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A Criticism For Social Constructivist Theory Education Essay

Child psychology is considered to be an integral part of the education system which is very much evident in the layout of the National Curriculum (1999). However, this education system has been assessed and evaluated in terms of its impact on children’s learning by various independent enquiries such as The Rose Review (2009) and The Cambridge Review (2009).

In this assignment I will analyse the impact of two major theories, behaviourism and social constructivism, on the teaching and learning of a child. In order to understand the ideology and implication of these theories, they will be evaluated in consideration to the classroom environment of today. I will critically analyse these theoretical approaches adapted by the teacher in literacy, numeracy and art lessons, using examples from my observations. It will be done by comparing the case study of two children in a year 1 classroom who are at different levels of development. By assessing them in three different areas of curriculum, I will evaluate the impact of these two theories and the pedagogical approaches, on the learning of those two children. Behaviourism and social-constructivism are chosen as I believe that these two approaches are predominantly evident in today’s education system. Literacy and numeracy lessons are chosen as they are quite contrasting in pedagogical approach in the classroom, which I thought would be very interesting to observe. However, art is chosen to assess the creative aspect of learning along with the cognitive development in the classroom. For the purpose of this assignment, the name of the school, the teacher and the children will be kept anonymous. The school will be referred to as school Z and the class as 1C. The two children will be referred as ‘Child A’ and ‘Child B’.

The pupils in 1C are grouped into different levels according to their cognitive abilities. During the lessons, the input is delivered by the teacher to the whole class together; however, the activities that follow the input are differentiated by their abilities. Chid A is one of the middle ability pupils (MAPs), although, he has been identified as having special educational needs (SEN) due to his behaviour. His Individual Education Plan (IEP) indicates that child A finds it difficult to focus during the lessons and gets distracted very easily (Appendix A). On the other hand, child B is one of the higher ability pupils (HAPs) with no particular educational needs on record. I will discuss in this essay the impact of these theories on both of the children’s learning and development.

Behaviourism, also known as behavioural psychology has been one of the first theories of learning. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, behaviourism is

‘...the theory that the study of the human mind should be based on people’s actions and behaviour, and not on what they say that they think or feel.’ (Cambridge Dictionary online)

The behaviourists believe in shaping a particular behaviour of learning by the use of any stimulus that results in a desired response or behaviour. As there is no contemplation of emotions and cognitive processes, the role of the learner in behaviourism is considered to be passive (Skinner, 1938). Early behaviourists, including Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) and John Watson (1878-1958) argued that learning is a behaviour, and that every behaviour is acquired by conditioning.

A Russian physiologist and psychologist, Ivan Pavlov (1927) demonstrated a stimulus- response methodology to acquire a subsequent response in behaviour which was called ‘classical conditioning’ (Wood, D. 2004). Although, he experimented on animals his observations led to several different theories about behaviourism (Woolland J, Pritchard A 2010).

Later on, an American psychologist B. F. Skinner (1938) complemented Pavlov’s findings by introducing an intermittent schedule of reinforcement, which he called ‘operant conditioning’ i.e. not to reinforce every time it makes a response (Wood, D, 2004). This operant conditioning consolidated the fact of achieving a voluntary response by conditioning rather than an involuntary one as in the case of Pavlov’s verdicts (Skinner, 1963). Skinner argues that the removal of the reinforcement reduces and then stops a behaviour but subsequent introduction of the reinforcement causes a prompt re-establishment of the learned behaviour (Woollard, 2010). However, skinner also suggests that the reinforcement must be ‘immediate, consistently applied, of a suitable size... and of relevance’ to the learner (Parker-Rees et al., 2010, p.13). Although, Skinner’s experiments were also conducted on animals he later on applied his findings to the teaching of children.

Another advocate of behaviourism was John Watson (1878-1958), an American psychologist, who believed that ‘behaviour can be measured, trained and changed’ (Watson, 1997). Watson believed that psychology should be ‘confined to those activities that could be verified by outside observer’ (Pulliam and Patten, 1999, p.169).

One of the main criticisms of behaviourism is that ‘learning is nothing more than the acquisition of new behaviour’ (Phillips & Solitis, 1998, p.72). The critics say that the behaviourist approach shows little or no understanding of cognitive process involved in problem solving i.e. the role of the learner is considered to be very passive (Parker-Rees et al. 2010). However, studies and observation have shown that behaviourist approach has been very successful in teaching of SEN children.

