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Although the philosophical interest in methods of learning can be traced back to Plato and Ancient Greece, a renewed interest in the study of the human mind and human behaviour began in the late nineteenth century, and since the gradual international implementation of compulsory education (introduced into Britain in the 1870s) there have been many educational psychologists who have contributed their theories of how children learn in order to enable their educators understand how children develop and learn best.
Learning begins for children from a very early age, long before they participate in formal education and although not the exclusive domain of an educational establishment, for the purpose of this essay, I shall be considering the main learning theories of, Psychoanalytical, Behaviourism, Constructivism and Individual Learning Preferences ('multiple intelligences') which impact on how education is structured today and the influence child development has on their learning whilst reflecting on the rationale of the theorists related to class room practice. Using the theories of for example, Froebel, Piaget, Vygotsky, Maslow and Gardener, we are able as teachers to devise particular strategies which will enable children to learn best.
Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) the German educationalist's work in the first half of the nineteenth century identified core principles around which he was able to construct a theory for the promotion of children's learning through play, believing that the first learning experiences of the very young are of crucial importance in influencing not only their later educational achievements but also the health and development of society as a whole.
''Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone
is the free expression of what is in a child's soul." (Friedrich Froebel, 1832)
Promoting the importance of parental involvement in their child's education, Froebel also believed in encouraging children to learn from their environment, especially the outdoor environment and actively encouraged women to be involved in schooling children. Froebel's beliefs in children learning through free self-activity, creativity, social participation, and motor expression and teaching a child from their point of attainment were deemed by many to be the key to social progress and Froebel's 'kindergarten system' quickly spread throughout Europe and North America. (Q10)
Froebel's theories can be seen very clearly in the policies of the Early Year's Foundation Stage (EYFS) which follows the principles set out in Every Child Matters: Change for Children' (ECM) (2004) the ECM outcomes being: be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic wellbeing. In the EYFS I observed educators strive to recognise and encourage individual levels of development whilst striking a balance between adult and child initiated interactions. Accurate and ongoing assessments of a child performance ensures the teachers can provide continued challenging yet achievable experiences, and by giving children the tools to develop socially and cognitively through play, children's learning outcomes are greatly enhanced. Special relationships are encouraged between school and parents not only at EYFS stage but throughout a child's school career and disadvantaged children have been seen to especially benefit from pre-school education. (Q7a, Q8, Q10, Q14, Q15)
Although more influential in therapy than in education, the central Psychoanalytical Theories principles of supporting children when working through emotional problems and developing their well-being whilst recognising the importance of early experiences and the impact of social and cultural factors have on a child, can be seen to underpin my base school Berridge Infant and Junior School's ethos and values. In the PHSE programme, Berridge School uses a whole-school approach, to complement, consolidate and strengthen good practice in the school and reinforce the recognised links between emotional wellbeing and effective learning. (Q10, Q7a, Q8, Q14, Q15)
In my time at Berridge, the high expectations the staff and additional staff have of the children is very evident. Children are consistently encouraged to manage their own learning more, not be afraid to get things wrong, assess themselves and their peers with confidence, manage emotions productively and use speaking and listening as part of their formal lessons.
With emphasis on the above PHSE provisions, Berridge children are noticeably happy and well-behaved. The children are equipped with knowledge, understanding, attitudes and practical skills to live healthy, safe, productive, fulfilled, capable and responsible lives. It encourages them to be enterprising and supports them in making learning a positive experience. PSHE education also enables the children to reflect on and clarify their own values and attitudes, and explore the complex and sometimes conflicting range of values and attitudes whilst acknowledging the developmental factors that impact on learning. (Q7a, Q8, Q14, Q15, Q18, Q19, Q20)
The term 'Behaviourism' was first coined by American James B Watson (1878-1958) at the beginning of the twentieth century to describe the theory of learning focusing on observable behaviours whilst completely disregarding any of the hidden mental activity which subsequent theorists have highlighted as being crucial in shaping human learning. Learning is defined by behaviourists as the 'acquisition of new behaviour' (Pritchard, 2009, p6) or 'conditioning' (ibid, p6) and identified by the evident change in behaviour as the result of experience which is brought about by a reward and reinforcement process.
Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990), an American psychologist is perhaps the most influential of all the behaviourists who maintained that reward and punishment controls the majority of human behaviour and repetition of clear instructions and consistency in approach provide a stable environment in which learning can be achieved. The recognition, reinforcement and reward method of teaching can be seen to be particularly successful when instigating teaching programmes for those with learning or behavioural difficulties.
Behaviourism places the learner in a relatively passive role which leaves the planning, teaching and evaluation to the teacher and so enabling a lesson to be delivered in an ordered and logical way. This is especially evident in primary schools where traditional whole-class lessons call for children to learn in structured lessons, using observation and practice of appropriate behaviour (positive role models) and a wide range of reward and punishment strategies to maintain good discipline and pupil/teacher boundaries. Positive re-enforcements are recognised as having strong and long-lasting effects.
However the Behaviourist method of teaching has its weaknesses. It can be argued that although rote learning has its place in education (in the learning of times tables for example) children may not progress far beyond the lower tier of knowledge retention in Bloom's Taxonomy in Thinking and although maybe appropriate for less able children, more gifted children may not be given the opportunity to reflect on information and formulate a fresh judgement. (Q10)
In Berridge the whole-school behaviour policy including signatures for good behaviour and minutes for inappropriate behaviour works with extraordinary success. The children are steered towards appropriate responses and behaviour and through positive reinforcement, children are valued, their self esteem is increased and motivation levels are heightened. Teachers understand the importance of and plan for differentiation and respect the principles of inclusion, whatever their background, for all children including children with special educational needs both mental and physical (SEN), children with English as a second language (EAL) and children who are gifted and talented and ensure they interact with all children and enable them to learn. Children with learning difficulties are allocated one to one or small group teaching assistant additional hours and children with no or very little English are allocated morning lessons with the EMAG teacher in order to speed the process of integration into main-school life. (Q7a, Q8, Q14, Q15, Q18, Q19, Q20)
In the second half of the twentieth century, behaviourism was mainly superseded by the interest in the development of a more complex cognitive thought process; the theory that people learn through an interaction between thought and experience and the belief that we learn best when we actively construct our own understanding.
The most influential of the constructionists was Swiss born Jean Piaget (1896- 1980). Piaget believed in the process of self-initiated discovery meaning that children developed their thought processes through play, exploration and experiences of the real world. Piaget was interested in how children arrive at what they know, going through four stages of development. Briefly these are:-
Sensori-motor (0-2 years), a knowledge and understanding gained mainly from physical action and senses.
Pre-operational (2-7 years) where children are mainly egocentric and learn to manipulate their environment and represent objects by words.
Concrete operational (7-11 years), children begin to see things from another's perspective and use logical thought about physical operations.
Formal operations (11+ years), children begin to think hypothetically and abstractly.
After the Plowden Report stated, 'Piaget's explanation appears to fit the observed facts of children's learning more satisfactorily than any other. It is in accord with what is generally regarded as the most effective as it has been worked out empirically' (Central Advisory Committee for Education (CACE), 1967, Para 522), the influence of constructivism on teaching became considerable. Teachers are guided by the level of complexity a child's thought process may enter at approximate stages in their development and match their teaching to individuals needs. Adopting a 'child-centred' teaching approach based on the interpretations of Piaget's work, children are believed to learn best when they do things for themselves and teaching should be provided to match the individual needs of the child.
Following on from Piaget, the social constructivist theory suggests the importance of a child's cultural and social context and interaction with others as being paramount to their development with its most influential proponent being Russian born Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) Although Vygotsky died young and many of his ideas were untested hypotheses, his influence in education has been considerable and since the 1980s since there has been a recognition of the importance of strong teaching facilitating a personalised and meaningful understanding of knowledge. Vygotsky states; "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals." (Mind in Society, 1978, p57).
