Evaluate Current Learning Theories Education Essay

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To be able to list the theorist involved with science, and the 14 - 19 curriculum, it would be more prudent to say that all the theorists in one way or another, if looked at closely enough would have an input, from the behaviourists like Skinner, Pavlov and Watson, to Piaget and the Cognitive development theories, within science Brunner with his social constructivism is the more applicable, when it comes to frame working, scaffolding and the spiralling curriculum, with Vygotski and the socio cultural theories underpinning social context, culture, language, peers, teachers and the Zone of Proximal Development theories.

From the late 1980's, and the introduction of the original national curriculum, to present day, childhood experiences have changed drastically, with childhood needs moving on at a tremendous rate. The child of today has a lot more to cope with in relation to the social and economic aspects of their lives, and as such for the first time in twenty years there is some sort of clarity about what will happen nationally, in relation to the 14-19 curriculum and qualifications, to meet individual pupil's needs.

The original introduction of subjects and key stages, has now moved on in a positive direction, with recent reviews in teaching of new specifications of AS and A levels in September 2008, The introduction of Diplomas in 2008, in 17 subject areas, has expanded the opportunities for academic qualifications, specific to an individual pupils needs.

With the introduction of the new specifications for GCSE's across the curriculum in September 2009, the QCA began a process that will also lead to revised science GCSE specifications from Sept 2011,These new specifications are to include,GCSE Science,GCSE Additional Science,GCSE Additional Applied Science,GCSE Biology and GCSE Physics. As part of the wider changes to GCSE science, schemes of work such as Twenty First Century Science were designed; these courses enabled the students to understanding the science they experienced in everyday life.

Looking at one area of science in relation to the 14 - 19 curriculum, it becomes apparent that the framework is designed on a spiralling curriculum (Bruner 1986), this is evident from Key stage 3, with the unit, Organisms / Behaviour and health, in which cells are taught in the following pattern, Cells, Animal cells and Plant cells, Cells and their behaviour, Cell tissues and Organ systems.

At Key stage 4 cells are taught again, building on concepts already established in Key stage 3 but using Blooms Taxonomy (Bloom 1956), with units covered on Living cells such as Bacteria which reproduce inside host cells (Animal cells and plant cells), White blood cells such as Phagocytes and Lymphocytes, Red blood cells containing Haemoglobin, Antibiotics which break down cell walls.

Once A and AS levels are studied, cells are revisited again but at a much deeper level of understanding, with Antibiotic Résistance, Differential Centrifugation - a method of separating different organelles of a cell so that they can be analysed, Analysing cells with the use of the Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) or the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and Cell differentiation.

This spiralling curriculum (Bruner 1986), means that a complex idea can be built on, and understood, by revisiting the key concepts of the subject, time and time again as the pupil gains in experience and sees more of how science can be related to experiences in the real world, using concepts and understandings from each individual key stage, primarily to increase knowledge of the concept taught, this framework facilitates the need for revisiting the basic key concepts of the original material, as in key stage 3 the initial concepts are an integral part of key stage 4 and above.

This structural framework can be related to a Social Constructivism theory from Bruner in his research on the development of children in 1966, and later developed into the Integration of the learning process at different levels (Bruner 1986), with Bruner's theory, he proposed three levels of representation, Enactive Representation Iconic Representation (image-based) and Symbolic Representation (language-based), in Bruner's theory it is suggested that when faced with new subject material, to progress from an action based representation to an image based representation and eventually language based representation, it would be more achievable if the each clear stage was loosely integrated, so each part can be translated to the next one (Bruner 1986), as opposed to Piaget's theory of 'Stage-Theory of development',(Beard 1969) and (Crain 1992), which has been summarised as:

"Children of a given age are more likely to demonstrate similarity of (mental) structures than children of different, ages". (Brown 1977,p.26).