The behaviourist approach was critiqued to be ineffective to provide any social interaction in context to educational settings. This mechanistic approach was considered to be inadequate as it failed to address the social aspects of learning (Phillips, 1995). Behaviourists suggest that this approach increases student attention and by avoiding any social contact, there is a decreased level of misbehaviour which helps to maintain the desired behaviour (Ozmon and Craver, 1995)

As constructivism is the core ideology behind social-constructivism, I believe there is a need to briefly explore the philosophy of constructivism before discussing social-constructivism. The constructivist theory suggests that learning takes place by ‘knowledge and understanding being slowly constructed by individual’s prior experience and idiosyncratic version of reality’ (Woolland J, Pritchard A 2010, p. 5). The basis of the constructivist approach is considered to be the work of Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Although, Piaget was not a social constructivist, his understanding of child development and learning is the foundation for many social constructivist theories (Woolland J, Pritchard A 2010). An integral part of Piaget’s theory is the assimilation of ‘schemas’ which he described as ‘network of knowledge’ that an individual builds around a particular theme or topic. Any new information conceived related to the same theme, adds to the structure of that schema, which is called ‘assimilation’ in Piagetian terminology. Any contradictory information received which does not seems to fit in with any schema of knowledge, will perhaps create a state of denial (Eysenck, 2004). However, in order to attain a state of ‘equilibrium’ i.e. having no contradictions in the mental perception of the environment around us. These ‘schemas’ are then adjusted to accommodate the new contradictive idea or information. This period of ‘accommodation’, according to Piaget, occurs over a period of time depending on the experience gained in that particular area of concern (Bartlett, 1932).

Another essential aspect of Piaget’s findings is his staged developmental theory, which state four separate stages in intellectual development of children and adolescents (Piaget, 1972) (Appendix A). He proposed that child progress through these four stages and that they all go through them in the same order (Piaget, 1929). However, Piaget’s stages of development have been criticised as ‘being over simplified’ (Donaldson, 1978) and that cognitive development has ‘assumed a more complex, uneven form’ (Schaffer, 2004, p.188). Alternatively, an American scientist Arnold Gesell (1880-1961) also introduced developmental schedules in 1952 on the basis of ‘readiness to learning’ (Gesell Institute, 2011, p.2) Similarly, Mary Sheridan (1899-1978), who was a British paediatrician, formulated an age linked milestones which classify normal parameters of child development (Sheridan, 2007).

Along with these concepts, the social constructivist theory emphasises on the importance of culture and the environment in constructing a new schema or expanding an already existing one (Derry, 1999). The main idea of social constructivism has emerged from the work of a Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky on learning in social context. He reflects on social interaction in learning as a fundamental aspect of intellectual and cognitive development. Two crucially important elements of Vygotsky’s theory are Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and the role of More Knowledgeable Other (Bandura, 1986). According to Vygotsky, the ZPD is the,

...level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers... (Vygotsky, 1978. p. 57)

The success and timely movement across this zone depends on the social interaction of the pupils. However, this progression could be assisted by the provision of ‘measured and appropriate interventions which has the purpose of enabling a learner to move forward’ (Pritchard, A. and Woollard, J. 2010, p.38). This assistance in learning is referred to ‘scaffolding’.

Vygotsky’s idea of cognitive development signifies particularly the relationship between language and thinking. His findings emphasised the roles of cultural and social factors in cognition and argued that language was the most important means of learning (Wertsch, 1991).

Inspired by Vygotsky’s work, Jerome Bruner (1967), considered learning as an ‘active, social process’ (Woolland J, Pritchard A 2010). Like Piaget, he believed that learning is a process in which ‘learners construct new ideas or concepts based on the current or pre-existing knowledge’ (Bruner 1983). Based upon this ideology, Bruner was the first to state that ‘the curriculum should be organized spirally’ so that the pupil could build their understanding on previously conceived ideas. (Berliner, 1998) His ideology is still in practice in the form of National Curriculum, set in EYFS, KS1 and KS2 where the concepts are revisited to consolidate previous understanding. For example, 2b section of Ma3- Shape, Space and Measures for KS1 states to ‘observe, handle and describe 2D and 3D shapes’. Whereas, in the same section for KS2 the concept is revisited as it state to ‘visualise and describe 2D and 3D shapes and the way they behave’ (National Curriculum, 1999). The structure of National Curriculum is based on age-defined key stages which encompass social-constructivist approach. However, it’s implications in school is in a considerably behaviourist manner where the National Curriculum has the decisive factor for the learning and teaching of the pupils.

