Thoughts on Theories of Learning Seminar

All children learn in different ways, but how we decide to teach them depends on our view of how children learn. The seminar today focused on ‘how learning develops’ and examined how theories of learning can inform our understanding of the key processes involved in learning and the implications that adopting a particular approach has for the children we teach.

The seminar began with an introductory task in which we were all asked to introduce ourselves and state what we had previously studied at university and what experience we had of working within a classroom. Going around the room and listening to each member of the group, the diversity of our experiences was evident. What particularly struck me was that even though the experiences each of us had brought into the room with us were vastly different, we each had a highly valuable contribution to make to teaching. This led me to reflect on the huge variety of knowledge, skills and experiences that children similarly bring to the classroom and the importance of recognising how these enable each child to make a highly significant contribution to the class.

Behaviourist, constructivist and social constructivist theories of learning were examined within the next part of the seminar. We were encouraged to reflect upon our own experiences of primary and secondary school and think about which approach to learning we felt had been adopted within each setting. When evaluating my own experiences, I realised that apart from infant school where I felt a constructivist approach that enabled me to learn and explore through direct experience had been adopted, the majority of my experiences of learning had been largely centred upon behaviourist approaches which utilised reinforcement and reward as the primary means through which to promote ‘effective’ learning. Given that each child enters the classroom with their own knowledge, experiences, capabilities (as mentioned above) and ‘readiness’ to learn (Bruner, 1964), it is evident that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching and learning cannot accommodate to the huge variety of needs that are present within the classroom.

Through discussion, it was concluded that approaches to teaching and learning must be adapted to meet the individual needs of the children within the class and as such, a blended approach is needed. This was a salient point which made me reflect on my experiences of working as a 1:1 teaching assistant in a primary school. Working with a child with autism and emotional and behavioural difficulties, I realised the importance of adopting a blended approach to teaching and learning. Drawing on the principles of social constructivism, I was able to adapt tasks to build upon the child’s prior knowledge and construct a relationship with the child that was founded upon collaborative learning and ‘teaching and helping each other’. Combining social constructivism with the behaviourist principles of reinforcement and reward, I was also able to manage the child’s inappropriate behaviour and ultimately create a positive learning environment for the child.

The idea that a ‘knowing other’ can scaffold and extend the child’s learning and enable them to enter the zone of proximal development (Bruner, 1964; Vygotsky, 1978 pp. 1-10 cited in Hausfather, 1996) was a key theme throughout the seminar. The idea that a ‘knowing other’ can be an adult or a ‘more able’ child has significant implications for how we view ‘ability grouping’ within the classroom. If children learn most effectively through discussion and collaboration with other ‘knowing’ children, then why is ability grouping still so prevalent within primary classrooms? Perhaps the answer is that ability grouping provides an ‘easier’ way to classify children in order to assess their learning and progress. However, viewing and grouping children based on their ‘ability’ can have a significantly negative impact on children’s well being (Ireson and Hallam 2002, pp. 315-318 cited in Pollard, 2002) and distort our view of how children learn and subsequently, how we teach them.

In conclusion, I believe that a blended approach is the most effective way to ensure that teaching and learning enables all children to learn and make a valuable contribution to the classroom. I believe that the social constructivist concepts of collaboration and scaffolding are paramount to promote effective learning and that children should be given copious opportunities to learn from each other. However, utilising behaviourist principles of reinforcement and reward are also essential to promote positive behaviour and create an effective classroom environment. I will therefore endeavour to utilise a blended approach to teaching and learning throughout my own teaching practice.

 

References

Bruner, J.S. (1964) “Education as Social Invention”, Journal of Social Issues, 20, pp. 21-33

Ireson, J. and Hallam, S. (2002) The Effects of Ability Grouping, in Pollard, A. (2008) Reflective Teaching: Evidence-informed Professional Practice (3rd Ed.), London: Continuum.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Interaction between learning and development, in Hausfather, S.J. (1996) “Vygotsky and Schooling: Creating a Social Context for Learning”, Action in Teacher Education, 18, pp. 1-10.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Theories of Learning Seminar

