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.
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.