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Traditional classroom learning is based on the Behaviourist Theory. The teacher initiates actions and interactions. Students learn passively as they listen to the teacher and memorise what is being taught in order to recall this information at a later stage. Learning happens when knowledge is transferred from the teacher to the student. The student responds to stimuli. Reinforcing the resulting behaviour increases the probability that the behaviour will occur again. B. F. Skinner (1968) gathered much of the experimental data that form the basis of the Behavioural learning theory. Behaviour is either strengthened or weakened by the presence of a reward or punishment. Behaviourists believe that the learner starts off as a clean slate and behaviour is shaped through positive or negative reinforcement. Learning is therefore defined as a change in behaviour in the learner. The Behaviourist theory of learning does not develop the student's ability to work with other students in group situations.
The basis of the Constructivist theory is that learning happens when knowledge is constructed through scaffolding in the brain. Understanding is constructed step by step through active involvement. Lev Vygotsky's 'Social Development Theory' is one of the foundations of the Constructivist theory. He believed that social interaction is required in the development of understanding and that community plays a central role in this social interaction. Vygotsky suggested that 'The Zone of Proximal Development' (ZPD) and the 'More Knowledgeable Other' (MKO) form the basis of the scaffolding for which to build understanding on. The ZPD is the distance between a student's ability to do a task under the teacher's guidance (or peer collaboration) and the student's ability to do the task on their own. According to Vygotsky learning occurred in this zone. The MKO refers to someone who has a better understanding or higher ability level with regard to the task than that of the learner. The MKO is often the teacher but could also be the learners peer (Santrock, 2004).
In a constructivist classroom the emphasis is on the student's ownership of the learning through constructing their own meanings. These students are not only the consumers of knowledge but also the producers of knowledge (Oldfather, 1999). Constructivism has become an appealing alternative to traditional educational practices. It promises to create lifelong active learners who can apply their skills to appropriate needs of the future.
Jean Piaget studied the process of cognitive development. He investigated the psychological development of children. He called for teachers to understand the steps of development in a child's mind. He believed that for a child to understand he/she had to discover for themselves. This would enable the child to be productive and creative and not just simply repeating what they heard from their teacher (Piaget, 1973).
Cognitive psychologists began to focus their attention on the development of mental abilities. Bruner (1966) stated that subjects should not be taught in order to "produce little living libraries on that subject" but that students should take part in getting the knowledge for themselves. "Knowing is a process not a product".
Often intelligence is measured by exam results and school grades. Alfred Binet tried to devise a type of measure that would predict the success or failure of primary school children's grades. This was the fore runner of the IQ test. In the 1980's a psychologist Howard Gardner identified that people have different cognitive strengths as well as cognitive styles (Gardner, 1983). Gardner proposed eight types of intelligences. The intelligences are like talents and gifts and there are many different combinations. These Intelligences can also be strengthened in the individual.
Gardners' (1999) eight intelligences are:
1. Verbal/Linguistic: the ability to use language to describe events and/or sensitivity to the meaning and order of words.
2. Logical/Mathematical: ability to use numbers in order to describe or apply in personal daily life and/or to have the ability to apply the aesthetics of mathematics or logic to solve problems
3. Musical: the ability to understand and develop music and/or sensitivity to pitch, melody, rhythm, and tone.
4. Spatial: ability to visually perceive the world and/or to creatively express ideas into visuals.
5. Bodily/Kinesthetic: ability to use the body and to handle objects skilfully and/or ability to build and repair.
6. Interpersonal: ability to understand people and relationships and/or help people solve problems.
7. Intrapersonal: ability to understand oneself and others and/or ability to organise others.
8. Naturalist: the aptitude for observing nature and /or ability to recognise and classify features of the environment.
As a response to Gardner's theory many teachers changed their view of how students learn. They accepted that all students learn differently and that these differences should be reflected in education. Gardner stated that students "must be given the opportunity to work on certain topics in depth, in detail instead of having a broad overview of everything in a rigid curricular system" (Gardner, 1991).
In 2005 George Siemens proposed another learning theory which recognises the impact that technology has on society and ways of acquiring knowledge. He called this theory Connectivism. He surmised that learning in the digital age occurs through interaction with various sources of knowledge (e.g internet, learning platforms) and communities of participation (e.g. social networks). His learning theory is based on individuals connecting with each other and with technology. Learning is achieved by retrieving information from one self, others and machines collaborating to create knowledge (Siemens, 2005).