Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom

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George Washington Carver said that "education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom" (n.d. in BrainyQuote, 2010) and nowhere is this more true than for those who experience learning difficulties. In every educational environment it is important that the students feel valued; no matter what their learning difficulties they need to feel included as a part of the school community where any barriers to learning are removed in order to optimise "…learning and participation" (Booth, Ainscow, Black-Hawkins, Vaughan and Shaw, 2000, P. 13) and that they are bringing something valuable into the classroom where their efforts and achievement will be recognised (Ofsted, 2000, P. 4). The key to being able to support all students in their learning is first class assessment which identifies individual pupils' strengths and weaknesses so that optimum provision can be made for them (Cross, 2004, P. 117) which is particularly important in protecting "…specialist provision for those who need it" (Croll and Moses, 2000, P. 1). "Sometimes teachers instruct or tell, serving as transmitters of information that students have to acquire… at other times teachers show and demonstrate, acting as mentors and coaches rather than as instructors…" (Hargreaves, 2005, P. 5) - the aim of this essay is to analyse behaviourist and cognitive approaches to learning for those who have learning difficulties identifying the strengths and weaknesses in each method when applied to the teaching.

Historically children have been presented with a didactic model of learning: they were told when to come into school, what they were going to learn and were instructed about how they were going to learn it irrespective or their personal talents; students were all made to write with their right hand even if it did not come naturally to them much to their frustration - my great grandmother for example. The education system became a "… process of learning to instruction… by which children are expected to learn by intent participation in meaningful, useful occupations, with a factory model of education by assembly line instruction" (Bruce, 2004, P. Xi). This followed very much the Behaviourist Model which argues that learning is initiated through our interaction with external stimuli which alters the way in which we tackle things (Glassman, 1995): the behaviourist school of thought grew from the pioneering work of Ivan Pavlov and his work with dogs; at the sound of a bell he was able to initiate salivation in the animals in anticipation of receiving food which continued long after the food was not delivered as expected - this became known as 'Classical Conditioning'. James Watson (who first used the term 'behaviourism') continued this work and attested that all human behaviour was the result of responding to stimuli in a conditioned manner - he even went as far as to suggest that anyone, no matter what their social status or ability, could be schooled to fulfil any task or profession provided that they were healthy and applied themselves in their learning (Watson, 1924, P. 82) and that an adult carefully controlled the conditions for the stimuli and the responses (Keenan, 2002, P. 24). Experiments that were carried out with children to test this theory, notably by Watson and Rayner, illustrated that both fear and pleasure could be associated with particular objects or noises; this led them to theorise that "… rewards or reinforcements could arise from the satisfaction of inner needs and could provide a motivation for learning" (Tilstone, Layton, Anderson, Gerrish, Morgan and Williams, 2004, P. 45).

Skinner further developed these ideas into what he called 'Operant Conditioning'; he put forward the idea that all actions that were reinforced, either positively through reward or negatively through punishment, would be duplicated - he actively encouraged teachers and educators in general to cement a child's success through the use of positive praise and reinforcement. Positive reinforcement involves rewarding correct behaviour or responses such as reading a sentence without error leading to a star being given, progressing to two lines followed by a paragraph and so on to gain the reward and encourage learning. He felt that children were led and could be 'shaped' in their learning and parents and teachers needed to reinforce their learning whenever and wherever it occurred - "in other words, when a parent or carer shows enthusiasm for something a child tries to say, this should encourage the child to repeat the utterance" (David, Goouch, Powell and Abbott 2003, P. 49). Skinner also believed that the acquisition of knowledge needed to be tackled in stages which built on the existing learning of the individual involved proposing "…a 'technology of teaching' whereby instruction is individualised, complex verbal behaviours gradually shaped, reinforcement for appropriate responses is consistent and immediate, and learned behaviours are maintained by intermittent reinforcement schedules." (Ormrod, 2004, Ps. 79-80). Having said that it is individualised it is mechanistic in nature following a set pattern of repetition, correction and praise following successful modification to embed the skills into the learner (Capel, 1997, P. 136); this sort of learning treats the child like a type of human sponge (Kirk, Macdonald and O'Sullivan, 2006, P. 295) - they are often referred to as 'command' or 'practice' styles and are often seen in subjects such as Physical Education (Byra, 2006, in Kirk et al, 2006, P. 450). These theorists placed great emphasis on the linear nature of development - "what we call development in this view, is really just a long series of individual learning experiences" (Bee, 1989, P. 14) - considering learning to be the same for all no matter what their age or stage in life (Tilstone, Layton, Anderson, Gerrish, Morgan and Williams, 2004, P. 50) reinforcing the need for educators to look at how students are acquiring their learning necessitating accurate and thorough record keeping in order to be able to properly assess and evaluate their work. This is crucial in order to fully cater for individuals who are experiencing difficulties in their learning.

