Evaluate the key theories of learning in schools

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Theories of learning find their roots in the realm of child development, and, as such the two terms are often interchangeable. It is appropriate to define the term development; child development is defined by the Inter-American Development Bank (referenced in Arthur & Cremin, 2010) as "a multifaceted, integral, and continual process of change in which children become able to handle ever more complex levels of moving, thinking, feeling and relating to others", alternatively "Child development refers to the biological and psychological changes that occur in human beings between conception and the end of adolescence, as the individual progresses from dependency to increasing autonomy" (http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/definition_child_development.html). Many definitions of child development describe the process of child development as the progression from dependence to autonomy and highlight the value of experience in this regard. However, as it is difficult to define their effects/value many definitions do not account for the impact of place, time and cultural and social influence upon both the likelihood for development and the level of development which can be achieved. These are important factors affecting learning which cannot be overlooked.

As will become clear, learning is not (and should not be) restricted to childhood - learning is constantly available through all of our experiences. Learning is however, more rapid and receives significantly more focus at the earlier stages of life due to the requirement to promptly develop cognitive, social and emotional skills which form part of the growing personality of the child. It is important to note however, that cause and effect are unclear. For example it could also be personality (at any stage of its development) which affects the environments and situations to which the child chooses to expose themselves and subsequently the content and quality of the learning available.

There are a number of theories which aim to explain this process of child development, how they begin and continue to learn, and explain the reasons for developmental differences between children. These theories have over time experienced their own development with continuing research and are often influential upon what is determined as best practice for teaching to facilitate maximal child development (Q10). In other words, the ways in which children develop directly affect pedagogy of both individual teachers and the ethos adopted by the school (Q22). The competency of the teacher to deliver teaching which caters for individual developmental needs affects development through learning and subsequently may generate the need for modification of pedagogy (dependant upon the level/success of teaching). It is therefore the responsibility of the teacher to monitor the progress and effectiveness of their teaching for each child, especially to provide each child with the ability to competently identify opportunities for learning and the way(s) in which they can best derive the maximal benefit from each of these opportunities. This clearly demonstrates the cyclical nature of development and the requirement for all parties to be committed to the learning process. This is crucial as developmental progress made at the early stages of life are influential way beyond childhood; the experiences which bring about learning are very likely to shape adult experience, adult personality/tendencies/preferences and success as defined by the terms of Every Child Matters policy (to be healthy, to stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being).

This teaching must begin at an early stage through parental influence (Q5) - as all experiences can have a beneficial impact upon learning - and continue through the early stages where play is constructive, and onwards during the entirety of the formal schooling period.

It has been identified by various researchers (e.g. Piaget 1951; Smilansky, 1968 & Power, 2000) that there are different types of play which are valuable as the earliest form of learning through experimentation and rule testing, these are:

Locomotor or physical-activity play including exercise and rough and tumble play.

Play with objects.

Fantasy and socio-dramatic play.

Language play.

Friedrich Froebel (1906) also recognised the value of play;

"Play, truly recognised and rightly fostered, unites the germinating life of the child attentively with the ripe life of experiences of the adult and thus fosters the one through the other." (referred to in Smith, P. K., Cowie, H. & Blades, M. 2003, p. 229)

Considering this approach, development can be sought by the child and nurtured by guidance from adults including teachers. This process is enhanced by the provision of the appropriate materials and learning environments as shaped by the teacher.

It is essential for all learning that language, both spoken and observed (body) are used appropriately to facilitate learning - without language we cannot pass on the knowledge and experience required for growth through guidance. Conversely it is clear that language is not necessary for self-experimentation, although it would help the learner to discuss their observations following the experimentation. With this in mind, it is necessary for children to be exposed to many styles and levels of language ability to learn from one another, especially in finding an alternative if one party finds communication difficult. Thus the teacher should encourage communication and foster co-operation throughout learning activities. In an inclusive environment, successful employment of this technique will allow all children to maximise their potential under the guidance of a robust, flexible and rich pedagogy.

A number of the key points provided by a number of key theorists who have influenced learning are discussed below;

Jean Piaget (1951) focused on how the child comes to understand their world by observing children's thought processes, elicited during open-ended conversation with them. The success of this method is clearly dependent upon the researcher's ability to ask appropriate questions.

Piaget suggested that children progress through 4 age-related stages of thought by testing the logic applied to their intelligence, beginning with practice play, through symbolic play (fantasy/pretend play), to games with rules. The child possesses a number of sets of mental operations which can be applied to objects, ideas and concepts known as 'schemas'. The schema (awareness of an entity) can be tested and adapted where appropriate over time, through 'assimilation' and 'accommodation'.

