How do children learn?


How do children learn? Describe and evaluate behaviourist and cognitivist theories of learning, with reference to influential researchers and writers in each field.

Child development that occurs from birth to adulthood was mostly ignored throughout much of history. Children were often viewed as small versions of adults rather than individuals and little attention was paid to the many advances in cognitive abilities, language usage, and physical growth. It wasn't until early in the 20th-century that interest was taken in the field of child development. This then tended to focus on abnormal behaviour. The following are some of the theorists that specialized at looking at cognitive development; these include Piaget, Bruner and Vygotsky.

Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980) was a constructivist whose work has been a major influence both on child development and on learning and education. Piaget's view was that from birth to adulthood children pass through a number of different stages of cognitive and mental development. As well as this he highlighted that the individual child played a big role in their own development and learning. He also recognized that the social environment plays a part alongside this. Although recognizing this he did not emphasize it, therefore his work focuses on the individual child impacting his or her own development.

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Piaget broke his cognitive development in to four different stages; Sensori-motor (birth to around two years), pre-operational (two to around seven years), concrete-operational (seven to around twelve years) and finally formal-operational (twelve years and onwards). As I said above although these stages have ages against them all individuals learn and development at their own rate and so may not hit these stages at the same time as all their peers do. This is something you see in schools and why work needs to be differentiated for the different abilities as they are all learning at their own rate.

Piaget also believed that children learn through processes of adaptation which is known as assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. An example of assimilation can be that child A establishes the concept of cats as black. Child A then progresses to accommodation where the toddler ‘accommodates' new information that cats can be different colours. Equilibration is where child A then needs to have this reinforced by further experiences before accommodating this in to their understanding.

Schemas are one thing that came out form Piagets work. These are early ideas and concepts based on linked patterns of behaviour and are part of the children's way of understanding their experiences. Schemas often occur in clusters and dominate a child's play at any one time. For example the idea of transporting, children will take time to investigate the different ways in which to move objects, such as using bags, trucks and trolleys.

Jerome Bruner (1915) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) built on Piaget's theory. They stressed the role of play, talking with adults and interacting with the social world. Piaget's view of the child being a solitary learner is here replaced by that of the child as a social being. Children use their learning skills and knowledge of their own culture, received from adults to develop their ideas and learning that they could not do as a solitary learner.

Vygotsky saw children as active organisers of their own lives which agreed with Piaget however he extended this to believing that social relationships and interaction with other people where needed to develop intellectually and that “knowledge develops through interaction with others” (Mistry, M 2009) So where Piaget emphasized the individual learner, Vygotsky is now emphasizing the role of the adults in helping children learn. From this he identified the ‘zone of proximal development', which is where children show signs about being ready to move on in their own development and learning. Adults then need to intervene and “help children to move into the zone of actual development and the cycle goes on.” (Smith, M 2006, p117).

There are other areas in which theorists have specialized in, one of them being behaviour. Some of these theorists are Pavlov, Skinner, Bandura and Watson. These theories are part of the transmission model which builds on the thinking of the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Transmission theories are less to do with what goes on inside the mind and more to do with what goes on with the external outputs and influences of learning. There are two main components of transmission theory: learning theory and social learning theory. This is where those theorists come in so will look at them in more detail.

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The learning theory is where children learn through experience, this is shown through classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Ivan Pavlov's (1849-1936) work on the behaviour of dogs is an influential example of how the learning theory has developed through the twentieth century. Pavlov's research consisted of conditioning dogs by feeding them when a bell rang or a light shone. This progressed and went on for some time until finally when the bell rang or the light was flashed the dog would automatically salivate. The dogs had been conditioned to this way of thinking.

This is something that is reflected in schools today for example when the bell rings at the end of the lesson the children then know that it is then a break time. This is repeated everyday during school and so the children become conditioned in to this way of thinking. These behaviours' are continued through life even by teenagers and adults. For example at secondary school when the bell went at the end of a lesson myself and peers would automatically make the move to pack up our things and move to our next lesson or on to break time. Other things that we condition children to do is sit on the carpet with their arms and legs crossed. Also to hang their coats up and put their bags away, this becomes and automatic routine for children when they come in to school in the morning.