Secondly, Vygotsky introduced the theory of "zone of proximal development" (ZPD) which refers to the level of development attained when children engage in social behaviour; the range of which can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration and which exceeds what can be attained alone. Through this Vygotsky identified a means by which intelligence could be measured and argued that this could be used as an alternative to testing and examination. Through the means of measured intelligence Vygotsky's theory led to the adoption of matching task to competence which today we would call differentiation and led to an advancement of diagnoses and implementation of provision for children with learning difficulties. (Q10)
In Berridge School, constructivist theories can be seen to be reflected in the provision the teachers give to their children of a rich, varied and stimulating environment which is especially evident in the infant and nursery school. The principles underpin those of the primary literacy and numeracy strategies introduced in 1998 and are also prominent in scientific investigations where children are encouraged to investigate, question and evaluate. (Q7a, Q8, Q14, Q15)
Boom's Taxonomy of Learning pyramid is put into practice.
At Berridge, through measured scaffolding children are supported to investigate or inquire, whilst helping them to keep on task and acting as a prompter. All lessons are well resourced and exciting with clear objectives allowing each child to understand the relevance of their learning.
With guidance from the teacher, children are encouraged to investigate independently, foster the skills of critical thinking and can be seen to be actively involved and engaged in their learning process.
Learning is made relevant to the children's life experiences wherever possible in order to engage the children more and encouragement to link new knowledge to existing knowledge and experiences is used to endorse problem-solving skills. In addition to working independently, children are encouraged to work collaboratively in whole-class situations, small groups and pairs with or without the teacher on a regular basis to encourage a deeper engagement with and a further development of ideas. When the teacher is involved, she uses open and closed questioning to extend the child's thinking and draws on both her subject knowledge and the knowledge of the children to make the most accurate and appropriate form of input in their learning. Drawing on various methods of formative assessment, astute teacher judgements will take the child beyond Vygotsky's ZPD zone into a place of understanding the child could not have reached alone. Children are given their learning objectives at the onset of each lesson and the teacher will revisit previous learning through questioning to encourage the children to revisit prior knowledge and link to their current learning. Through discussion, children are encouraged to reflect on and verbalise their thought processes and methods and through well-planned plenaries in particular, children are given time to process and practice their learning. Creative writing and design technology for example, are worked through various drafts and sharing with others allowing the child to refine their work before their final piece is conceived.
Through planning a curriculum which challenges a child's current capabilities, differentiation and inclusion is practiced in all subjects and children supported through their learning with teachers' ongoing assessing pupil progress (APP) used to inform future learning. (Q7a, Q8, Q10, Q14, Q15, Q20, Q21b, Q22)
In his hierarchy of needs motivation theory proposed in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation American psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1908 -1970) suggested that each person has their own hierarchy of needs which must be satisfied sequentially before moving on to the next as depicted in the diagram below.
Maslow suggests that learning can only take place when the basic needs of health, safety, feeling secure in friendships and home life and a high level of self esteem have been met. Children will
perceive education in more accurate terms when needs are met and learning will become the priority.
How students emotionally view the world- sets the foundation for learning. (Q10) Once more psychological theories are reflected in the school ethos, values set within the school and its implementation of the Every Child Matters outcomes. (Q7a, Q8, Q14, Q15)
In 1993 Howard Gardener proposed his multiple intelligences theory suggesting that we all have 'various levels of intelligences across a range of intellectual areas' (Pritchard, 2009, p34). Taking the approach of how intelligence is gained rather than measuring its accrual, Gardener's theory has gained widespread popularity by identifying that children develop intelligence in accordance to their exposure to learning within a particular context. Gardener proposed seven categories (now extended to eight- see appendix 1) of intelligence which could be provided for by identifying three key methods of learning or receiving knowledge which, although we tend to use a combination of the three styles, we all have a natural preference for one of the following:-
Known in education as VAK, I observed in Berridge these three methods being applied in the class room setting. Through planning and teaching using as many intelligences as possible, the teacher is able to differentiate tasks offered by method rather than ability and so providing the potential to reach as many members of the class as possible. The teacher tailors her teaching to children when teaching individually to accommodate their preferred learning style and the children are encouraged to identify their preferred learning styles through self-assessment then allowed to work to their own strengths while still fulfilling the requirements of the National Curriculum. (Q7a, Q8, Q10, Q14, Q15, Q20, Q21b, Q22)
Current practitioners also exhort their influence on education today and it is important we recognise their contributions. Ex head teacher, Irishman John Abbott is the Director the 21st Century Learning Initiative which is dedicated to developing ever more appropriate techniques and environments that would enable young people to have confidence in their ability to become life-long learners. To date he has attracted over £8million for community projects for young people understanding the link between personal well-being and achievement. Berridge School has a wealth of diverse community links. It is a member of the Nottingham Central Education Improvement Partnership (EIP) which provides a local link with14 primary schools and 3 secondary schools. Children regularly take part in initiatives such as for example, the 'Wild Things' project and benefit from opportunities offered by the Countryside Trust. (Q10, Q18, Q19, Q20)
John West-Burnham is a British professor and prolific writer on education. He sees education currently delivering only shallow learning opportunities for children which focus on the 'memorisation and replication of information' (West-Burnham, 2010) and believes, in education today; 'the emphasis on the 'right answer' inevitably produces a state of compliance and dependence.'(ibid, 2010). (Q10)
University lecturers Honey and Mumford, identified in a similar fashion to Gardener in their Typology of Learning (1982), distinctive learning preferences namely; activist, reflector, theorist and pragmatist.