As a criticism for social constructivist theory, it is said that a social classroom sometimes provides more support than needed for the children (Kelly, 1963). Although, this approach helps in building their social skills, provision of MKO also prevents them to be independent in their learning. It is also critiqued that ‘a social classroom can be a difficult place for pupils with some needs’ (Pritchard and Woollard, 2010, p.65). For example, an autistic child may find the social constructivism approach much more difficult to handle than a classroom with no such distractions.

These approaches are quite obvious in school Z’s behaviour policy (Appendix B) as children are awarded and praised for their good behaviour throughout the school by all adults. As a clear depiction of behaviourist approach, rewards are handed out in the forms of stickers, certificates, prizes and verbal appraisal as reinforcement of a desirable behaviour. Similarly, in the classroom, teachers are expected to continue with the behaviourist approach by appraising and appreciating any good conducts.

Since, the classes in school Z, including 1C are arranged in ability groups i.e. children are put in sets according to their levels of development assessed, I believe, it is essential to look into the assessment criteria. In 1C, pupils are put into these levels by assessing them against the Assessing Pupils Progress (APP) Trackers, which enables the teachers to apply assessment for learning across the national curriculum. These trackers states normative levels of cognitive development in a child according to his/her age (Hobart, C. and Franckel, J. 2004). Implication of these levels and ability groups in the education system indicates the consideration of the developmental stages of children as suggested by Mary Sheridan, Piaget and Gesell.

Child A, as observed during the lessons, was unable to show any signs of interest during the input on the carpet which got worst by staying longer on the carpet (Appendix 2). On the contrary, Child B portrays an obedience behaviour which was usually appreciated by the teacher during the classroom.

In 1C, the literacy lesson starts with half an hour session on phonics everyday in the morning. The teaching of phonics is carried out in a considerably behaviourist manner, with a very passive approach towards the pupil. The teacher shows the flash cards with the graphemes and transmits the corresponding sound in a didactic style, creating a stimulus (grapheme)-response (phoneme) relationship. This is a behaviourist approach as behaviourists believe that language is learned by modelling and reinforcement like any other operant behaviour (Woollard, 2010)

Nevertheless, there is an excessive use of Interactive Teaching Programs (ITP) in the next part of the session where the teaching approach changes to constructivism. Pupils are taught segmentation and blending of different words where they truly interact with the program to work out these functions. The session continues with the repetition and modelling by the pupils. Although, there is an active participation of pupil in this part of the lesson, there is still little or no interaction between the pupils themselves.

Later on in the literacy lesson, the teacher recalls the previous learning by asking questions i.e. building on their existing schemas. Children are then asked to talk between their partners and share any suggestions about their prior knowledge regarding the lesson. This part of the lesson instigates the social constructivist approach where the learning is enhanced by the interaction with the more knowledgeable other (MKO).

Further on in the literacy lesson, the teacher’s approach reverts back to behaviourism, where the use of repetition and rote-learning were the dominant techniques. For example, the pupils were being taught to compose an instructional writing piece, which directed the steps to make a pizza. In 1C, this purpose was achieved by the repetition of simple sentences and words which were modelled by the teacher. As a part of their independent activity, pupils were asked to write instructions to make a pizza. As they had already rote-learned the whole procedure, there was no room for the application of previous knowledge or experience in their writing. Moreover, it was merely an exercise to bring out a desired outcome that fits a particular learning criterion. This piece of writing was later used as the bases to assess pupils’ writing in consideration to APP Trackers.

