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Learning is a complex process. Research suggests that at least 15 of learners learn in a different way than they are generally taught. Learners whose cognition involves processing of information and methods of learning that are different from the 'traditional' teaching and learning methods are disadvantaged in education if an inclusive approach to pedagogy is not adopted (Fox 1995).
'It is an important necessity for any teacher to convert learning theories into strategies in the classroom to meet the needs of all children, including children with disabilities' (Taylor & Mackenney 2008, p.5).
There are a variety of learning theories which are widely accepted and prominent in today's educational environment, with each offering a different perspective of how a child's mind processes new information, therefore each providing different guidance on how teaching can best meet the needs of the individual learner. Many experts in neuroscience, psychology and education emphasise the importance of motivational and contextual influences, together with the importance of active, directed learning in ensuring that a child's potential is realised (Pritchard 2005). These learning theories have significant differences within education, for example, behaviourist theories appear to focus on more observable aspects of children's behaviours, whereas the cognitive theories for instance, looks beyond behaviour to explain brain-based learning. It has been argued that these two learning theories are the most common theoretical perspectives used in education (Jarvis et al 2003), however, the constructivism theory has been suggested to have revolutionised educational psychology. This theory uses much more of a pupil centred focus, emphasising the importance of active involvement of learners in constructing knowledge for themselves. Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence theory (MI) which identifies that individuals do not simply have one single learning ability, suggesting that intelligence differentiates into specific modals, has also been recognised in the field of learning theories. All these different theories have influenced thinking about children's learning in schools (Hughes, 2004) and have impacted upon the ways in which children are educated (Fisher, 1996).
This essay will examine to what extent the theories outlined above influence teaching strategies and practice, discussing how they have been implemented, by using evidence from three school based observations of lessons from a year 6 class. The observations focus on Mathematics, Literacy and Geography. The essay will also draw upon my personal experiences of learning theories within education and how they play a role in shaping me into the successful teacher that I want to become (See Appendix).
The UK Government have recognised theories of learning such as those outlined above, generating policies and guidelines within schools. However, applying these theories of learning within schools can vary significantly in relation to the school setting (Pritchard & Wollard 2010). Factors such as the working environment, the ethos of the school and the general preferences of teachers play a key role in determining the approach/ strategy used by the class teacher, and the burden is put upon the teacher to use their professionalism and expertise in these situations (Taber 2009). This would suggest it is highly important for every teacher to have both the knowledge and skills required to adopt various theories within their classrooms (Arthur, Grainger & Wray 2006).
As previously stated, behaviourism is one of the most common theoretical perspectives of learning, and it is through the initial work of John Watson, whose beliefs were based around the concept that behaviours can be measured, trained, and changed, that the theory began to emerge (Pritchard & Wollard 2010). The theory reiterates the 'traditional' view of teaching which sees the teacher as the transmitter of information and the children as passive receivers of the teachers word (Cockburn, 2001). The theory suggests that children use a stimulus response system within learning, with reactions being made to particular stimuli, causing a change in behaviour (Pritchard 2005). Thus behaviourist theories view children as 'blank slates to be written upon' (Passer & Smith, 2004). It encompasses a change in external behaviour achieved through a significant amount of repetition of desired actions, the reward of good habits and the discouragement of bad habits (Snowman, McCown & Biehler 2011).
B.F. Skinner built upon the behaviourism work of John Watson and identified two behavioural responses by children; classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning suggests that an action follows a given stimulus, with the famous case study of Pavlov's dogs a catalyst within this theory. From my observations, many examples of classical conditioning are evident within this teacher's methods, with perhaps the most memorable occasion occurring within my mathematics observation, where it was effectively used as a behaviour management tool. The lesson had a very teacher-centred approach and there was a system in the classroom that whenever noise levels reached a certain point (unacceptable level), the teacher would take control and clap their hands in a rhythm (this acting as the stimulus) and immediately all the children freeze and would clap their hands in response to the teacher's rhythm (response). Children responded immediately to this method, with the teacher controlling noise levels very effectively. This is a classic example of a behaviourist approach with the teacher being the dominant person and taking control of their classroom (Snowman, McCown & Bielher 2011). Also, the concept of reinforcement is apparent within this method, with this 'system' consisting of continuous repetitive actions (Pritchard 2005). Coolican (2004) argues that this approach to teaching is useful for creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning as it can aid behaviour management. Upon this evidence, it is apparent that this example of classical conditioning worked effectively and supports the notion of Watson in how behaviours can be changed and trained. However, from my own personal experiences a teacher-centred working environment can have its limitations in that lessons become less engaging and it also perhaps minimises opportunities for open group discussions for instance (see Appendix).