Berridge School is progressive and always open to new theories of learning. (Q10)
In conclusion, I have explored the main educational theories impacting on education today and although I feel there is no single theory which covers every child, I have reflected on the impact collectively they have on the teaching I have observed in my time in school and through careful consideration, will adapt and modify the theories to create a pedagogy I am comfortable and confident with in order to reach as many children as possible, calling on outside agencies for help if necessary. (Q10, Q20, Q21b, Q22)
Economic deprivation within a family and/or community has been identified as having a profound impact on the social and educational outcome of an individual's young and adult life, and children from inner city backgrounds are especially susceptible to economic, family, health and safety, behavioural, physical, educational and social issues creating barriers to learning and affecting their development and progress through school. By recognising these ranges of influences affecting disadvantaged children and through gaining an in depth understanding of the principles set out in the Every Child Matters agenda, I as a trainee teacher am better placed to improve my teaching by deploying a range of skills and strategies influenced by the educational theories discussed to ensure inclusion for SEN (mental and physical), EAL, Gifted and Talented and personalised learning promoting achievement and secure progress in all children. (Q18, Q19, Q20, Q21b, Q22)
As a trainee teacher, I find Gardener's theory particularly fascinating and applicable whilst challenging in its diversity and intend to identify children's learning styles at the onset of the year using recognised tests to determine individual styles whilst avoiding pigeon-holing them in to specific methods of learning. Whilst recognising it may not always be possible to cater for every inherent learning style, planning inclusive and differentiated lesson approaches will allow for scope for variety and make learning relevant.
I am aware that individuals have different strengths and may not always perform in the anticipated way, however through planning and creativity I will evaluate and remain flexible. I will uphold the school's values and reward/sanction policies responsibly. I have noted the importance of revisiting learning, making learning objectives clear, the importance of scaffolding and questioning and the use of repetition to reinforce learning. (Q7a, Q8, Q10, Q14, Q15)
I am aware of the children who have specific barriers to learning for example, dyslexia, autism, visually impaired and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and in some cases have read their Individual Education Plan (IEP) and made case studies of these children whilst making myself familiar with teaching strategies which can be tailor-made for them and with planned support from teaching assistants, I shall uphold. (Q10, Q20, Q21b, Q22)
I believe that social exposure to various cultures expands a child's pool of knowledge and the more experiences that a child has, the richer their world becomes. Parental involvement is key to understanding of a child and their progression through learning. I intend to push the boundaries of the classroom as much as I am able because I believe children are at their most receptive when they are in a state of enjoyment and will therefore want to encourage the children to enjoy what they do by making tasks interesting, worthwhile and relevant. (Q7a, Q8, Q10, Q14, Q15)
I am a calm, patient, kind and fair person. I believe every child has the right to a voice and I believe in the importance of play in learning. Using creativity to stimulate, I can be playful whilst believing firmly in the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
I am aware that particularly in inner city schools, children face many barriers to learning and in my capacity as teacher and human being; I do believe every child matters. (Q7a, Q8, Q10, Q14, Q15, Q18, Q19, Q20, Q21b, Q22)