Further development from Classical conditioning is Operant conditioning which psychologist B. F Skinner worked on. This operant conditioning is more to do with shaping and modifying behaviour rather than creating certain behaviour patterns. Skinner again worked with animals during his research, he gave the dogs food as a reward. The food was used as positive enforcement, if the dog was not to do what Skinner wanted he would ‘punish' them by giving them electric shocks for example. Doing this repeatedly meant that the bad behaviour the dog presented with soon became eliminated. This works the same way for children, good behaviour is rewarded with stickers or golden time for example and the bad behaviour would be treated with detentions or telling off, singling out. This then works in the classroom as well, the children learn what behaviour is expected of them and what they will get in return for what they do.

Smith, M (2006 p112) says that “By selectively reinforcing behaviour that is wanted adults can change the way children behave. This is called behaviour modification.”

The social learning theory is where children learn through example. This leads on from the Learning theory but also emphasizes that children learn behaviours by observing and imitating adults, especially those that are important to the child. Some of these may include family members and the class teacher or other professionals that the child may work with. It has also been shown that children imitate each other.

Albert Bandura (1925-) did an experiment using Bobo dolls. He showed three groups of children a doll being kicked and hit by other children which was then followed by showing a different consequence to the different groups. One of them being told off showing the behaviour was unacceptable, one being praised for what they had done and the last was not shown any consequence. After this they were then put in a room to see how they would react. This then showed Bandura that children would repeat what they had seen.

This is seen in schools as well, both positively and negatively. Having mixed ages in classes or on the playground together means that younger children can look up to the older children and imitate their behaviour. The older children have been in the school longer therefore know how to behave more for example lining up in the playground at the end of lunch, the smaller children can then see this as an example and know what is then expected of them.

John Watson (1878-1958) is another theorist that looked at conditioning behaviour. His research consisted of conditioning children to have a fear of a small white rat. He would present the rat alongside with a loud noise or bang which would scare the child. Although this then proved the theory of conditioning children the ethics of the experiment are often criticized today, especially because the child's fear was never deconditioned.

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Today in schools both the cognitivist and behaviourist theories are used. Without even knowing it, the teacher and whole school will have conditioned their children in to their overall daily routine as well as routines they take part I throughout their day. It is also shown in day to day lesson the differentiation that the teacher puts in to them in order for the children to be able to work at their own rate but still be pushed and progress through the work they are doing. Through the school planning and class planning these theories are used in everyday circumstances.

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Part 2: 1500 words

To what extent should theories of how children learn influence the way a class teacher plans and teaches lessons? Justify your answer with specific examples from your own experience and your reading.

Our education system would not be the same today without the influence of many different theorists. Theorists such as Vygotsky, Pavlov, Piaget, Skinner and many more have influenced our day to day working with young children and people. I believe that theses theories are important and hold vital reasoning behind the way children act and learn throughout school and play. I myself without knowing will have used some of the techniques used by these theorists in their research for helping the children in my care progress.

I think it is important to have knowledge about the theorists and to implement them to a certain degree in everyday teaching. For example Vygotskys' theory Zone of proximal development, the teachers need to be aware of the levels of cognitive development in the group in order to know the right amount of scaffholding to give to the children. Teachers also need to work out strategies and provide tools for the children to realise and scaffhold themselves to move on to the next level. This development can be shown with differentiation in the classroom.

In a school I have recently worked in they used this technique of allowing the children to recognize what level they are at and where they need to be working. Although the children were differentiated in to ability groups the children were given the opportunity to choose at what level they worked at for some of the activities. The Zone of proximal development kicked in when the child then felt ready to move on. The teacher would have extension work for all groups, lower groups were given the next levels work and the higher ability group would be given further extension work to better themselves. This is a reflection of Vygotskys theory allowing the children to have a choice and encouraged to challenge themselves, which they would often do willingly.

