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As an educationalist, it is important to develop ones own pedagogy. In order to do this it is vital that one has a sound understanding of child development and learning theories. Although throughout history many theorists suggested different ideas on child development and learning; it would be unrealistic to say that only one of these theories can explain all aspects of development and learning on its own. (Aldridge&Goldman, 2007)
This work will concentrate on several theories of learning and development: firstly it will look at the main principles of Behaviourism in general and Constructivism as described by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, throughout it will focus on the impact of these theories on classroom practice, curriculum areas maths, literacy and child. Although the theories overlap in different ways; they are still individual theories and should be treated as separate methodologies which in turn is helpful for understanding classroom practice.
In the behaviourist view, learning is a passive process. With focus given to observable behaviours rather than mental activities, behaviourist theorists define learning as; "individuals' response to external motives" (Elliot, 2007, p46), therefore learning is nothing more than the acquisition of new behaviours. According to Skinner, knowledge is not used to guide human actions; it is the action itself (Skinner, 1976, p152). Behaviourists argue that as the intrinsic motives cannot be observed, focus should be given to the observable indicators such as extrinsic behaviours (Wray, 2010, p42). Behaviourism also suggests that in order to learn, active engagement of the learner and instantly reinforcing learning with rewards is essential (Sotto, 2007, p35). When the reward is satisfying, it strengthens the behaviour thus learning, and punishments weaken behaviour (Skinner 1974 cited in Elliott 2007, p48). So, if a child is rewarded for their desirable behaviour it's very much likely that (s)he will repeat the desired behaviour. Skinner also urged educators to focus on reinforcements and on success rather than on punishing failure (Pritchard, 2009, p11). Hence reward systems are important in this view, even in the simplest form of a nod or thumbs up by the teacher for correct answer.
Mr A is a year 6 teacher, in his practice reinforcement of the desired behaviour takes place by an established reward system in the classroom. Mr A uses traffic lights and platinum stars as the reward system; where children can be rewarded for moving up on the traffic lights for good work/behaviour as well as losing privileges for moving down on traffic lights. Good behaviour leads to rewards, an extra five minutes of golden time if a child finishes the week on a star, as well as the punishments; being on red means losing privileges. He also uses a reward system to improve achievement; ten "Fantastic" tickets can be obtained for good behaviour and good work and children get a reward. Although it seems that children are attentive to the reward system at first glance we can't confidently say that children are purely motivated by this reinforcement. Peer influence, conflicts between individuals and the conditions of the environment also have effects on behaviour and attainment as well as intrinsic attitudes towards learning. Therefore it can be suggested that activities such as team building and group projects can, as well, be integrated into the practice to improve attitudes hence behaviour and attainment results.
Child C is 10 years old. He lives on a farm and spends most of his time helping his family on the farm. His life experience is limited to the farm life and he sees his future in nowhere other than farming. This has an immense effect on C's attitude towards school and education. He is not motivated to learn and not receiving support at home. Therefore Mr A's traffic light system is not effective on C's learning because he is not enthused by it. In order to improve C's attainment and attitude it would be useful to look at different ways to include his interests into the classroom environment; such as choosing topics he can relate to and incentives to motivate him to do his work, for example having farming as a topic and making him project leader of a farm week. This will allow him to share his knowledge with others, it would also give him an opportunity to use his knowledge into other curriculum areas, such as writing an article about farm life for literacy.
Behaviourist learning is broken down into small, progressive sequences of task with continuous reinforcement given during the learning process; it advocates that without the reinforcement, the learned responses will become extinct. The system relies on continuous repetition and "skill and drill" exercises. Although the learners are actively doing things, in the learning process they are the passive receivers whereas the teacher is seen as the transmitter of the knowledge to the learner in a coherent, ordered and logical way and children are expected to listen (Polard et al, p144). According to Skinner (1976), the point of education is to present the learner with an appropriate repertoire of behavioural responses to specific stimuli (skills) by consistent repetition reinforced by rewards. Pritchard (2009) argues that although it might be a welcomed way to practice skills (rote learning) for some, it could be frustrating for others as they won't understand the logic behind it and they are not motivated by the rewards. Farnham-Diggory (1981) also criticises the behaviourist theory for the lack of understanding of what learning, an individual's own learning in particular, really involves.