Skinner's own operant conditioning is distinguished from classical conditioning in that it concerns voluntary behavioural changes as oppose to reflex. The definition of operant conditioning is a form of learning described by many behaviourists in which a response increases in frequency as a result of its being followed by reinforcement (Coon & Mitterer 2008). Reinforcement and punishment are the core tools of operant conditioning and are either positive (delivered following a response) or negative (withdrawn following a response) (Pritchard 2005). Positive reinforcement was clearly a fundamental ethos of the school where I completed my first placement and observations, and this type of operant conditioning was evident to see within the Literacy lesson I observed. Children would be given a 'team point' for every correct spelling that they completed in their booklets and this was reinforced at the start of the lesson by the teacher to encourage children to work to their best capabilities. Children would count up there team points at the end of the week, with the winning table being rewarded with stationary equipment. The majority of children appeared to respond positively to this strategy, however, it was evident that a small handful did not feel motivated by this reward system. A further example of operant conditioning from my observations was in the Mathematics lesson, where two children in particular were consistently misbehaving. The school has a very clear and structured sanction process and a punishment was implemented by the class teacher, who after giving the children two verbal warnings, decided to retract the pupil's 'golden time' at the end of the day. This is a clear example of what Skinner classifies as operant conditioning in that when an undesirable behaviour is followed by a removal of stimulus, this results in a decrease in this behaviour. Or so the theory would suggest. It would be unjust to pass comment on the effectiveness of this teaching method from one single observation (Mercer 1995) of a Mathematics lesson as although the children were clearly appeared upset by the punishment and worked quietly for the rest of the lesson, the extent to which this would act as a barrier for misbehaviour in the future (consistently) remains unclear.
Behaviourism is evidently an extremely common theory used within schools and, upon reflection; it's apparent that it plays a major role in modern day teaching and has done for a number of years. As previously stated, when used effectively there are many advantages of adopting this type of approach as a teacher. However, there are many researchers that argue that as behaviourist theories only focus on external factors that can be objectively observed, they can always be falsifiable in terms of being proven right or wrong (Brain 2001). For example from my literacy observations surrounding reinforcement, research has shown efforts to reinforce responses do not always work with all students (Ramirez, 1983). Arthur et al (2006) suggest that where there is a right or wrong answer, this can be learnt and repeated at the appropriate time successfully (behaviourist theory), however, where additional and more in-depth understanding is needed, the methods of Skinner outlined previously cannot be considered to equip learners with sufficient adaptability to be able to use these learnt traits appropriately and successfully. Personal experiences would indicate to me that a highly teacher centred lesson with little, if any, opportunities for children to explore ideas and engage in the classroom can rarely be positive circumstances. The behaviourist approach appears to ignore human beings' complex thought processes and emotions, therefore perhaps creating a generalisation of behaviour for all children (Bandura 1978). From this, perhaps the behaviourist approach could be labelled as having a somewhat reductionist attitude in terms of suggesting that human behaviour is simply the product of stimulus response behaviours (Lattal & Chase 2003).
Contrasting the work of Watson and Skinner surrounding behaviourism was Jean Piaget's alternative theory of cognitive development, which takes into account children's thinking processes in learning. The theory indicates that thinking develops in a series of stages children reason differently to adults (Ramirez, 1983).This theory has had a significant impact on the teaching practice as a whole and in turn creates a real emphasis on the teachers need to deliver the learning experience at an inclusive and suitable level for each child, engaging that individual mentally and actively (Kyriacou 1986). According to Piaget's theory of cognitive development, the year 6 children that I observed would be at the concrete operational stage of development. This is the third of four stages and follows the pre-operational stage, occurring for children between the ages of 7 and 11 (Piaget 1973). The stage is surrounded by the concept of logic and children are said to solve problems in a more rational manner (Mcloed 2010). The most evident example of this theory occurred within my third and final observation of a geography lesson. Linking in extremely successfully to the concept of interaction, the teacher was producing a highly engaging lesson with the children being shown a map of Europe on an interactive whiteboard (IWB). The pupils were asked open-ended questions and were allowed to discuss in groups what countries and seas they thought they could name. This method of teaching worked very effectively, epitomised by the teacher asking questions that the children could rationally consider. This allowed the children to 'logically' solve the questions. It was also interesting to observe children interacting with one another successfully, allowing each individual in their small group the chance to participate and voice their opinions. This is a further example from within Piaget's concrete stage as it identifies that children now have the ability to distinguish between their own thoughts and the thoughts of others, and also that children recognise that their thoughts and perceptions may be different from those around them (Piaget 1973).