The word 'cognitive' comes from the Latin cognoscere which means 'to know'; all of the processes which are undertaken in thinking and knowing about anything are what is known as cognitive actions. "Cognitive development is the study of how these processes develop in children and young people, and how they become more efficient and effective in their understanding of the world and in their mental processes" (Oakley, 2004, P. 2). Every individual thinks and reasons in a different way, with a child's processes being different from that of an adult which is why cognitive approaches to education are both fascinating and complex in their make up.

Jean Piaget was one of the first to look at how children learn as individuals in their own right and that their way of thinking and therefore learning was different to that of an adult. He argued that all children go through a series of stages in their development which are linear in nature which means that they take place at approximately the same time (Long, 2000, P. 32): they are 'sensori - motor' (birth to about eighteen months), the 'pre - operational' (eighteen months to about six years), the 'concrete operational' (six to approximately eleven years) and the 'formal operational' (eleven years onwards). Piaget contests that the way that individuals learn in their lives is different at each of these stages and that as a result "… the way children perceive the world, the way they process and respond to information, and the way they develop ideas and concepts" (Moore, 2000, P. 9) will be different too. He believed that maturity affected the way that children thought and learned saying that "... human beings are, from early childhood, active, independent meaning makers who construct knowledge rather than receive it" (Moore, 2000, P. 7). He perceived children as being capable of constructing their own understanding of their experiences and the world around them as a result of their inbuilt curiosity and need for knowledge and understanding. Piaget put forward the idea that there are two distinct phases to the learning process; the first entails the child demonstrating their understanding of a particular experience or idea that they come across in the world by the way in which they integrate or 'assimilate' this new data into it, for example a child using a large box as a house when they are playing; the other is known as 'accommodation' which describes the learners ability to "… make sense of the new event occurring in the environment" (Leonard, 2002, P. 1). Piaget believed that these two phases needed to be perfectly balanced if effective learning was going to be able to take place as it is only "by the simultaneous action of assimilation and accommodation...[that] events are perceived as meaningful and at the same time generate changes in the interpretive procedures" (Barnes, 1976, P. 22). Due to every single experience that people have in life their perceptions of and interaction with the world around them changes and Piaget regards this as part of the process of learning and cognitive development - "to understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition" (1973). The cognitive structures "… adjust in response to challenges when incoming information cannot be accommodated within existing schemes, and modes of thinking develop with biological growth" (Tilstone et al, 2004, P. 20).

A similar route was followed by the work of Bruner who studied the processes behind learning and problem solving. Both stress the importance of engagement in problem solving activities which promote links with finding solutions (Wood, 1998) as well as there being stages through which learners acquire and develop their knowledge: Bruner describes them as enactive - understanding is promoted in the learner through interaction with the world, iconic - when images are more frequently used in order to remember knowledge and information and symbolic - the use of complex systems of symbols, for example language, to convey understanding and abstract thought; these correspond to Piaget's sensori-motor [enactive], pre-operational [iconic] and concrete and formal operational [symbolic] (Smith, 1999, P. 20). Bruner explains that the first stage is characterised by action on the part of the learner in that the recognition of objects "… seems to depend not so much on the objects themselves but on the actions evoked by them" (Bruner, 1966, P. 12). As the learner matures there is less need to interact physically with objects to understand them as they develop the capacity to see something in their mind (the iconic stage). The learner moves to the symbolic stage through interaction with the world and those around them in order to develop language and communication within the context of the culture to which they are exposed as "… learning, remembering, talking, imagining; all of them are made possible by participating in a culture" (Bruner, 1996, P. xi). As a result he seems to equate learning issues or difficulties with an absence of culturally stimulating environments as opposed to deficiencies in any child (Tilstone, 2000 in Tilstone et al, 2004, P. 25) giving particular attention to three distinct areas or 'amplifiers' - motoric, sensory and reflective. Motoric covers physical extensions of human capabilities like knives and forks for eating, spears for hunting, tools for farming and cars to transport ourselves around more quickly and efficiently. Sensory involves the enhancement of the way that the world and people in it are perceived for example simple things like spectacles or magnifying glasses. Reflective encompasses the means through which communication skills are learnt, developed and shared with those around us; parents and carers initiate this process with both verbal and non verbal cues enabling them to 'scaffold' communication through holding their attention while building on their responses (Tilstone, 2004, P. 26). Often this will mean that adults will challenge children to extend their abilities and skills through this which Bruner believes is the right thing to do - "as a teacher, you do not wait for readiness to happen; you foster or 'scaffold' it by deepening the child's powers at the stage where you find him or her now" (1996, P. 120). He believed that comprehensive development is possible through this sort of social/cultural interaction.