  1. khandscomb1

    You have picked up on some very interesting points arising from the seminar. Your preferred adoption of a blended approach – combining behaviourist, constructivist and social-constructivists theories of teaching, is something which I also believe is incredibly important to balance within the classroom. I believe that each style has its own place within education. The use of behaviourist methods seems most prudent in the employment of behaviour management routines – when reward and sanction proves to be most effective in teaching children the expectations of the school. However, I also think that, at times, this can be too simplistic and (as Deborah mentioned in the seminar) too much like training an animal. This is where I think that social-constructivism can be most valuable, as I believe it is crucial to develop children’s sense of community and the internalisation of the desire to behave for the good of this community of others. I have seen both of these methods used in school alongside each other, providing individual rewards as well as group rewards where one child may help towards earning a reward for the whole class/team/school. In earning a reward for a whole group of students, not just the individual, children may experience the sense of achievement and team cohesion and support which will prove invaluable during later life. Whereas individual rewards and sanctions do not have the ripple effect of appreciation and team work which create a widespread and shared sense of accomplishment. A shared goal can offer more of a compulsion to succeed.

    In terms of learning, however, behaviourist theory is, as you mention, not always appropriate or effective. It encourages an instrumental type of understanding and does not foster the constructivist-type, relational understanding which leads to logical connections and deeper perceptions in learning. The way in which you have addressed the zone of proximal development in light of a ‘knowing other’ is by far one of the subjects which intrigued me most during the seminar. Yet your assignment of an adult or a ‘more able child’ as the only candidates to fulfil this role of ‘knowing’ is something which doesn’t match my view of this theory. I see Vygotsky’s ‘knowing other’ as a chance to draw upon every child’s prior experiences – those children who may be classed as ‘less able’ or ‘low ability’ within a class may in fact be wells of knowledge due to previous experiences which no other child has had access too. In contrast, those who may be high ability in literacy or numeracy, may actually have very limited life experiences and have difficulty linking their learning to other contexts. I wonder whether your mention of ability was actually referring to quality of experience in this case?

    Something else which you touched on is this ‘readiness’ to learn, suggested by Jerome Bruner. This is one particular area of his research which fascinates me. With England having one of the earliest ages to start compulsory education, this is a subject which really strikes a chord with me. What can we do to ensure children are ready for education? How would we assess this? On a very basic level, even the physical act of holding a pencil is not possible for some young children who have not yet sufficiently developed the muscle strength in their hands. In terms of understanding and constructivist theory, this makes me reflect on the impact of the school environment and how teachers much facilitate the experiences on which to build knowledge and understanding as a very foundation to education to ensure this ‘readiness’ for learning is reached.

    Is any method of education really effective if the learners are not yet ready to start education though and can starting learning before this ‘readiness’ actually be damaging to a child’s development?

    Reply
  2. emmacvernon

    This blog and the reply both raise some very interseting points for discussion and further exploriation. From the discussions that took place in the seminar it was possible to identify that education has evolved and developed due to the the changing influences of the key educational theories. It is clear that the Social Constructvist model in teaching is more popular than it was 50 years ago. However, from discussion amongs those present at the seminar, it was interesting to note that the Behavioust model of teaching was still prevalent in classrooms.

    Kayleigh, you explained that you believed a blended approach to teaching, using a mixture of Behaviourist and Contructivist approaches, was the most effective approach to take when teaching. I agree with this, and as pointed out by Katie, I can see that a Behaviourist approach would often by the best approach to take when managing children’s behaviour. Katie, I thought you raised an interesting point when you highlighted that children can be motivated to behave well through rewarding the group rather than just the individual, as this approach is more likely to help the child to learn such useful skills as teamwork and social cohesion. In my experience in schools, behaviour management strategies can be further developed along a more Constructivist framework. For example, through mechanisms to encourage children to understand that as they grow up, the actions of children result from range of choices available to them, with varying consequences that will follow. By emphasising to children that they have a ‘choice’ in how they behave, there is a greater possibility that the child will construct an understanding of this process connected to their existing experience and understanding.

    The points raised in these posts has led to me to reflect on the degree to which teaching has changed in the years since I was at school. It is true to say teaching methods have become more experiential and interactive in style which follows a Social Constructivist model. The use of ‘talk partners’ in the school I am working on is an example of this. In my experience the classroom environment has changed considerably compared to the days when the teacher as instructor and imparter of knowledge was more commonplace. Managing the classroom where blended teaching styles is taking place requires a high degree of skill.

    Kayleigh and Katie raised some key discussion points regarding Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the role of the ‘able other’ to help children develop. Katie, your point about this ‘able other’ not necessarily being a higher achieving child was well made. As teachers I think we need to maintain an open mind about which children can play the role of the ‘able other’ when working together and bear this in mind when allocating children to specific groups.

    Reply

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