Pritchard's concerns are transferred into real examples in Mr A's classroom, where some children are motivated by the reward system and are more comfortable in rote learning, some higher achievers in this class lose interest after a while because their inquisitive nature is not stimulated or they find tasks difficult. This takes us to the matter of differentiating the work. It is important that classroom exercises should be organised to meet the needs of individuals. The National Curriculum (NC)(1999) states that, suitable challenges should be set for the abilities of individuals. In order to meet the needs of both groups of children, Mr A can set up different activities throughout the lessons for differing abilities and sometimes as mixed ability groups. For example in the intro, a discussion and brainstorm can be followed by pupil research into the main learning focus which is then supported by the explanation and practice of the actual theory. Admittedly this method can work better for some subjects than others such as literacy, history, science etc. However it can also be used in maths for linking theory to real life experiences rather than memorising by means of rote learning.
In a behaviourist classroom children do not have the autonomy of choosing their activities. All children are required to do the same activity as the rest of the class and work at the same pace as the rest of the class. This will then cause issues in planning and delivering the lessons at the right level for pupil understanding as there are number of differences between pupils which may influence teaching and learning (Kyriacou, 1986, p79). In the new NC review, emphasis is given to more traditional learning techniques, in particular, for learning of mathematics (Department for Education, 2011). Recent research from the University of Oxford led by Professor Peter Bryant opposes the renewed focus on traditional learning techniques - supported by the government - and finds it illogical; learning arithmetic, it says, is not as important as learning how to think mathematically (Ward, 2012). According to this study, mathematical reasoning and arithmetic did make contributions to the prediction of mathematical achievement; mathematical reasoning was by far the stronger predictor of the two and they were more strongly linked to mathematics than to Science or English. The study suggested that it is justifiable to make a difference between mathematical reasoning and arithmetic skills and schools must plan explicitly to improve mathematical reasoning as well as arithmetic skills (Ward, 2012).
In Mr A's practice, it is possible to observe the traces of "rote" learning in the Mathematics lessons. Teacher led skill and drill activities such as learning basic fractions by heart results in children not being able to explain their actions. For example most children are able to solve problems on their worksheets. However when they are asked how and why they followed that particular route they are unable to explain the logic behind their actions. Child C is in year 6 and is a low achiever. The delivery of Mr A's maths lessons are aimed at the medium and high achievers and are based on whole class introduction followed by text book and worksheet activities. C is given extra booster sessions with the TA however in those sessions he is not supported with resources that might help him to understand the subject. For example, the examples could be related to his farm life with the support of visual aids, such as fraction magnets, to help him to understand the meaning of the mathematical language in real terms.
Critics of the behaviourist approach claim that rewarding all learning is likely to cause the child to lose interest in learning, particularly for children who are well motivated (Pritchard, 2009, p.10). Furthermore, positive response to praise followed by learning cannot be predetermined in every example (Sotto, 2007, p.35). Moreover, using a reward system or giving one child increased attention may have a detrimental effect on the others in class (Pritchard, 2009, p.10) for example causing behavioural issues. In Mr A's classroom, it is possible to say that the higher achievers are not motivated by the reward system in place. They enjoy working on the subjects they like whether there is a reward or not. On the other hand, although it doesn't cause behaviour issues as such, increased attention to a child with behavioural concerns reduces the time he spends on the rest of the class and can potentially cause further issues. In order to avoid this happening Mr A can review his reward/punishment system and possibly involve children in establishing a new system that can work for the whole of the class.
Another one of the most important factors of behaviourist education is subject knowledge. Good subject knowledge is vital for a behaviourist teacher. The recent education policy reflects the importance of good subject knowledge for teachers in the new teacher standards (Department for Education, 2012, p.7). Undeniably it is important for teachers to have sound subject knowledge for effective teaching. A counterargument to that would be that the strength of subject exposition can also be weakness if a child doesn't recognise subject division as relevant to daily experiences which can lead to reduction in motivation and achievement (Pollard, 2009, p145). Pollard (2009) suggests that the most likely difficulty may arise when connecting with the existing understanding of children. In addition, this problem will become more acute when large groups are taught as it is difficult to teach the lesson appropriately for all learners.