Vygotsky furthered the idea that social interaction was the catalyst for the development of a child - "the entire history of a child's psychological development shows us that, from the very first days of development, its adaptation to the environment is achieved through social means, through the people surrounding it" (Vygotsky and Luria, 1993, P. 116). Kozulin, Gindis, Ageyev and Millar (2003) inform us that "at the heart of Vygotsky's theory lies the understanding of human cognition and learning as social and cultural rather than individual phenomena" (P. 1). He laid great stress on the socio cultural environments which shape the development of children (Kozulin et al, 2003, P. 2), believing that "absolutely everything in the behaviour of the child is merged and rooted in social relations" (Vygotski, 1932 in Ivic, 1989, P. 429) and their interactions with their peers, teachers, adults and the community as a whole. He in fact stressed that interaction, teaching and learning were integral to each other and that they could have no rigidly defined techniques ascribed to them (Popkevitz, 1998, P. 538).

These ideas about cognitive development are referred to as social cognitive due to their being a mixture of social and cognitive theory; they centre round children's dealings with the environment and those in it utilising the different communication skills that they have learnt. Vygotsky believes that children learn from watching and copying or modelling the different behaviours of those around them using a number of different cultural tools, for example a small child pointing a finger is seen initially as an inconsequential grasping action which changes into a significant one as people react to it (Vygotsky, 1978, P. 56). He emphasised two points in terms of learning, mediation and the expansion of psychological tools. Mediation can be seen as a learner using aids which are both human and 'symbolic' to be able to understand the information that has to be learnt; at the start of the process something which needs to be learnt is modelled and observed by the learner who internalises it, making it part of their psyche having had time to reflect on it; this type of mediation can take countless different forms from simple guidance and encouragement to complex advice and scaffolding in order to achieve the understanding of a concept but rather than try to define mediation it is more important to understand that it "…provides a perspective on how to look at interpersonal engagements and arrangements" (Rogoff, 1995, P. 146-147). Psychological tools are "… those symbolic systems specific for a given culture that when internalised by individual learners become their inner cognitive tools" (Kozulin et al, 2003, P. 3) which aid them in "…mastering mental processes" (Daniels, 2001, P. 15) and gives them the ability to "…control the conditions of their future remembering" (Bakhurst, 1996, P. 202). Vygotsky felt that the higher cognitive processes could only be accessed and developed by learners through copying or imitating adults or older more experienced people due to what he referred to as the 'Zone of Proximal Development' (ZPD); he defined this as a "… latent learning 'gap' between what a child can do on his or her own and what can be done with the help of a more skilful other" (Richardson, 1998, P. 163). It is through following the lead of someone else that individuals are able to develop the skills and the cognitive ability to be able to accomplish tasks alone.

