than on superficial basis. This is important when looking at how pupils learn and cannot be brushed aside. (Cooper and McIntyre, 1996: 19, 22). The idea that the process of learning needs to be built up is something that learning theory needs to be based upon and this indicates that no individual theory of learning can accomplish. The benefits of each learning theory are strong and they can be collaborated to allow the best out of the pupils they are aiming to reach.
This essay has examined Behaviourism and Constructivist thought and has seen the positive and negative implications they have had upon teaching. As both examine slightly different aspects of learning, if applied together within a classroom, a strong backbone for learning will have been established.