Another Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed a socio-cultural approach to cognitive development. His theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky 1978). Unlike Piaget's notion that children's development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued that social learning tends to precede development. He believed that cognitive development of children is enhanced when they work in their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Moll 1992). To reach the ZPD, it is suggested that children need the help of adults or more able individuals (peers) to support and scaffold them as they are learning new things (Moll 1992). From my observations, both in the mathematics and literacy lessons, the vast majority of children seem to be benefitting the most from independent work without the focus of the teacher or teaching assistant. Children relished the opportunity to work out things for themselves and this in turn made the lesson more successful. Their 'ZPD' at the stage appeared to be reached through independent work, contradictory to Vygotsky's theory. It occurred to me that in the mathematics lesson, there were a number of children who clearly understood the task that was required, however as they were sitting on a focus table with the teacher, they were unable to move on and enhance their learning through their own independent work. This concept is also echoed in my own personal experiences because I was very much an individual who enjoyed working independently and always had a feeling of pride when solving problems this way (See Appendix).
The social constructivist theory, which is strongly influenced by Vygotsky's work, has strong links with that of the socio-cultural approach. This theory views learning as active, where learners should discover principles, concepts and facts for themselves (Fry, Kettering & Marshall 2008). The concept of working alongside other people and sharing ideas as a team can result in learners building an understanding of a certain thing that could not be possible alone (Tuckman & Monetti 2010). Although in some ways contradictory to the previous observation example, within the geography lesson it was evident to see children embracing the opportunities to work alongside each other in 'talk partners', and this really seemed to engage the class. Many more ideas were being produced and children used this interaction to identify places upon the maps, showing effective use of social co-operation. This approach also shows an excellent example of discovery learning, where the learner draws upon their own previous experience and knowledge to find a solution to a problem (Arthur & Cremin 2010), which I believe to be a fantastic tool in the classroom (See Appendix). Giving the opportunity for children to discover the solution themselves really appeals to be as a prospective teacher, this also perhaps interlinking with my own personal views and experiences (See Appendix).
It is clear that from reflecting upon both my mathematics and literacy lessons, there is obvious evidence that both the behaviourist and cognitive learning theories are heavily used within this classroom. The majority of examples outlined above show scenarios where both theories have been implemented successfully by the class teacher, however, there are also some incidents where perhaps a certain theory may have been used ineffectively. It would appear that these two theories act as catalysts within schools and teachers need to utilise both in order to teach effectively (Taber 2009). Pritchard (2005) proposes that no one theory should be relied upon alone as a perspective from which to plan all teaching and learning. It would seem teachers need to be flexible in terms of their teaching approaches and assess the dynamics of a lesson when considering their planning in particular.
The final learning theory this essay will consider is Gardner's (1983) Multiple Intelligence theory. This theory suggests that intelligence is differentiated into specific 'modalities', as opposed to being dominated by a single general ability. This theory indicates that children have a preferred way of learning. There are 9 intelligences that Gardner believes an individual has the ability to possess including; kinaesthetic, spatial and interpersonal. The theory has been criticised by wide stream psychology for its dependence on subjective judgment, however, some models of alternative education promote these approaches suggested by Gardner (Carroll 1993). On a personal note, I was seen as a visual learner by teachers, someone who learnt most effectively through the use of visual aids (See Appendix). Clearly this theory attempts to incorporate every child, recognising that although a child may struggle with a certain task (e.g. taught visually), they much more of a chance to understand the task if it was catered for their preferred intelligence. Pritchard (2005) confirms this point, commenting that all learners are diverse and unique and the Multiple Intelligence theory ensures adaptability for this diversity.
From my observations, perhaps the lesson that most showed the teacher catering for a wide range of intelligences was the geography lesson. The use of the IWB was an excellent example for a visual and kinaesthetic and learner, as the activity involved children moving around to write on the board. The teacher also adapted well and used interpersonal skills through peer discussion groups as previously discussed. Clearly Gardner's MI model has the notion of inclusivity and really allows for the teacher to understand how each child learns most effectively (Sempsey 1993), however, the extent to which all 9 intelligences can be implemented within one lesson appears to be questionable.
It would appear that a variety of learning theories have a fundamental role within teaching practice and the extent/ methods in which these approaches are implemented within classrooms are always dependent on a number of factors such as the dynamics of a class and general teacher preferences. However, it is important to note that just 3 x 20 minute observations of one single year 6 class is a very brief analysis, and therefore cannot possibly be generalised to all teaching practice. Although, it would be reasonable to conclude that the most successful teachers appear to be those who incorporate a range of these learning theories as it is argued that no one theory should be relied upon alone as a perspective from which to plan all teaching and learning (Pritchard, 2005). It is important for any teacher to always be striving to improve, and as a prospective teacher myself, the significance of a wide range of theoretical understanding cannot be underestimated if I want to develop and expand my own personal levels of teaching practice.