Siegler believed that the linear way of regarding cognitive development did not paint a full enough picture of the facts that one could observe about learning, such as the anomaly of a variety of different skill levels within the same age group of children. He developed an 'overlapping waves' theory in trying to better understand how children develop where the focus was on "… the number of strategies that a child might use at any age rather than … which specific strategy a child might use most during which stage" (Calais, 2008, P. 3). Siegler made three assumptions on which he based his idea: children use a number of methods to address a problem, not just one; methods of thinking and strategies that are used remain with people for indefinite periods of time; children use the experiences that they have to enable them to build towards and move on to more complex strategic thinking. He states that variability is undeniable when one observes how an individual or group tackle a problem and that inconsistencies in approach can be seen in individuals who use different strategies to address the same issue on different days. Siegler highlights five stages in learning; acquisition of appealing strategies, mapping strategies onto new problems, strengthening strategies for consistent usage, refining choices and executing appealing strategies (Calais, 2008, P. 4). These stages are all evident in the development of children's cognitive abilities although they might actually be going through a number of them at the same time. Similar to Piaget and Vygotsky, Siegler discovered that the ability of the learner to choose an appropriate strategy in order to address an issue got better the more mature and skilled they became thus possibly accounting for why individuals within a group might tackle a problem differently in spite of being from the same culture.

The teaching techniques which are associated with these schools of thought are almost diametrically opposed to each other. The behaviourist model is one which is teacher focused and revolves around the pupils following instructions that they are given to achieve a specified end. It is a mechanical and unimaginative way of working but is one which is essential if children are to learn the basics of any skill. Unfortunately there is no substitute in a great many areas of the curriculum for instruction based teaching in order to ingrain the skills into students prior to moving on to more advanced skills. Examples of this can be readily seen in the mathematics classrooms where I myself sat through what seemed like endless practice of times tables either through chanting as a class or via targeted questioning of individuals to ensure that they had been learnt properly; the basic rules of algebra need to be learnt before attempting to work out equations or problems; Physical Education lessons are full of the 'command' or 'practice' style of lessons where instructions and demonstration of skills are given followed by practice of skills in isolation, feedback from the practitioner and peers followed by time for improvement and a short game to contextualise the newly learnt skill. The advantage of this type of learning environment is that it is very focused on specific learning goals, the lessons targeting those exclusively in 'bite size' pieces which is ideal for those with learning issues; the disadvantage is that it does not allow for freedom of expression or for the individual strengths of students to be developed.

Cognitive schools of thought would encourage teachers to contextualise any skills that students are learning at all times or at the very least whenever it is possible to do so. This would involve starting work on a subject by assessing what the student already knows and constructing a programme of work from that point. This would enable the students with learning difficulties to feel confident in their ability to make progress in that they are beginning with familiar territory making the prospect of what is to come less intimidating and potentially overwhelming. Classrooms following this sort of approach are much more creative in that they allow, as far as possible, for the pupils to direct the learning towards set goals allowing for them to be as imaginative as possible in the process. This child centred approach requires a high degree of organisation in and management of the classroom and necessitates a measured lay out of the classroom for its various functions. In the primary classroom there would need to be specific areas for each different activity in order to maximise the learning potential of the environment - for example a computer area, a construction area, a role play area, a carpet area and a reading or quiet area. The teachers work area could be placed in the middle of the classroom for ease of access for all with clear gangways to aid uninhibited movement around the room. The displays should be vibrant, colourful and current indicating to the class that their work is valuable and worthy of being displayed - a particularly important point for those with learning difficulties who invariably have low self esteem. Topic based work allows cross curricular links to be forged which is a strength of this method of learning: for example a topic on the Great Fire of London could be tackled encompassing a number of different areas of the curriculum; history would clearly be covered as the foundation of the study alongside a study of how the buildings of the time were constructed, why they would have burnt so quickly and how they could have been constructed to make them safer; English and Literacy could be covered through the construction of fire safety posters and poems and the community could be involved through a visit from the local fire service personnel. The children would be encouraged to work both on their own and as members of a group for different parts of the study that they are undertaking using the adults as a resource from which to glean information or to aid them in their planning of how to approach part or parts of their work. The disadvantage of this method of approaching teaching is the huge amount of preparation which needs to be completed before the session to accommodate the creative talents within the group of children but the advantage is that pupils are motivated to complete work to a high standard which expresses their knowledge and understanding of the topic to its fullest extent irrespective of their relative talents or abilities.