It was observed that Child A not only found the lesson less interesting but was also defiant in writing the instructions as an independent activity. I believe, this was a result of lack in learning styles in teaching, which is also highlighted in Ofsted’s findings particularly in consideration with kinaesthetic approach (Briscoe, 2008). It has been argued that the long teaching hours are more likely to put boys off, which is even difficult for physically active boys (Budge, 2000). Both of these contents are quite evident is Child A’s behaviour during the lesson which leads to the disruptive activities. Considering Child A to be at the pre-operational stage according to Piaget (Appendix A), his route to learning is still egocentric, where he is ‘unable to consider events from another point of view’ (Schaffer, 2004). The approach adapted by the teacher for the literacy lesson mentioned above, did not cater for the developmental needs of child A, which results in the disengagement and leads to his disruptive behaviour. Moreover, his work of writing was later used to assess his levels/maturational stage. However, in my opinion, Child A was not able to portray his cognitive skills in his work as he was unable to access the learning in the lesson.

On the other hand, child B was observed to be responding well to this approach of teaching. The writing assessment in regard to APP trackers suggests Child B’s level as 2a, which imply his developmental stage as ‘concrete operational’ according to Piaget. This explains his response to the lesson, as at this stage Child B is able to ‘conceive physical operations’ and is able to build cognitive links to an event (Kyriacou, 2009). Even though, Child B was assessed to be a higher ability pupil, his instructional writing about making a pizza, demonstrate his sharp memory of teacher’s instructions rather than his own ability to learn. In my opinion, this assessment criterion fails to prove an accurate methodology to determine cognitive development of children.

On the contrary, this literacy lesson would have been more interesting and catered for the needs of both the children, if there was a practical experience of making a pizza beforehand which led to instructional writing. Having a kinaesthetic approach towards the lesson would have made it more interesting not only for child A, but also for the rest of the class. This would have kept child A busy and involved in the activity, reducing his disruptive behaviour during the lessons. As applying a social-constructivist approach, it would have helped Child A to develop his learning skills since he has been acknowledged as a kinaesthetic learner. The physical involvement and experiential learning would have made a better understanding of the task ahead i.e. composing an instructional writing. Instead of rote-learning the steps to write an instruction, I would have asked the pupil to write a recipe for their friend who doesn’t know how to make a pizza. This would be more relevant and have given child B an opportunity to apply their knowledge and understanding into their writing. In this way, not only the lesson would be fun but also inclusive for all the ability pupils despite of their developmental stages of learning.

Likewise, Maths lesson starts with the similar routine as the literacy lesson, by teacher delivering the input on the carpet. The first few minutes are spend in recalling the previous learned concept e.g. counting backwards from 20 or revising number bonds by singing a song. This part of the lesson has its roots into the behaviourist approach, where the role of the children is very passive. The repetition and modelling of previous concept reinforce certain behaviour, where no cognitive skills are involved. However, later on in Maths lesson the children were more active as the mathematical concepts are delivered by using different resources and active learning. For example, when teaching addition on a number-line, children were asked to make a number-line by holding number cards. Such proactive and experiential learning show the concept of social-constructivism in 1C.

After the fifteen minutes input, children are send to their tables for independent activities, where they work in their ability groups. These independent activities were differentiated by providing altered scaffolding according to their ability levels. As in the task of addition on a number line, recognizing the needs of Child A, he was provided with threads and beads to make a number line. This approach was noticed to be more effective for Child A in terms of understanding the concept. However, Child B was provided with a numeric version of a number line to work out the answers. Considering that Child B is a stage advance from Child A, he was not supported in the same way as Child B. Taking this into consideration, he was expected to build connections to his logical thinking and to be able to work out the task without any physical aid. The concept of scaffolding is very obvious in this lesson, which suggests the implication of social-constructivism. At the end of the lesson, teacher’s approach reverts back to behaviourism, where pupils were reinforced with the concept of addition by repetition and modelling of the methodology in the plenary.

Child A’s behaviour as noticed during the Maths lesson was to some extent composed as compared to the literacy lesson. Implication of an active learning environment in the classroom was observed to encourage Child A to participate and kept his involvement in the lesson. These findings solidify our intuitions about child A as being a kinaesthetic learner. Subjects like Maths are usually considered very conceptual and acquire adequate presentation in the form of logical verbal thinking (Vygotsky, 1998). In order to secure the understanding of a concept to a kinaesthetic learner, it is essential to ‘move from verbal definitions to work with the concept’ (Gredler and Shields, 2008). As the approach adapted in the Maths lesson to secure the concept in the beginning, suits the learning style of child A, he was found engaged throughout the lesson.