Scaffholding which I have mentioned above is a term used by Bruner. Using this in the classroom may consist of providing clear and realistic goals, providing examples for the children to see on the board, making the task in to manageable chunks and also aiding the children with any parts that may cause frustration. “An example of this might be when a parent "helps" an infant clap or roll his hands to the Pat-a-Cake rhyme, until he can clap and roll his hands himself.” (webpage 2 bibliography)

This I have also seen in a school before where the teacher would demonstrate the lesson before hand on the board. A clear ‘I can' statement was also put on the board for all the children to see the objective for the lesson, this was then copied down as the title for that days work which meant they could easily see if they had met their target or not. If at any time the majority of children or a large group of children were finding a specific task difficult the class teacher would stop the whole class or ask those finding it too challenging to come to the front and work through it together before going back to tackle it individually again.

In one school I have worked in they grouped all their foundation subjects and science into one, calling it Topic. This covered all the subjects well and although the whole class did this together without differentiated tasks the children would be learning and building on their knowledge at different rates. For example if the topic was space there may be children that are coming in to the work with a lot more background knowledge than those of others. In this case they are able to help those that need it and guide them to gaining more knowledge themselves. This shows and highlights that all children learn at their own rate as they can take in and hold different amounts of information. This reflecting the theory of Piaget where he states that children learn differently and at their own pace.

I feel the most used theory is the reward system within the classroom and whole school. This is something that I have seen used in every school I have been in to and is a development from Skinners theory. His theory was to reward dogs for good behaviour and punish them for behaviour that he did not want. This is used in every school to a certain degree. For good behaviour in school you could give the children stickers, golden time or person of the week. As well as this for bad behaviour certain sanctions could be put in place for example extra work, missing of break times, informing parents, loss of privileges and even exclusion if it comes to that.

The school I have recently worked in had a sticker reward system where the children gained them for good behaviour, good work and excelling in extra duties or work. This sticker was then ticked off in their work and put up on a class sticker board of one hundred. When they have filled this up they get a reward of an extra fifteen minute break time, they then start another hundred square and after that get another class reward. Therefore instead of individuals getting the rewards they are working as a group to progress and get them. They have certain sanctions for punishment put in to place as well. (Appendix 1)

Although reward systems are widely used in schools “There is a debate about the appropriateness of rewarding good behaviour with stickers or small treats since it could be assumed that good behaviour is the norm.” (Jacques, K 2007 p127)

Pavlov's original Classical conditioning of getting the dog to salivate awaiting food when the bell rang or the light flashed is still seen in schools today. Examples of this would be that when the bell rang at intervals during the school day the children recognize that it represents the end of a lesson ready for break time or that it is even home time. When this happens the children begin moving about anticipating the teacher saying you may go out. Another example of this is when you ask the children to come and sit on the carpet they will go and sit with their arms folded and their legs crossed. This is because at a young age when in nursery or reception this is the expectation therefore the children have been conditioned in such a way to continue showing this behaviour. This was something I have done myself even up to the ages of 14 or 15 at secondary school when we had assemblies where we had to sit on the floor, we would all sit still with our legs crossed.

I think this benefits a lot of children having a routine that they do most days and having expectations of behaviour given to them by the class teacher and school. However some of these are not always beneficial for when they get to an older age for example during school many children will be asked to be quiet and work quietly and then when they are asked unexpectantly to share with people and feedback to a group they do not have the confidence or the ability to do so well as this is something they are not used to doing. I think this is even shown at our age in University seminars that I take part in now as you can see the students that have the better ability at speaking in front of others. Having said this at schools now I feel that they are taking advantage of the use of talking partners and group discussions to help involve all students in speaking in public and in front of their peers.

In conclusion I feel that there are advantages and disadvantages of taking on board the different theories and using them in everyday practice. I have seen in many schools implications of the theories being used. Although all these are very beneficial and aid in how the school day runs and the flow of the day there are a few disadvantages to think about. One being the fact that children are conditioned for certain things that may not help them in later life, as I have stated above that we condition children in being quiet a lot of the time while working, this can influence their ability in older life to not feeling confident enough to talk in front of others. This is something that I can speak of from experience.

However after taking all this in to consideration I feel that the theories do help to improve the working environment in different settings. I think the theories are very practical with working in today's school environment.