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Ivan Pavlov was the pioneer of a behaviourist learning theory called classical conditioning. Pavlov proposed that, 'when a new signal or stimulus brings out an existing behavioural response, classical conditioning occurs' (Lindon, 2005, p27). The term classical conditioning means 'the reinforcement of a natural reflex or some other behaviour which occurs as a response to a particular stimulus' (Pritchard, 2005, p8). Reflexes occur again and again to change a particular behaviour, thus the behaviour must be changed to fit the new stimulus.
Classical conditioning could be applied in the classroom very easily, for example, when learning the times tables. The times tables are learned off by heart, 6 x 3 = 18, or important dates in history, the end of World War II was 1945. Classical conditioning is very effective in these subject areas where there is only one correct answer.
B.F Skinner, an American psychologist who was heavily influenced by Pavlov, introduced the theory of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning involves 'voluntary responses...under conscious control' (Long, 2000, p13). According to Pritchard, this theory 'is more flexible in its nature than classical conditioning and therefore more powerful' (Pritchard, 2005, p9).
Skinner believes that learning is a result of repetition and positive or negative reinforcement.
For example, if a child has done well in a class test, then the positive feeling is great enough for the child to want to experience it again and the child will therefore work hard to do well again. Passing the test for the child is the reward for good behaviour or studying hard. In the classroom situation, teacher given rewards are the positive reinforcement, such as stickers or gold stars. These rewards are the motivation the child needs to do well again. These rewards must be of some significance or importance to the child and cannot simply be given out randomly (Chaplain, 2000, p310).
Operant conditioning is not always used to reward positive behaviour. When bad behaviour is displayed in the classroom, the child is punished. The child does not like being punished and changes his behaviour.
In the 1960's, a Canadian psychologist, Albert Bandura, drew on Skinners theory and developed the theory further, with relation to 'modelled behaviour'. Bandura believes that model behaviour, attitudes and emotional reactions should be emphasised and highlighted.
He revealed that children learn new behaviours by watching adults and other children and by copying what they see, from mainly family members (Whitebread, 2000, p260). Bandura also observed that children are likely to imitate or copy behaviour from the television.
In a classroom situation, this theory can be applied by every adult that enters the classroom. The teacher will display behaviour and attitudes that he or she wishes the children to display. It is vital therefore, that all adults in the school environment display and uphold socially acceptable behaviour, qualities and attitudes.
Jean Piaget, one of the central theorists of constructivism, believed that children use a schema to organise their thoughts (Lindon, 2005, p36). He believed that children learn in four stages and that each stage builds on the preceding one. These four stages are; sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational.
The sensorimotor stage occurs between 0 to 2 years. This stage is learning through sensation and movement. During this stage, children believe that when an object is out of sight that it no longer exists.
The preoperational stage occurs between the ages of 2 and 7 years. During this stage, children begin using language to help themselves understand and expand on concepts, classify objects in one category (such as shape or size), but will be unable to grasp multiple classifications (such as shape and size). Children will exhibit egocentric and animistic thinking, which means giving inanimate objects human feelings, such as accidentally kicking a table and blaming the table. Children should be able to create categories of objects, work with the concept of number, understand logical relationships of growing difficulty and begin to grasp the idea of conservation (e.g. the volume of water in 2 different shaped dishes is still the same).
The third stage, concrete operational, occurs at the ages of 7 to 11 years. In this stage children should be able to progressively see things from another person's point of view, use concrete materials to become competent of many logical operations, and manipulate classifications and grouping.
The final stage is formal operational, which occurs at the ages of 11+ years. In this stage children should be able to become confident in logical thinking with the concept of abstractions, and they should be able to think scientifically. This means drawing a hypothesis and offering interpretations. 'Formal operational permits the development of a system of values and ideals, and an appreciation of philosophical ideas' (Jarvis, 2005, p23).
This theory has been widely criticized for many reasons; unreliable sample of children with no diversity (using his own children or children from the same or similar backgrounds), little or no 'hard evidence' and it is unlikely that the children understood the task as Piaget often used complex language.
Another argument against Piaget's theory was raised by a fellow constructivist, Jerome Bruner. Bruner argued that some things are beyond a learner's grasp, dependent on what stage the learner is in.
This theory can be applied easily in any of the stages of primary school learning. In upper primary, children who have reached the formal operational stage will be able to understand abstract concepts and theoretical ideas, where children who have not reached this stage, will not be able to understand.
Russian Lev Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development is heavily accepted as social constructivism because of the emphasis on the involvement of learning made by others (Jarvis, 2005, p28). Vygotsky believed in the 'zone of proximal development', or ZPD, which is the area of potential learning. There are 3 areas of development. The area of actual development is the first area, which is what the child already knows. The zone of proximal development is what the child is ready to learn and beyond the zone of proximal development is what the child is not able to or ready to learn.
As a teacher it is crucial that we pitch the lesson at the right level. It has been proven that Vygotsky's theory of the zone of proximal development is successful in the classroom. Children will experience most success in the ZPD, although some children will also be able to learn beyond the ZPD with help from the teacher.
Jerome Bruner, an American psychologist who was heavily influenced by the theories and concepts of Jean Piaget, developed his own theory of cognitive development, which had a main principle called scaffolding. Scaffolding is a term for direction given to learners in the progression of gaining new knowledge, skill and understanding (Urquhart, 2000). Examples of this in the classroom include probing and providing clues. If the child cannot reach an answer, the teacher may give them hints or clues instead of giving them the answer. This allows the child to think for themselves and makes them realise that they do not need as much help as they think they do. This theory is quite astute, as in schools children are constantly being encouraged to find their own answers in what they already know. Scaffolding builds confidence in children by allowing them to draw their own conclusions and answers from clues provided by the teacher.
Another principle of Bruner's is the spiral curriculum. This spiral curriculum is supported by Piaget's theory of building on each previous stage in the development. Bruner says that in each stage of the development basics should be revisited in order to strengthen knowledge that the child already has, until they completely understand. Building on Piaget's theory of the four stages of cognitive development definitely gives strength to Bruner's principle of the spiral curriculum, and leaves it less open to criticism.