There is no easy or definitive way to teach the skill of reading to any child let alone those who experience learning difficulties. The current trends appear to be a blend of the behaviourist and the cognitive approaches which bring in 'the best of both worlds'. Before implementing any programme it is important to understand the level at which children are operating when they enter the classroom. Some primary children will already have acquired the basics of letter recognition and even some reading skills. However it is important to establish where they are and how to go about reinforcing the basic skills which will allow them to access books and reading materials in the future. It is crucial to understand that the teaching of reading is designed to cover two areas - the mechanical aspects of decoding words and the comprehension of them. Decoding is the means through which people are able to interpret written words on a page and make them into meaningful sounds; this involves providing them with the skills to be able to sound out letters and syllables in order to construct the words that appear on the page. It gives people the ability to read almost anything even if it is slowly through the decoding process - initially this involves using words with which the learner is familiar followed by the introduction of increasingly more complex ones.

The most popular method at present is that of phonics - the use of letter/sound associations to recognise words. There are five basic skills which are required for reading and writing which are learning the sounds of the letters, learning the formation of the letters, blending, recognising sounds in words and spelling words that are different or difficult (Jolly Phonics, n.d.). The concept has been popularised by the development of a number of products for the use of both parents and schools to aid students of all ages and abilities with their reading. Phonics provides the learner with that which is readily accessible, easily produced and comprehensible to them - sounds, which can then be linked to words. There are a number of different approaches in terms of structure but I will be focusing on one, that of Jolly Phonics. To begin with children are taught the forty two main sounds in English in seven distinct groups:

(Jolly Phonics, n.d.)

These are known as digraphs and are accompanied by a series of actions (encompassing a multi sensory approach, examples of which are below) which correspond to the letters to help the children to remember them which gradually become unnecessary as the learner gains in confidence.


Weave hand in an s shape, like a snake, and say ssssss


Wiggle fingers above elbow as if ants crawling on you and say a, a, a.


Turn head from side to side as if watching tennis and say t, t, t.


Pretend to be a mouse by wriggling fingers at end of nose and squeak i, i, i.


Pretend to puff out candles and say p, p, p.


Make a noise, as if you are a plane - hold arms out and say nnnnnn.

(Jolly Phonics, n.d)

They learn each letter by its sound, for example 'a' is for 'a'nt which will help with blending later in the process. The first group of letter above are introduced at the outset as they provide the greatest amount of three letter words when combined with each other. The students are then taught how to hold a pencil correctly followed by how to form letters in an appropriate way. This is followed by blending which is the process of articulating the individual sounds within a word before running them together to produce the whole. All children need to learn this stage and get better with practice and encouragement. This is often the key with those who have special needs - having the encouragement and the confidence to try and not fear making mistakes. It may need the adult to say the parts of the word first to ensure that the pupil can hear them before repeating them which could be seen as the adult providing the support or scaffolding in order for the child to progress to the next level (Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development). Games can be played like I-Spy to encourage children to listen for the sounds in different parts of words and blending cards can be helpful in this process. Spelling is a different issue with a number of possibilities available to aid in this learning process for example 'Look, Cover, Write, Check' or Mnemonics (the first letter in each word of a saying spelling a word, e.g. fish - Frogs In Silly Hats).

As we can see from the above example of the teaching of reading and from teaching techniques in general there are advantages and disadvantages in each teaching method. If one wishes to get a safety message across about crossing a road it would not be appropriate for the children to find out by playing 'chicken' with the cars! They would need to be given specific instructions as to how to accomplish the objective safely and if necessary practice in the playground in a role play situation to ensure that the message has been taken in. The basics in reading need to be given through instruction and practice before words can be used creatively in the context of story writing, telling and reading. Lots of practice and exposure to words in and around the classroom through colourful displays with pictures combined with words will lead to a comfort and familiarity with reading and the written word which is particularly valuable for those with learning difficulties. Reading is a basic and necessary skill which one needs not only to access a curriculum to be able to pass exams but to be able to function in the most basic way in life. Those with learning difficulties have the right to be taught and to learn this skill of communication; there is no one all encompassing way to achieve this and practitioners have to develop a number of skills and techniques to accommodate the different needs of the personalities in their care. It would appear that there needs to be a blend of both the behaviourist and cognitive approaches to get the best from children as some aspects need to be specifically taught whereas others can be guided and discovered through shared activity with both their peers and adults alike.