1.1 Approaches to Education
Teaching and learning is a complex process. To ensure that a learner truly benefits from a programme of learning, numerous different factors must be taken into consideration. Depending on the learner, different techniques should be implemented to maximise the impact of the instruction. While there are many elements to consider, one of the most important is in the way the teacher approaches the process of teaching. It has long since been established that simply reading to a silent class through the traditional "chalk and talk" method is not the most effective way to learn. Teachers must utilise their knowledge and experience to create an interactive and valuable learning experience, but it is equally important that they utilise the knowledge and experience of others. This is where embedding educational theory into teaching practice becomes relevant.
This module explores some of the central theories which have been used to shape the current conception of best practice in Education. Several classical theories of learning will be discussed in depth: we will outline what they are in simple terms before breaking down the components and discussing exactly how each theory relates to educational practice. These learning theories will be compared and contrasted, and similarities and differences will be explored. Students will be given some background to the development of the theory to understand the context in which it evolved and the issue that it was designed to overcome.
Educational theory, or "pedagogy", is typically broken up into 'schools of thought', which consist of collections of theorists whose ideas overlap to some extent. Additionally, some approaches are refinements or adaptions of existing theories, or which incorporate additional elements. Pedagogy also overlaps with other disciplines, such as psychology, politics and philosophy. The main 'schools' are:
Constructivism: the theory that people "construct" their own understanding of the world based on their experiences and reflection on these experiences. Key theorists in this area include Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner.
Behaviourism: the theory that people can be "conditioned" to behave in desired ways through a system of punishments and rewards. Key theorists include Skinner and Bandura.
Critical theory / critical pedagogy: the theory that learning is shaped within power relations and that learners should shape their own learning agendas, with the teacher as guide. Key theorists include Freire, Montessori and Steiner.
Pragmatism: Championed by Dewey, pragmatic pedagogy focuses on the relationship between the learner, teacher and wider society with a view to promoting democracy and positive social relations.
As you can see, there are specific theorists who are thought of as 'seminal'. This is because their ideas were very influential, and many current ideas of good practice have their roots in the ideas of these theorists. No matter what kind of educational establishment you are training to work in, you will encounter at least some of the theorists we focus on in this module and the theories which they championed. It is rare (notwithstanding specialist schools which explicitly adhere to a particular pedagogy, such as Montessori schools or Steiner schools) that one theory is used in isolation. It is much more common that approaches are used in combination. In general, teachers create learning activities informed by theoretical underpinnings by adapting to the identified needs of the learner, as well as pedagogic instruction from government or local authority guidance.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but these theories form the basis which underpin teacher training courses in the UK and Western Europe. In classroom practice, it is expected that familiarity with these learning theories will allow a self-reflective practitioner to adopt the most appropriate pedagogical approach for the situation and the learner, effectively giving them a "toolbox" of techniques from which a teacher can assess the learning needs of their students and modify their approach, the learning materials and the activity to ensure that these are met. It is also expected that a practitioner will reflect on the teaching and learning experience, identifying what has gone well and what has gone not so well and adapt future learning activities to take improve outcomes. Knowledge of the subject matter, the learners, the context of learning and the desired outcomes will all inform the particular approach that is taken in any given situation. Familiarity with learning theories gives a theoretical basis to inform pedagogic change.
Before you begin this module, we should ensure that it's clear what we would like you to take from it.
Goal for this module
To develop a good working understanding of the individual theories, and wider schools of thought, which are covered in this module and begin to see how these can be incorporated into your own classroom practice, as well as identifying how they have influenced policy direction in order to ensure that your pedagogic practice is underpinned by solid principles.
By the end of this module, you should be able to:
1. Explain the central principles and primary champions of each of the pedagogical theories that we discuss in the course of this module, identifying the strengths and drawbacks of each approach.
2. Identify ways in which these theories can be used individually or in combination to inform, develop and improve your personal teaching practice.
3. Begin to make connections between these theories and wider educational discourses (such as your institution's individual values or government educational policy).
4. Compare and contrast the different approaches of the different schools of educational thought, as well as between different theorists within an approach, considering where their strengths and weaknesses lie and their contextual relevance.
5. Analyse learning activities to establish their benefits and drawbacks in terms of educational theory, suggesting improvements based on sound educational principles.
6. Begin to identify the links between pedagogic theory and wider discourses of psychology, politics and philosophy, and understand how different pedagogical approaches can be combined to create learning activities which most effectively meet learner needs.