Linking this idea to our example; Mr A holds an English degree and is literacy subject leader. He admits that previously he had issues with regard to pitching the literacy work too high for children. However four years ago, the school adopted a cross curricular approach. Mr A can decide on which topics are to be taught and he alternates topics every two years. He suggests that this allows him to think about different ways of teaching literacy and relate it to different topics to match the level of pupils by looking into wider range of resources. The results are promising, attainment levels in literacy improved in the last two years and children seem to respond better to this new way of teaching too.
In contrast to the behaviourist ideas, a new approach led by Jean Piaget focused on mental processes rather than observable behaviours. According to Piaget, "thought is an internalised action", which simply explains his view of the close relationship between actions and thought (Wood, 1998, p21). In his view, knowledge is mental and physical activities which creates mental maps (schemas) and they develop continuously as the individual gains more experience of the world. In order to develop knowledge, a person goes through stages; assimilation, accommodation and adaptation. During assimilation stage, the individual is exposed to the new information and absorbs it. In accommodation stage, the new information is adapted onto the existing schema. Therefore organisation of thoughts; improving skills and changing strategies are all results of accommodation (Bee and Boyle, 2010). Sometimes there are differences between the environment and schemas. In that case there are two possibilities; new experience can add to or reinforce existing knowledge or it could contradict it (Pritchard, 2009, p.19). This process of bringing assimilation and accommodation into balance is called equilibration which is a stable state where there is no longer a conflict between the new information and existing information (Pritchard, 2009). According to Newman et al., equilibration is a creative process of invention for Piaget who argues that direct instruction will inhibit the child's understanding, if instruction gets in the way of child's exploration (Newman et al. 1989)
As a result of his research, Piaget comes to a conclusion where he suggests that there are four stages of cognitive development which links to the child's readiness for the new schemas in learning experience. They need to be matched to the child's current level of understanding and children's interests are diverse and subject to change (Wood and Littleton, 2006). By the end of each stage children are expected to achieve the milestones of that stage.
The first stage is sensori-motor; age 0-2, where infants begin to understand the environment through their actions and sensori information.
In pre-operational stage; age 2-7, is seen as an egocentric stage where the child sees the world from their own perspective and not others and as they develop language skills their symbolic though and imagination also begins to develop.
Concrete operational stage; age 7-11, is when children start to develop logical thought about physical operations. They start to understand abstract ideas.
The final stage in Piaget's theory is the formal operations; age 11+, children are now able to think abstractly and hypothetically. They can manipulate ideas, speculate and reason.
Following their experiences, children construct and develop their skills and knowledge. This is a significant difference between the behaviourist and cognitivist views in terms of learning and knowledge. As we have seen above, behaviourists recognise knowledge as extrinsic and passively received range of behaviours whereas the cognitivists' outlook on knowledge emphasises on intrinsic motives and processes of knowledge and learning.
Supporting Piaget's stages Kamii (1985,1994,2004, cited in Wood et al., pp.202-203) argues that children are introduced to abstract mathematical concepts too early when they are not developmentally ready which leads to the absence of conceptual understanding. Instead she argues children should be left to reinvent those principles for themselves (Kamii, 1985,1994,2004, cited in Wood et al., pp.202-203)
Child C in Mr A's classroom is a suitable example to support Kamii's argument. Although he is 10years old, he still struggles with abstract ideas of mathematical concepts. He cannot relate to the column presentation of the mathematical operation. However if he is left to solve the problem he presents the operation in horizontal format and is able to separate the units which helps him to calculate and find the correct answer. At the age of 10, C is expected by his teacher and school to be able to move onto the column calculations however as we can see in the example he is not ready to do so. Therefore on the basis of this example we can argue that, while it is useful to have developmental stages as guidance, children do not necessarily fit into these stages as Piaget suggested. It would be beneficial to C, if he is closely monitored and supported by the school and his teacher for his readiness to move onto the next level of mathematical understanding.