Piaget's epistemology has been characterised as 'constructivist and relativist' (Pope & Gilbert 1983, p.195), and has been widely influential in Science Education (Bliss1995). Piaget demonstrated that children who have not undertaken formal instruction might still have constructed their own ideas about phenomena they experience in the world and their own meanings for words as they acquire language e.g., (Piaget 1973, 1929) this can lead to misconceptions within science therefore, although influential in science, Piaget's stages for ages theory is not as applicable to the modern day child's needs and hence the desired affect is not achievable.

With Bruner's theory a clear link can be made with Bloom's Taxonomy in which Benjamin Bloom suggested that the educational objectives can be split down into three categories, Affective or relating to the experience of feeling or emotion, Psychomotor shown by physical skills such as movement, dexterity, strength, coordination, manipulation, grace, and speed, and the scientific process of thought known as Cognitive Theory, the end result is the creation of a more holistic form of education. (Bloom1956).

This type of Taxonomy means that learning at the higher levels is dependent on having attained prerequisite knowledge and skills at lower levels.

An accumulating body of research indicates that the teacher plays a critical role in selecting and evaluating appropriate learning resources and framing(spiralling curriculum) these to exploit technology in pursuing learning goals; in structuring(spiralling curriculum), sequencing, pacing, monitoring and assessing learning, and in mediating interactions between children and technology, including through 'guided discovery' (Bruner 1985,pp.21-43)

As such Bruner was also influential in the development of Vygotsky's work on the socio-cultural and activity based theories (Vygotsky 1986,1978) and (Vygotsky 1934,pp.355-370) which suggested that concepts do not simply represent a concatenation of associative connections assimilated by the memory of an automatic mental skill, but a complicated and real act of thinking which cannot be mastered by simple memorization, (Vygotsky 1934,p.356) and as such Vygotsky, saw that conceptual learning required an active participation from the learner, indicating there is a real requirement to look at the social aspect of learning and how schools as well as science put the framework and structure in place for the learning process, with the implementation of a socially mediated process (Scott 1998,pp.45-80).whereas Piaget,s theory were all based on internal influences of the mind.

Vygotsky believed that conceptual development involved a process of convergence as the concrete becomes abstracted, and the abstract is made concrete (Vygotsky 1986) Over time, spontaneous concepts would acquire a formal structure and be open to conscious use, and formal scientific concepts would evolve connections with real experience and external influences, (Vygotsky 1934,pp.355-370), indeed scientific concepts provide the frameworks within which a learner could become aware of his tacit spontaneous concepts (Crain 1992), the spiralling curriculum as suggested by Bruner fits appropriately with this concept, as the child increases in experiences of the real world then concepts taught at an earlier stage can be consolidated and built on, with recaps and recall exercises utilized appropriately by the teacher.

To summarise the idea of conceptual learning a paper from Elisabeth H. Wiig & Karl M. Wiig, on conceptual learning suggests that we expect that an effective learning process will provide appropriate content and prepare learners to:

"Function intelligently in the tasks ahead. When these tasks involve further learning, we expect that during the earlier learning stages, learners will have built mental models, concepts, scripts, schemata, associations, perspectives, strategies, and so on - prior knowledge - sufficiently well to build additional knowledge effectively". (Wigg 1999).

Science lessons in schools show this process with the 14 - 19 curriculum and teaching strategies are put in place to introduce an idea or a concept by modelling then building on that very concept to more higher taxonomic functions such as analysing, evaluating and creating.

When lessons were observed it was noted that the theory of conceptual learning works well within the scientific setting, with the teacher first modelling a concept or experiment to show how the subject material not only fits in within the big picture of the scheme of works, but can also draw on the pupils, as a group or individuals, own experiences of the subject in the real world, or in relation to issues that directly affect the pupil and as such, in the process gaining their interest in the subject, a year 10 group is a good example of this, when doing Applied Science, the healthy human body module, one section on the cells of the alveoli, and transfer of oxygen and waste gases, directly related to the intake of cigarette smoke and the impending damage that is caused by the breakdown of the alveoli cell wall structure. This was modelled using straws and balloons then popping the balloon so the surface area of the balloon was reduced and hence the available gas transfer area reduced. Concepts of cell structure was recapped on prior learning then built on with gaseous transfer through the cell wall in relation to surface area, with the modelling concept and the spiralling curriculum principle the difficult concept was easy for the pupils to relate too.

