How do learning theories help us to promote successful learners?
There are numerous varied theories of how children learn and how they acquire new knowledge to the point that they competently retain and apply what they have learnt unconsciously (Burch, 1970). An awareness of certain learning theories may be conducive to a teacher’s practice as they may then be able to adapt their teaching so that it conforms to the style in which students naturally learn (Muijs, 2007:45). However, it might be hard to ensure that every pupil has their learning style suitably reinforced as there may be a large spectrum of the ways in which pupils learn within a class.
Fleming (1992) suggests that pupils learn information in one of 4 styles: Visual, Auditory, Reading or Kinaesthetic (VARK) and teachers may be able to adapt their lesson so that their lesson contains elements of all of these styles. However, Piaget (1960) felt that a more crucial factor determining how much children absorbed content being taught was maturation: the stage of cognitive development a child is at and their corresponding level of psychological ability which may explain the variation of ability between children at primary school (Concrete Operational Stage) and their counterparts at secondary school (Formal Operations Stage). Piaget also developed the idea that children build up a series of schemata and learn by linking events back to their previous experiences (such as what they have already been taught in the classroom) and that it is hard for children to learn if they have no previous experience of a situation. This possibly explains why pupils can find it hard to grasp new knowledge: as they have no previous schemata to link it back to. Despite the obvious differences between the 2 models, the Piagetian model of learning also suggest that children learn through play and being active learners (kinaesthetic), which Fleming includes as one of a child’s preferred learning styles in his VARK model. Kolb (1984) further reinforces Piaget’s ideas by his theory of ‘experiential learning’: where children learn from experiencing certain events.
Having an understanding of these learning theories could be useful in a teacher’s planning so they incorporate activities within their lesson that stimulate and cater for all types of learners. Elliot (2007:60) emphasises how important planning can be to successful learning which implies that knowing certain learning theories could have a tangible positive impact on students’ learning though Becker, Kehoe and Tennant (2007) argue that a pupil’s learning style does not necessarily influence what mode of teaching they prefer. The impact of knowing a pupil’s learning style may be limited in subjects such as Physical Education which requires a certain amount of practical, active learning. Furthermore, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (1983) states there that there is a large range of cognitive abilities but that it is hard to decipher which intelligence a child prefers as there are only weak correlations between them. Therefore, it seems that not only is it difficult to cater for each pupils’ learning style, it is also hard to surmise what a child’s preferred learning style actually is, though this could be determined through a questionnaire.
Skinner (1930) proposed a theory called Operant Conditioning where pupils acquire information through either reward (such as verbal praise) or punishment (sanctions like detentions). This behaviourist model suggests that pupils learn in response to a stimulus that is reinforced through either punishment or reward. Although a knowledge of this theory is advantageous to teachers who teach subjects where information recall and retention is important, behaviourism fails to take into account situations of an unfamiliar context to a pupil where the stimuli they respond to are absent. The pupil then may be not able to apply their knowledge to answer the question correctly.
Furthermore, a behaviourist style of teaching may promote surface learning (where a pupil has a grasp of the basic rudiments of a topic) rather than the more preferential deep learning (where a student understands the inherent complexities of what they are learning). Bandura (1961) also recognises that behaviour is important than learning although he feels that there are more factors to learning than simply reward and punishment, namely the social environment in which they learn. Like Piaget, Bandura believes learning goes in stages as a pupil needs to pay attention to the teacher, retain what they have learnt, reproduce it and also be motivated to carry on learning. Both Bandura and Skinner believe that motivation is impacted on by the behaviour management strategies (reward and punishment) a teacher utilises. An awareness of this may have important implications in the classroom as, knowing how important motivation is in learning (Capel et al., 2002:90), a teacher could employ suitable tactics to inspire and engage students.
Vygotsky (1987) thought that pupils learnt best when they worked with each other: he believed what they learnt in collaboration could be demonstrated individually by each child in time. He termed this support as ‘Scaffolding’ and which helped children progress into their ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) where they learnt the most. This would seem to tally with the basic principles of teaching: that the teacher can supply students with information that they do not have and teach them new skills. However, this could be practically implemented in a classroom very easily if several group tasks where integrated within a lesson. The impact of this may be greater if the pupils working together were of a similar level, as a large gap in ability between students could have negative implications on pupils’ learning: the more capable student’s progress may stagnate whilst the less able pupil may not fully comprehend what the brighter pupil was saying. However, a possible criticism of this Social Constructivist learning model is that some children may learn better working independently or have an abhorrence towards group work. Kagan’s (1994) theory of co-operative learning further supports Vygotsky’s theory as he suggests that there may be supplementary benefits to group work: with pupils potentially gaining increased confidence and interpersonal skills. Again, though the significance of this theory on classroom practice may be limited as not all subjects provide bountiful opportunities for group work.
An awareness of all the different learning theories would probably benefit a teacher in their practice as they may be able to identify each individual pupil’s learning style and the teaching style they prefer. There are obvious benefits to knowing about theories such as Behaviourism and Social Constructivism so a teacher can understand the importance of variables such as group work, motivation and behaviour are to a pupil’s learning experience. In their planning, the teacher could then try and take these issues into consideration to try and ensure that pupils were stimulated sufficiently. However, each individual pupil is unique and it may be nearly impossible to provide an ideal lesson that caters for every single student in the class. Nevertheless, having a detailed knowledge of how pupils learn could mean that a teacher is better prepared to teach a class and result in more effective learning for pupils.
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