Piaget indicated that the child is innately able to co-ordinate existing schemas with one another to undertake various activities at once, or use more than one schema to solve a problem. In other words, learning influences the approach to further learning. By assimilating new knowledge into existing schemas, the child's knowledge and schemas are enhanced, but may be incorrectly. With further sensory stimulation, new information can be accommodated into existing schemas, or into a new schema where the child recognises a flaw in their reasoning. The innate wish for equilibrium between consolidating mental structures (assimilation) and growth through the impact of knowledge on existing schemas (adaptation) gives the learner a thirst for learning. This thirst reaches its peak when the experience pushes but does not over-stretch the capacity to process and either assimilate or accommodate the new information.

However, Piaget's research methods have been questioned; his approach was flexible to the needs of the individual child under observation and therefore through this non-standardised method it is not possible to generate replicable quantitative data. Furthermore, Piaget's theory has been criticised as it places a heavy emphasis upon the child's failures rather than successes regarding their schemas.

Although these issues exist, Piaget's theory is influential today. His theory highlights the need to adapt teaching to the needs of the child as an active, rather than passive, learner. In this way the teacher should create an environment and engineer situations which allow the child to test and speculate. By extension, the teacher should be interested in the reasoning which generates the child's answers, rather than the answer itself. This allows the teacher to provide content appropriate for and to bring maximum benefit to each individual child. As highlighted by Piaget it is also key to provide opportunities for social interaction to develop a viewpoint which is less egocentric, consider others' and their opinions and develop vocabulary needed to discuss issues.

From my experience it is clear that pupils struggle to generate stories as they have not experienced abstract ideas based in fantasy and do not possess a vocabulary which is wide enough. As such, parents should be encouraged to read to their child to develop these skills and as suggested test what they are hearing rather than simply listen (this relates to Q30, Q4 and Q5). The teacher should ensure that their planning provides many opportunities for children to read, experience and develop imaginative skills (this relates to Q1).

Like Piaget, Lev Vygotsky (1933) viewed the child as an active constructor of knowledge and understanding, but was more interested in how knowledge is passed from generation to generation and by consequence how culture affects beliefs which are held by the child. Through social interaction with more experienced others the child can develop the tools and knowledge they need to become active members of the current society and as such are a product of their cultural influences including language, art, music and symbols developed by the existing society. In this way learning is instructive in nature. Like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that play was a valuable method of learning and 'the leading source of development in the preschool years' (Smith, P K & Cowie, H. & Blades, M. (2003) p 231). Through play the child can be liberated from the constraints of their environment and are able to test the world in an imaginary situation.

Central to Vygotksy's theory was the zone of proximal development (ZPD) defined as the difference between what a child can do with help and what he or she can do without guidance. Clearly, this gives the child a level of potential based on the quality of instruction they receive from more experienced peers and/or adults. However, Vygotsky's theory never indicated how the more experienced teacher influenced the transition through the ZPD to achieve their potential.

In this way the teacher is responsible for identifying the appropriate time and method for intervention to assist in moving the learner from what they can do with help to what they can do alone. This concept, known as scaffolding, following Bruner's extension of Vygotsky's theory continues to be used today. The intervention gives the child a structure within which they become able to formulate meaning.

Current practice in school caters for learning in this way by assigning some time for mixed-ability group activities; those more able are stretched by the activity they are presented with and are able to transport those who are less able through the various stages of thought needed to solve the problem. From my observations this gives confidence to both parties and an interest in future learning.

Howard Gardner (1983) identified three methods/types of learning/learner as below. These categories share principles with the theories noted above.

A Visual learner prefers to see something and be able to read it. This type of learner achieves best when given hand-outs and sees displays which demonstrate the learning content.

An Auditory learner prefers to talk about the issue and listen. This type of learner is likely to find it most beneficial to learn from a lecture and during discussion.

A Kinaesthetic learner prefers to learn by doing and touching things. This type of learner is best suited by an activity which includes a physical activity to test the learned theory such as a science experiment.

This can be demonstrated using an analogy regarding one's approach to building flat-pack-furniture; there are three common approaches, (i) you read all the instructions and check you have all the pieces before you commence building (visual learner), (ii) you ignore the instructions completely and simply complete the build by trial and error (kinaesthetic) or (iii) you have to build the item with someone so that one can discuss the next step/find it beneficial to say what you are doing aloud if you are alone (Auditory).

During childhood, the child tends to learn best using a single learning style. With age and experience, the child tends to gain the capacity to learn in many ways because of the ability to adapt to new challenges and environments. Alternatively, this ability is perhaps the product of an enhanced understanding regarding ways to gain information via another learning style. By becoming an effective learner the child can become more flexible, adaptable and gain the information they need to achieve the learning goals in more ways than one. Similarly it becomes possible for the child to adopt a number of strategies which can be used to solve problems.

When planning for the class-room it is important to make sure that there are opportunities for all types of learner to be able to learn in their optimum way and achieve their potential (Relates to Q23). It is essential to ensure that everyone is concentrating on the task and is therefore able to take in the information (Relates to Q10). Changing the activities to suit auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learners also breaks the lesson into sections, preventing loss of attention, as children appear to struggle to concentrate for longer than 10 minutes.