As per suggestions from, (Wigg 1999), earlier learning had been achieved with mental models built, concepts of cell structures introduced, scripts and keywords instigated, schemata or preconceived ideas of the process of respiration is consolidated or any misconceptions dispelled and a organised pattern of thought was established with the mental frame work centering around the specific theme of gas exchanges within the healthy human body and the input of potentially dangerous carcinogenic materials, using perspectives constructed by pupil group discussions and prior knowledge both from an educational source and a social source culminating in building additional knowledge effectively.

Whole lessons used Bruner's theory, that the teacher plays a critical role in selecting and evaluating appropriate learning resources and frame working the lesson so prior knowledge could be accessed and built on by all pupils, (Bruner 1985,pp.21-34).

Guided Discovery was utilised in the lesson, not just by the teacher, in the activity of modelling the concept but also by using a theory from (Driver and Easley 1978,pp.61-84), which focused on the learner's active role in constructing their personal knowledge, backed up by a paper written In 1982, when Gilbert (UK), Fensham (Australia) and Osborne (NZ) published a paper considering 'children's science', where outcomes were dependant on prior knowledge established on a topic with results indicating a 'unified scientific outcome', where the learned meanings closely matched that intended. (Gilbert, J.K., Osborne, R.J. & FenshamP.J. 1982, pp.630-1), This teaching strategy works well with groups of mixed ability pupils but can fall down when used on an individual level, as each pupils experiences within a social context is different, dependant on numerous variables such as geographical location, economic status, peer pressures and most important the individual's own cognition level, or how the individual moves from the process of thought on to knowing, this leads back to the teacher using guided discovery and making sure that innovative teaching methods are utilised, based on the learning and understanding of the fundamental concepts of science.

Whilst looking at the social aspect of learning it is prudent to mention Vygosky's work on the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD, (Vygostky's 1986) in which a learners ZPD can be classed as the noticeable change between from what a learner can do or achieve, without help and what the learner can do with help, this can be either from a teacher led activity or peer mentoring. Vygotsky's theory on zone of proximal development can be interpreted as:

"The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers". (Vygotsky 1978, p.86).

This theory has been criticised by numerous theorists, as idealist thought with flaws in his work, what impact would an overbearing parent have on a child's development, or the child that expected help when it was not needed using the peer as an educational crutch, (Santrock 2004, pp. 200-255), In a classroom setting, as well as the whole school setting, it has been noted that ZPD is extremely important, and is utilised in all classes not just science, with many classes being of mixed ability across the curriculum ranging from low ability students to gifted and talented pupils, sometimes incorporating pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN), such as reading, writing or language barriers to learning, this means that it's not only the teachers that are utilised to guide a students learning, but other members of the schools staff such as Teaching Assistants, support staff and members of the Pastoral system. Gifted and talented pupils or pupils of a high level of proximal development can be utilised within a mixed group class to reinforce learning for lower ability pupils and in the process consolidating their own level of understanding by recall and explanation of the subject often using language that is more accessible to the lower ability pupil, in sharp contrast to the benefits of peer mentoring or learning, the pitfalls could present problems of their own with low ability students in groups relying on the higher ability pupils to do the work and as such they make no progress, this was observed in classes on numerous occasions when poster work or experimentation was carried out with, the lower ability student tending to do the lower taxonomy tasks such as time keeping or colouring, whilst leaving the higher taxonomy tasks such as predictions and conclusions to the higher ability pupil, this trend can also be translated into adult peer mentoring, with the pressure of school targets, especially in the realm of coursework where the pupil refuses to use independent thought, and as such the peer virtually dictates what the pupil should do to produce a finished piece of work for grading, saying that ZPD properly instigated and supervised can be an invaluable tool in the teachers toolkit, this assumption is backed up by other educational professionals who believe:

"The role of education to be to provide children with experiences which are in their ZPD thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning". (Berk and Winsler 1995, p. 24).