The role of the teacher differs from behaviourism in Piaget's theory as facilitator rather than the person who drills knowledge into learners via continuous repetition or rewards/punishments. As a facilitator, the teacher provides essential resources and guidance during the process of assimilation, adaptation and accommodation stages of the learning. Montessori also shares Piaget's view of the role of a teacher as facilitator in her own practise where she advises teachers to follow the leads from children and organise and tailor the learning accordingly (Elkind, 2007, online).
Unquestionably, the influences of Piaget's developmental stages in today's education system is widespread. Early Years and Foundation Stage (EYFS) in particular are the two places where children are given the opportunity to explore and develop their own schemas for the world around them. As a facilitator, teachers provide a variety of activities designed to promote exploration and discovery such as art, dressing-up clothing, building blocks etc (Berk, 2009, p.256). The EYFS framework provides guidance on the developmental stages of children and what milestones they should reach by a specified age (DFE, 2012).
Piaget's theory was widely accepted between the 1950s and 1970s. However, following new research into the child development opposition to his views started to appear. Margaret Donaldson is well known for her opposition to Piaget's theory. In her book "Children's Minds", she suggests that the tests and experiments Piaget expected children to accomplish have failed them, because the language he used didn't make sense to children (Donaldson, 1987) She then argues that if the correct language is used and the environment is arranged, children are more capable of doing things Piaget claimed they are not able to do and the gap between adults and children is not so great (Donaldson, 1987).
Recent research into neuroscience has also dramatically changed the view of babies and their capabilities (Lindon, 2007, p.3). Piaget suggests that babies acquire their understanding of the environment after birth (ref). However research has shown that the rapid development of the human brain before birth allows them to have experiences such as hearing the parent's voice which then allows them to recognise it after birth (Lindon,2007, p.13). Another piece of research (Lafunte et al., 1997) indicates that pre-natal learning might have effects on future learning. Study suggests that fetuses, who were exposed to classical music at 28 weeks onwards were more advanced than others in many motor and cognitive skills by the age of 6 months (Lafunte et al., 1997).
Following Piaget's theory, Vygotsky, too, believed that learning is a social matter and he was very much interested in the way that children learn through interactions. While he shared some of Piaget's views; as a social constructivist, Vygotsky believed that the same biological or environmental factors may have different effects, depending on the people whom the child grows up with, both in terms of the culture of those people and their characteristics as individuals (Gupta,1994, p.33).
Both Piaget and Vygotsky emphasised the importance of relationships in social situations and active children, however, they differed in their views of the biological concept of maturation (Gupta, 1994, p.36).Vygotsky saw culture as the more important factor in development and learning (Gupta, 1994, p.36). Also their descriptions of social interactions are very different: In Piaget's view, children had two relationships; with their peers and adults. The relationship with adults in his theory is restricted and cannot develop mutually due to the unevenness of social power; nonetheless, they have an instructional value in learning; similar to the behaviourist view. The relationship with peers however, is based on co-operation that leads onto building new ideas and meanings that lead to problem solving, hence developing more schemas (Kutnick and Manson, 2000). For Vygotsky, the asymmetrical nature of children's relationship with adults and more knowledgeable peers is the key to the cognitive development (Kutnick and Manson, 2000). Vygotsky argues that it is vital for children to learn in a social environment, via instructions from the more knowledgeable other (MKO) (Wood, 1998, p26). According to this theory, children learn from their peers (the same age or of a higher age and developmental stage) and adults.
The importance of potential for development is emphasised in Vygotsky's theory. Vygotsky talks about the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and proposes that abilities of a person on their own and abilities with help from MKO are different. He suggests that ZPD is only achievable with the help of MKO. It is important that MKO uses various means of communication to transfer their knowledge to the child (Urquhart, 2000, p64).