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My educational autobiography by Steven Flowers...
From a very young age I was always a particularly reserved and shy boy, whether this was at school in a classroom or at home surrounded by my family. However, I look at myself today and see a completely different individual in the mirror. I see someone who loves interaction and socialising with a variety of people, someone who always voices their opinion whether this be with friends or in a room full of strangers. The one thing that has brought about this drastic change is my experiences of education and how I utilised a variety of learning styles to progress both academically and socially.
This essay will look at the transformation of my personal learning journey by addressing experiences I have had across my whole life, both in early and latter. It will critically evaluate both the positive and negative effects this has had on my personal learning, and will allow me to identify what influences these have on me as a learner of teaching as I embark on striving to become a genuinely prosperous student teacher. The essay will also draw close attention to Keith Taber's interesting article on learning experiences but will also look at a variety of other relevant sources, before offering sound conclusions and an evaluation of what the best methods are for me to utilise to become a successful learner-teacher and teacher-learner.
My first educational experience occurred for me at the age of 5 when starting primary school for the very first time. I was going into reception year and clearly remember the first walk to school I took with my Mum. I was so petrified and I recall protesting with my Mum that I did not wish to attend due to the fear of meeting other children for the first time. The primary school did not have great facilities and was filled with children from other disadvantaged families. Behaviour in classrooms was far from exempt and this seemed to have a damaging effect on me, with my will to participate with such 'rough' boys becoming less and less. My parents informed me that from various parents evenings one teacher's attitude was that the only way I was going to be a socially interactive person was to participate and not complain. This attitude in teaching appears to directly contradict what Taber (2009, p.82) states in that,
"Teaching is an interactive process: which requires great sensitivity and flexibility..."
The opinions of this teacher in no way appear to be sensitive and further evidence for this comes from Snowman, McCown and Bielher (2002) who argue that teachers should be aware of the emotional and social needs of the student but also to empathise and respond positively to them.
Incidents like this seem to plague my early years at primary school, which appeared to have a direct link to my weak social skills and my unwillingness to participate in various activities in and out of the classroom. The teaching levels from what I was told seemed to marginally improve by the time I went into year 3, where my self-confidence and social skills were showing slight improvements. Academically I started to progress, however, in mathematics it became apparent I was really struggling. I have a very distinct memory of my maths teacher in year 3, she had a very formal structure to her lessons and rarely any interaction between the class occurred. Many lessons were completed in silence, with the children having to complete mathematical sums from textbooks. Cox (1996) argues that although some structure to a lesson plan is essential, a lesson with no interaction and engagement can rarely contribute to effective learning. Taber (2009, p. 84) takes this one step further stating,
"One of the main characteristics of effective learning is the active engagement of the learner's mind."
It became apparent to various teachers and my parents at this time that I was a visual learner. I did not particularly work effectively when there was no interaction in a lesson and simply copying out of a textbook was never going to improve my learning. The collaborative opinion between teachers from one parents evening suggested that I learnt best through visual aids such as props, the use of ICT and diagrams (Arthur & Cremin 2010). When I think back to that time I distinctively remember my enjoyment of classes with my English teacher whose interactive lessons really engaged my mind and in turn I gradually began to become more relaxed socially and was now not afraid to answer a question in the classroom.
Moving into years 5 and 6 I became gradually more and more confident and I believe this was down to a psychological factor that I was now one of the eldest or 'big' children in the school. This appeared to relax me much more both in the classroom and at home socially. During this time my parents told me how much more my self-esteem grew and that I actually gave the impression that I 'enjoyed' attending school. Academically, however, there were still underlying issues relating to teaching standards in mathematics. Although the teaching was engaging enough, due to the lack of pupils in my year at school there were only two maths sets and as I had not particularly thrived at maths in previous years I was placed in the lower set. My ability at maths had improved significantly after my preferred learning style was recognised, however, due to the slow pace of lessons because of the wide ranged abilities in the class I could not improve and progress to my full learning potential. I believe any teacher should always cater for individual differences within a class and a successful teacher will find the right pace at which to present their ideas. Taber (2009) re-iterates this point suggesting that even when a curriculum has certain restraints, a good teacher will know what particular groups of pupils are ready to cope with. However, it is important to understand that a teacher must introduce work slowly and not overload the pupil and clearly a balance must be found between these two issues within teaching (Taber 2009).
