The key issue is a mismatch between Joe's preferred learning style and Mr Grammatack's teaching style. The case presents a student who for all intents and purposes is an engaged and motivated student. However, his achievements are consistently average. The teacher's behaviourist teaching style produces apprehension and lack of confidence in students. There appears to be a disparity between teaching and learning styles. Principles of differentiated learning may provide a solution to this disparity.
Theories of learning inform how people learn and consequently how educators teach. Three paradigms are explored. Firstly, behaviourists contend that learning occurs when desired responses are strengthened or weakened through reinforcement. Secondly, Cognitivists assert that learning takes place as a result of complex information processing. Thirdly, Constructivists posit that learning takes place when people actively construct new meanings based on prior knowledge and experience. Finally, Differentiated Learning is presented as a model for learning and teaching. Proponents of Differentiated Learning avow that people are capable of performing well in any circumstance when they are taught how to learn and when their preferred learning style is catered for. Thus Joe's situation could improve by teaching him not only what to learn but how to learn, and by creating parity between his learning style and Mr Grammatack's pedagogy.
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Behaviourists theorise that learning is a function of a person's interaction with their environment (O'Donohue & Ferguson, 2001). Learning is understood as a change in behaviour resulting from external reactions to target behaviours (Nagowah & Nagowah, 2009; Pritchard, 2009). Behavioural pedagogies use rewards and punishments to promote or reduce behaviour (Driscoll, 1994). Complex behaviours are achieved by shaping. Shaping arises when consecutive behaviours of increasing complexity are reinforced (Pritchard, 2009). This approach to learning aims to develop predictable learned responses. However, it does not consider individual motivation and cognition in the learning process. The focus is on what is learnt, not how to learn. Consequently recall and adaptability of information can be limited (Nagowah & Nagowah, 2009). Moreover, Kohn argues that effects are short lived, ineffective and stifle creativity (Kohn, 1999).
Cognitivists theorise that learning is function of a person's ability to acquire, process, recall and use information (Driscoll, 1994; Nagel, 2011). Learning is understood as a change in cognitive associations as a result of mental processing of acquired information (Pritchard, 2009). According to cognitive processing theory new information enters the sensory memory, forms patterns in the short term memory and links are established within the long term memory (Driscoll, 1994; Reiser, 2007). Learning is based on rules of association between old and new information (Nagowah & Nagowah, 2009). Critical stages of learning are gaining learner attention and presenting information in a meaningful way; connecting previous knowledge (Reiser, 2007).
Constructivists theorise that learners construct knowledge. Learning occurs when learners are forced to accommodate conflicts between existing and new knowledge. Disequilibrium between old and new knowledge means learners must form new connections or schema (Harlow, Cummings, & Aberasturi, 2006). Constructivism considers both personal cognitive processes, and engagement with social and cultural experiences, as the mediation of knowledge (Nagel, 2011). Learners are active participants in learning by testing new ideas and concepts. According to Adams (2006) teaching must focus on; cognition of learning, students as co-constructors of knowledge, meaningful tasks and assessment as discovery of knowledge. However, learners must be challenged on the validity of conclusions through critical thinking (Hyslop-Margison & Strobel, 2008).
The central tenet of cognitive pedagogies is that learners construct their own knowledge (Pritchard, 2009). It is imperative that students are taught to develop effective learning strategies by understanding how they learn (Joseph, 2009). It is equally essential that teachers understand, and cater for, student learning styles (Sternberg, 2002). Parity or disparity between teaching and learning styles impacts on student learning (Sternberg, 2002; Zhang & Sternberg, 2002). Teachers, therefore, must create differentiated learning experiences which maximise strengths and compensate for weaknesses of student thinking and learning styles (Sternberg, 1998; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2004; Sternberg & Zhang, 2005). Differentiated learning ensures learning experiences are student centred and offer students multiple avenues to acquire, process and demonstrate knowledge (Tomlinson, 2001). Tomlinson and Strickland (2005) contend that by understanding who and what we teach educators can become more flexible in how they teach. Differentiated learning thus accounts for student readiness to learn, links learning to student interests and caters for preferred learning styles.
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I have learned that all students are capable of learning if given the right learning experience. I appreciate the importance of planning for diverse learning needs. Furthermore, I learned that I need to provide students with meaningful and challenging learning experiences; helping them make new connections to existing knowledge. I have also learned that it is important to not only teach students what to learn but how to learn.
Application to future practice
Using learning inventories or questionnaires I would get to know how different students learn; including learning something about students' interests. At the beginning of a unit I would undertake a pre unit assessment to determine students' current skills and knowledge in the area. This information will assist me in differentiating learning experiences to maximise the learning-teaching experience. The following scenario is based on a year 10 science class.
Declan is an extrovert and prefers to learn by doing and discussing. He likes motorbikes and competes in motocross competitions. Declan gets bored and tunes out whenever content is delivered in a didactic lecture style. He has difficulty in relating theory to practice. The class is beginning to focus on laws and equations of motion.
For the next class Declan is asked to have a friend video him competing in motocross. He is to also ask his friend to time his heats for him. Declan is also asked to find out the length of the competition circuit. During the next class Declan is asked to show students the clip of his motocross competition. He then provides students with the circuit length and time taken to complete each heat. The information is used to present the formula for calculating velocity; velocity equals distance travelled divided by time taken (v=s/t). Several in-class experiments can be used to give other examples and applications.
This example shows how linking learning style, with interest and building on existing knowledge and experience can make lessons interesting and effective.
This case specifically relates to Standards 1, 2, 4, 5 and 10 of the Professional Standards for Queensland Teachers (Queensland College of Teachers, 2006). These consider learning styles, literacy, diverse learning experiences, methods of assessment and reflective teaching practice.