Honey and Mumford (2000) also propose a number of learner types based on a number of learning phases through which an individual may pass (extending the research and theory of Kolb). They postulate that different people prefer different methods of learning dependent upon the current situation and environment. The person moves within the cycle of;

Experiencing a stimulus

Reflecting on the object/the experience

Drawing conclusions and analysis

Testing theory

Based on the child's observations the cycle may be completed and learning takes place, or the cycle is repeated until understanding is gained. The types of learner identified correlate with these stages:

the 'Activist' prefers doing and experiencing

the 'Reflector' observes and reflects

the 'Theorist' wants to understand the underlying reasons, concept and relationships and,

the 'Pragmatist' likes to "have a go" try things to see if they work.


Honey and Mumford devised a questionnaire which allows the individual to identify their learning style and therefore the most effective way for them to maximise their learning potential. This method of course is reliant upon the respondent honestly answering the questionnaire with their preferences rather than answering according to what they believe will generate the result they would prefer. Equally, the questionnaire as a quantitative measure may provide a result which is inconclusive i.e. the learning style returned is a mixture of more than one style.

It is important however, to recognise the value this can have in the classroom; by being able to identify the learning styles and percentages of each, the teacher can plan according to individual and the collective majority needs (Relates to Q22).

Abraham Maslow proposed the Hierarchy of Need which included five levels of need which humans must satisfy sequentially to allow learning to occur. These include:

1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep, etc.

2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.

3. Belongingness and Love needs - work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.

4. Esteem needs - self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.

5. Self-Actualization needs - realising personal potential and self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences by developing an understanding of morality acceptance of facts and developing problem solving skills for example.

(Cited in Powers, 2005)

Maslow indicated that by satisfying one need another higher need is recognised. Through this desire, development becomes possible and potential for development is only restricted by the individual's motivation to experience situations from which they can gain skills and or knowledge. In this way learning is continual once the basic physiological needs described by levels one to four (deficiency motivators) have been satisfied to a level satisfactory for the child, they are able to gratify their motivators for growth and seek opportunities or knowledge to do so. For example, it is not possible to motivate a child to achieve their learning target (level 4) when they're having problems with their parents (level 3). Equally, a child would find it difficult to work in a group (level 3) when they're having to move house (level 2).

This demonstrates the value of PHSE and SEAL programmes I have seen delivered; if a child is unable to deal with their emotions and articulate their feelings, they are not free to learn. By understanding their emotions and those of others and how to behave accordingly allows development opportunities for all children. To aid this process the teacher must create an environment in which the child feels physically and emotionally safe to facilitate effective development (Relates to Q31).

John West-Burnham proposes another holistic view on the process of learning as a developmental process. As previously noted a number of levels are offered, but here in terms of the level of learning which can be derived from the presented information i.e. learning can be shallow ("what"), deep ("how") or profound ("why").

Shallow learning allows the child to develop a bank of knowledge through memorisation and replication of facts normally delivered by the teacher, whilst deep learning affords the child an understanding of the meaning and therefore impact of the delivered content. Deep learners are able to absorb knowledge and reflect on it and their method of learning. The teacher must engage in discussion with the learner to ensure that the conclusion drawn (and understanding) is correct e.g. can the child explain, justify and contextualise facts. Profound learning allows the child to begin the development of a sense of self as a unique entity capable of self-influence as a growth mechanism (similarity to Maslow's theory of self-actualization can be drawn here). Profound learning gives perception of potential for achievement and constructive evaluation of success and failure. In this regard the teacher should teach about morality and strive to develop an immeasurable level of self-confidence, delivered in a way which serves to provide maximum benefit for each child.

As the youth of today experiences a wide cultural and social influence it is necessary to teach skills beyond shallow learning which allow the adult (as a product of their childhood experience) to be adaptable and responsive to a wide number of people with a wide number of beliefs i.e. as the consensus of societal opinion widens, children need to develop a greater level of complexity of thought which allows them to be flexible to the beliefs and behaviours of others as a product of their culture (Relates to Q18). For this reason, it is appropriate to encourage inclusion in our schools, where teachers inspire the value of others as a role model (Towards to Q2).

As highlighted above, learning is continual and cyclical. Existing knowledge, the environment including social and cultural contexts and the beliefs of others are heavily influential on learning. Whilst genetics (nature) may pre-dispose us to learning in a particular way and may define our capacity for learning, learning cannot take place outside of the environmental context (nurture). As the theories discussed above concur, learning takes place during various stages - normally age-related - which cannot be accurately depicted as they vary from one person to another. Furthermore whilst the theorists do not concur on how others (adults and peers) influence the learning process, they agree of their involvement and the benefit of collaborative working as a tool for social development (Relates to Q6). A rounded education with many social and cultural aspects develops a rounded young individual who is capable of achieving both their personal goals and functioning as a valuable member of society, where that society becomes capable of achieving the collective goal(s).