The transition of schools when I was aged 11 proved to be what I believe the catalyst in shaping the individual that I am today. The school had a wider range of learning facilities and it was refreshing to see a much larger range of teachers, each having their own specified subject. The move to a new school also gave me a chance to build on my improving social skills and start fresh with other pupils. The first indication that the teaching levels at the school were excellent came in my first lesson of Humanities, where the teacher showed such a genuine interest and passion in her subject. Taber (2009) suggests that a successful teacher is someone who can transfer their specialist knowledge effectively. Every single child was engaged in the class through the sheer energy in the room. This was nothing like I had ever experienced before and my interest level increased dramatically. Things such as group presentations, debates and historical essay writing allowed me to integrate into friendship groups and build confidence as an individual. This really mirrors the philosophy of Vygotsky in that being able to plan and discuss topics within an intellectual group extends knowledge and understanding, showing that effective learning can occur in social situations (Dahl 2003).
From this evidence using the Grasha-Reichmann Learning Style Scale it is evident at that time I was a collaborative learner, in that I learned most successfully when put into group situations following specific tasks (Grasha & Reichmann 1972).
I was quite apprehensive at starting my GCSE's in year 9, recognising the fact that I needed to achieve good results and only I could be responsible for this. The change in the teaching style was apparent in that much more was expected of the pupils, more homework was assigned and information portrayed in lessons was at a much higher level. A particular instant that stood out for me was a Geography homework task, where we were asked to create a project based on a country of choice. I loved having the responsibility to create my own project and to learn for myself and I excelled in a variety of tasks similar to this throughout the year. It is apparent at this time I was a discovery learner and I personally strongly agree with Taber (2009), who argues that within education children should be taught to learn for themselves.
The work was clearly challenging, however I did not feel overwhelmed at any stage and through my new found confidence I was able to stop and ask the teacher questions if I did not understand a certain element/ topic. I believe it is important to recognise that a teacher must be approachable to their pupils and Hativa (2001) re-iterates this opinion, arguing that the most successful teachers are those who are respected by their students and this is achieved through a patient and approachable personality.
I achieved the grades I aimed for from my GCSE's and upon reflecting on myself at that time, I felt like a completely transformed individual from when I was at primary school. The shy, unwilling child was replaced by a confident teenager who was eager to learn more and achieve their learning potential.
With this attitude I had no qualms about furthering my studies to A-Level at my local college. I quickly realised the level of hard work that was needed to achieve successful grades and through my relationships with various teachers and my own determination I was able to accomplish this. Many, if not all, of my teachers encouraged active and effective processing of information in lessons, recognising that only the learner can construct a better understanding of a topic (Taber 2009). This allowed me once again to experiment a variety of methods of processing information and allowed me to discover my preferred way of learning. I particularly excelled in Law at A-Level and one of the main reasons for this was my teacher who created a very 'pupil friendly' environment, recognising the importance of motivation levels and ensuring her students maintained that will to learn (Leask 2009).
Moving away from home for the first time to university proved to be somewhat of an overwhelming experience in that I was completely in control of my own learning, there was no-one to motivate me to learn and I had to develop the ability to learn for myself. Initially, the information that was presented at various lectures and seminars completely overloaded me and I found that I could not process the information sufficiently as Taber (2009, p.86) states,
"Most of us can only hold a very limited number of factors in mind at once".
However, I then began to recognise the importance of further reading and research to further my understanding and gradually began to develop a clearer acknowledgement of information. It is clear to observe that at university I was an autonomous learner - someone who is in charge of 'ones' own learning (Benson 2001). At university I did not have that contact with my lecturers as I had experienced in previous learning, however, I believe that this has made me a more self reliant person and someone who can now stand on their own two feet.
In summary, it is interesting to observe that an individual such as me can explore such a vast range of learning styles and I believe it is important to recognise from a teaching perspective that all children do learn differently. It is also particularly interesting to see just how much my experience of education has shaped my social skills, making me the person I am today. The teacher that I want to become has most definitely been shaped by my educational experience, and I believe this only to be a positive thing as Taber (2009, p.89) states,
"Teacher, teach thyself, and then teach others by your example".
I want to be a teacher who adapts for all children's learning styles, creates an interactive 'pupil friendly' environment and with my own personal successes from the discovery learning method, someone who allows children to learn for themselves to an extent.
Since university I have had an underpinning urge to get into teaching and education and from my experiences of learning and my exposure in the field through a teaching assistant job, I will strive to acquire the necessary qualities as a student teacher to succeed as an effective and engaging practitioner.