As part of creating a safe environment within the science classroom, to enhance pupils learning, behaviourism is an integral part of the teachers thought process, with instances of minor disruptions and inappropriate behaviour monitored and teaching strategies adjusted accordingly. Most inappropriate behaviour issues in the science environment can be related back to a theory by Bandura who through observation and imitation, looked at personality as being closely related to the environment, behaviour, and the person's psychological processes.  Bandura postulated, along with other behaviourist psychologists, and social learning (SL) theorists that all behaviour is learned and that the person, the behaviour, as well as the environment were all closely connected, to create learning in an individual, (Bandura 1986, pp.18-22.), this hypothesis was developed over many years with modelling as an important part of his studies and observations, Bandura described the primary role of modelling is to accelerate mastery by providing the learner with a model to imitate. (Bandura 1986, pp.18-22.), with Bandura's famous Bobo Doll studies, in which one of his students was given an inflatable clown doll, weighted at the bottom, and instructed to kick, punch and hit the doll with an inflatable hammer, whilst she was filmed, the film was subsequently shown to a group of Kinder garden children, who understandably thoroughly enjoyed watching the adults antics, and when instructed that it was playtime, proceeded to the playroom, which purposefully contained numerous Bobo dolls and inflatable hammers, the children immediately proceeded to copy the antics of the adult by reproducing exactly the same actions and language of the adult, (Bandura, Ross, and Ross 1961, pp.575-582), although pertinent, the theory has flaws, in that the doll is actually designed to keep bouncing back as a source of entertainment for children and as such the children will see this process as a game to be enjoyed, but this Social Learning Theory can have implications within the science classroom, as all experiments are modelled by the teacher and if not modelled correctly then any inappropriate teaching will be modelled or mimicked by the pupils, hence, providing that the subject matter is modelled, structured and pitched at the correct level most behaviour issues can be avoided.

Another prominent theorist on behaviourism is Burrhus Frederic Skinner, an American psychologist who came up with the theory of operant conditioning, as opposed to Pavlov's theory of classical conditioning, in which the subject carries out a form of associated learning (Pavlov 1927,1960), operant conditioning is the use of extrinsic or intrinsic motivation to modify behaviour, and is broken down into two main categories, positive reinforcement which occurs when a pupil is achieving the teacher requirements and can be in the simplest of forms such as praise or a reward that the pupil conceives as pleasant and so continues the standards that are required, both methods are commonly used in schools to promote god behaviour in the process creating a safe learning environment with encouraging results observed in pupils behaviour patterns, critiques of Skinners theories are mainly associated with the relatively new field of Neuroscience, in which theorists claim that there is a direct link between learning and cognitive processes, disparaged by other Psychologists as to whether brain scanning has told us anything useful about cognitive neuroscience as yet (Coltheart 2006), a good computing metaphor for critiques is:

"No amount of knowledge about the hardware of a computer will tell you anything serious about the nature of the software that the computer runs. In the same way, no facts about the activity of the brain could be used to confirm or refute some information-processing model of cognition". (Coltheart 2004, p.22)

On lesson observations and teaching undertaken, it was observed that elements of all the theories worked, but with onus on the teacher putting the correct strategies in place for individual learners as well as group learning.

Forefront of every teachers mind, is the Every Child Matters agenda, which is underpinned in one way or another by all the theorists, but by far the most influential must be Maslow who developed a:

"Hierarchy of needs". (Maslow 1943, pp.370-96).

And as such has lasted the education ages, after being dispelled to become the prominent force, driving the needs of the modern day child. Maslow's hierarchy of needs contains five levels, physiological, safety, love/ belonging, esteem and self- actualisation in that ascending order and if the scaffolded pyramid is used in conjunction with the theorists aforementioned then the education and well being of any child is able to progress at the required pace.

Word Count - 3204

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