J. Brunner applied Vygotsky's idea of ZPD process into scaffolding concept and suggested that if scaffolding delivered by teacher throughout the activities; then the child's knowledge could be carried onto a higher level as s/he learn (Urquhart, p.64). Scaffolding is the means of assistance provided in the zone of proximal development, for example by structuring the task into small, understandable steps, modelling and communicating instruction in this form in order for a child to achieve success. (Urquhart, 2000 p.64). When child completes the learning process, the scaffolds are not necessary and can be removed from the situation. Alongside this, it is also important to remember that all pupils learn to different degrees. Therefore where children learn more in their ZPD they do not need the scaffolding as much as some others (Vygotsky 1987, p.116). The potential of improvement moves with an individual through life, and, in theory, full development can never be reached.
The effects of Vygotsky's theory are highly observable in today's classrooms in the forms of group work/discussion and mixed ability groups. In Mr A's classroom, mixture of the learning theories is observable throughout different lessons. In subjects such as Maths, the teacher uses a more behaviourist approach where children are sat in rows; they are made aware of the learning objectives and listen to the instructions which are then followed by workbook exercises. The biggest criticism for this approach would be that; although children do not get chance to work in groups and learn from each other via collaboration; they copy each other's answers without understanding the methods. In subjects such as English and Science Mr A allows children to work in group activities and projects. While individual work may be necessary for some aspects of Mathematics, children can also benefit from the mathematical discussions, allowing them to take advantage of each other's strengths which will consequently improve their understanding of Mathematics. The praise system followed by Mr A is good in terms of its attempt to improve self-esteem. Children are encouraged to "give it a go" rather than adopting a "can't do" attitude.
Dweck (Pound, 2009) argues that children should be praised for their efforts rather than how intelligent they are. Following her research on the effects of different approaches of giving praise, she found that children who are praised for being intelligent were less likely to take risks and tended to choose the tasks they knew they could get good results, on the other hand, children who were praised for making an effort intended to try different tasks and challenge themselves (Pound, 2009, p.25-27). In the beginning of the term Pupil C's attitude towards the work was negative. Following Mr A's strategy to praise his efforts, C has now started to "give it a go" rather avoiding the work.
In the example of School B's transition to creative curriculum approach, allows teachers like Mr A to be more flexible and use constructive methods within this approach to teaching subjects such as literacy, science, humanities etc. A cognitive approach is adopted where the activities are based on group work and experiments. Throughout those activities children interact with each other, exchange ideas and opinions. Furthermore the hands on nature of the activities in some lessons allows children to understand and relate their learning to real life. It can be suggested that Child C and other children in the school can benefit further if the new approach is adapted to the rest of the curriculum subjects, i.e. maths.
This work aimed at explaining different theories that influenced the teaching and learning in primary classroom in the UK. The importance of understanding different aspects of learning and their effects on today's classroom practice is undeniable. Snelbecker(1983, p8) urges individuals to examine basic theories of learning and select those principles and conceptions which seem to be of value for one's particular educational situation. In order to deal with the complexities of the classroom environment effectively, it is valuable for us, teachers, to integrate different aspects of different theories into the classroom environment simultaneously and should concentrate on the benefits rather than limits of each theory (Sotto, 2007, p.134). This can help us to match the different needs of children.
As a result of my research, observations and my own practice, I intend to agree with Sotto (2007, p.127), that no one theory alone can improve learning in any given scenario. There are valuable aspects in each theory we can benefit from within the classroom. In order to make the right choices and use suitable aspects of each theory it is crucial that I know and understand my pupils and their needs. To achieve this, I should make through observations and built positive relationships with my pupils.
In my opinion and experience, children learn better when they interact in a sociable environment when they are doing things. Therefore my personal philosophy leans towards the Constructivist view of Piaget and Vygotsky, where children are encouraged to explore things and interact with each other and as a result, they learn. In my practice so far, I have observed positive outcomes from the constructivist approach I followed where children were involved in brainstorming and discussion activities and generated ideas for themselves without direct teaching. I found that it is important to provide them with the opportunities to do so. I also appreciate the guidance Piaget's development stages provide however, I understand that every child is different and we shouldn't limit their abilities to these stages.
On the other hand I do not reject the Behaviourist approach altogether. Reward systems can be useful in dealing with behaviour in the classroom and in order to set boundaries. Instant feedback and praise can also give children boost and let them know where they are with their learning.