On the contrary, Child B was observed to struggle in Maths lesson as he was finding it difficult to formulate the concept of a number line and addition. It was noted that the received curriculum for Child B was completely different from Child A. Social constructivist approach adapted by the teacher in this lesson left Child B very confused in the execution of the independent tasks of addition. As there were no direct instructions from the teacher unlike the literacy lesson, Child B was a bit disoriented in his independent task. Although, Child B has been assessed to be at level 2a in Maths, his lack of ability to conceive a concept and dependency on instructions proves otherwise. In my opinion, this way of assessment once again proved to be unsuccessful to show the accurate developmental levels of the child. Even though this approach was fairly effective for child A, the received curriculum through this approach failed to meet the needs of child B. However, in my opinion, realizing the misconceptions of child B, through formative assessment, the approach should have been adapted. This could have done by providing a one-to-one behaviourist input later on to suit his requirements to receive curriculum more effectively.

In Art lesson, a very similar approach to literacy lesson is being adopted. In the beginning of the lesson, children are introduced to the ‘learning intension’ and are instructed about the ‘steps to success’ to conduct the activity. Art, as a part of National Curriculum, takes into account the individuality of the child by providing motivational and challenging aspects of creativity (Robinson, 2007). However, the approach adopted in the classroom does not facilitate any individuality or creativity. Pupils are expected to follow set of instructions to create a desired art piece which is intended to fulfil teacher’s satisfaction of a successful lesson. For example, in one of art lesson, children were asked to make patterns using two different types of lines and only two colours. Although, this lesson could have been really interesting if there was any sort of link to their current studies. As it is manifested in the recent teaching standards (TS 1) that teachers should ‘set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupil’ (DfE, 2012). These standards are unlikely to be met unless pupils are convinced for the purpose of their learning.

One of the interests child A holds is his love for art, although, he is not keen on any dictation of ideas in this regard. On one occasion he was observed drawing a castle which he later redrew to improve its outcome. When asked why he redrew his castle, he answered, ‘it wasn’t good enough’. This scenario puts child B into a more developed stage of mental growth according to his age, as assessed in comparison to Betty Edwards stages of ‘Creative and Mental Growth’(Appendix C).

However, child A did not respond well to the rigid and inflexible approach in art, as he was adamant to draw his own version of drawing irrespective of the lesson’s requirements. His defiant behaviour drew negative attention from the teacher, which consequently left him frustrated and unmotivated to participate in the lesson. On the contrary, Child B was praised for his obedience as he followed the instructions exactly the way he was told to do. Looking at Child B’s art pieces which he drew in free play time, he was assessed to be at the same level of creativity as child A, according to Betty Edwards stages.

The difference between the art work produced during the art lesson and in free play time was noticed to be enormous. This shows the incompetency of the lesson to provide motivation and freedom of expression for the pupils. Nevertheless, in my opinion, this same lesson could be linked to the literacy lesson mentioned earlier, by asking pupils to create their own pizza and using only two types of lines to create a pattern. This activity would not only have provided links to their previous knowledge but have also provided an opportunity to develop creative skills.

Exploring the teaching in 1C, suggests that the received curriculum of the children did not satisfy their developmental needs in all areas of the curriculum. Mostly because the levels they were assessed in, did not represent their actual cognitive stage.

I believe that the role of government is indirectly influential in this regard. This misleading assessment is mainly a result of the pressure of expectations on the teachers to show ‘achievement of pupils’ (Ofsted, 2012). Although, the aim of the teacher is to enhance learning, the demand to provide evidence of the achievements of the students, tends to shift this aim to simply exhibit progression in levels on record. This swift in the aims in turn affects the quality of teaching as seen in the literacy lesson where the prime objective of the teacher was to obtain a certain level writing rather than enhancing learning. The criticism of Cambridge Review suggests that the ‘government’s approach to evidence should be open and responsive, rather than politically selective’ (The Cambridge Review, 2009, p.20).

Building my opinion on the observations in 1C, I believe that the teaching approach should be adapted according to the needs of children. In doing so, it is essential to recognize the learning styles and maturational stages of every child in the classroom. This is done by regular observations and accurate assessments which lead to develop a teaching approach that is appropriate to suit the received curriculum of every child. Although, I looked into just two learning theories in this essay, however ‘in order to cater for the learning needs of every child, a teacher should be able to employ a range of teaching methodologies and techniques in her teaching practice’ (Pritchard, 2008).

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