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In this essay I will be comparing two different theories and looking at how they contrast against each other when studied and applied towards the role of the learner. The area we will be looking at in particular is development, and how these theories create two opposing ideologies that suggest separate paths the learner takes. The first theory I will discuss is Behaviourism which views the role of the learner as a passive and malleable form that is the result of the environments input (Bee, H. & Boyd, D., 2010). Behaviourism classifies most actions as behaviour, such as feeling or thinking, thus opening them up to observation of change. Behaviourists believe we learn through a rewarding process that emphasises our behaviour and whether or not it was correct (Bee, H. & Boyd, D., 2010). Not necessarily opposing the first theory but my second theory of Constructivism takes a different stance on how it perceives the learner. Instead of being a passive organism, constructivists feel the learner plays an active role in his/her's development. This is possible, as the theory suggests that we create different systems to overcome daily experiences and thereafter an understanding upon reflection (Woolfolk, A., Hughes, M., 2008). It is also implied that we learn through a more interactive approach, which includes problem solving (Woolfolk, A., Hughes, M., 2008). From both of these theories I will draw out the ideas that form either a passive or active approach and use those attributes to compare the two.
Within Behaviourism there are two immediate different types of conditioning. There is Classical conditioning and Operant conditioning. Classical conditioning believes learning takes place between a stimulus and a response. This is a reflexive response which in turn places the environment in control - rendering the learner as passive, whereas operant conditioning looks at behaviour specifically and its links between different outcomes. This means that through variable behaviours the learner can gain different outcomes - allowing the learner a degree of choice, but still passive to the fact that the learner can only act upon an event driven by his/her's environment (Bee, H. & Boyd, D., 2010). This is not a split within the theory, but rather it is two different forms of behaviourism. Even though we have these two separate ideas, we can still see a large similarity that bonds them together, due to the environment itself still holding a certain amount of control in the learner's development.
This theory utilises the idea that human beings are an 'empty vessel' or in the words of John Locke "Tabula Rasa" (A Blank Slate) that is waiting to be filled by experience and knowledge (Woolfolk, A., Hughes, M., 2008). Although, behaviourism does not focus on knowledge as being the key to the learner's development, it observes change of behaviour as the true key (Doherty, J. & Hughes, M., 2009). This is interesting as it therefore can only examine observable events - including those that are unintentional. By unintentional I refer to the idea of being unaware during the process of development and attainment of knowledge or experience. This brings me onto another factor in the learner's role as passive. Due to how random these events can occur, the learner has little or no time to plan ahead and therefore, as Classical conditioning suggests, has to act instinctively (Doherty, J. & Hughes, M., 2009). The only time reflection occurs is when the learner realises they have been developing. This can be a slow process and is the reason it is referred to as conditioning as it is physically and mentally stimulating the reflex system to be able to operate better with the input and output. Operant conditioning uses several different reinforcements to differentiate between the learning processes. The three prominently used outcomes can be; positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment (Doherty, J. & Hughes, M., 2009). Using these, it is observed and then ready to be broken down into events on a simple flow chart to see the input, process, behaviour and output. This particular idea can be seen in the experiment 'The Skinner Box' (Doherty, J. & Hughes, M., 2009). Just as the animal receives positive reinforcement in the form of food for performing the correct action, such as pressing a button to release it, or completing a maze - as does the learner in a similar way through terms of functioning within their environment. If the learner carries out an action and receives a pleasurable outcome, the learner is most likely going to perform the same action again, in hopes of the same result. This again adds to the passive role of the learner as he is still at the mercy of the environments boundaries and limitations.
Now that I have outlined the basics of Behaviourism, I shall move onto constructivism which believes the learner is born with basic, instinctive and fundamental skills. Therefore through exploration of the environment and by way of different stages in each individual's development, the learner begins to overcome the challenges that present themselves by using experience and knowledge (Schaffer, H. R., 2008). It is through this that the learner begins to also understand his/her role as active, and acts appropriately. A term used here is Adaptation - this refers to the ability that humans have to change and adapt according to the environment through manipulation of it (Schaffer, H. R., 2008). By this I mean the learner is able to utilise what it has around him and make it better. This is a big phenomenon as it challenges the behaviourists' idea of the learner being passive to the environment, and instead the environment is the malleable form used by the active role of the learner. Through maturation the learner is able to develop through different stages that are set out in the constructivist theory - this is based on the cognitive theory that was designed by Piadget. It is very detailed and distinguishes between different ages and different abilities. Sensory-motor (0-2), Pre-Operational (2-7), Concrete operational (7-12) and Formal operations (12+) (Schaffer, H. R., 2008). According to Piadget, just like a blueprint at birth, this is all predetermined and we cannot move forward to another stage until we are at the right age and have completed the prior stage. For example we cannot begin to run before we begin to walk. This may look like a limitation, but in actual fact it's still correspondent to our input to the environment and how we choose to explore our world through experiencing it. To further reflect the idea that the role of the learner is active, we can begin to look at how constructivism breaks down learning into schemas (which is an internal representation of actions we can perform) and use it to explain assimilation. Schemas are either a group or single action that compile together to perform an overall action, and the schema refers to them as a whole (Doherty, J. & Hughes, M., 2009). The idea of assimilation is that with schemas that we already possess we are able to explore different objects and obtain different experiences. The learner is constantly building upon what we know and putting together a different method for each possible situation (Doherty, J. & Hughes, M., 2009). An example of this is the sucking action performed when breastfeeding. This schema can later be adapted to a bottle as the child needs to drink. The possibilities are countless and we develop more complex schemas as we grow and develop through life. This again puts the learner in a role that is active and constantly acting upon his/her environment. Aside from Piadget's theory of constructivism is Vygotsky's theory of Social Constructivism. This takes into account the social context of the development. The learner is not only challenged by his environment physically but also intellectually in society. He viewed culture as a major part in the learner's development such as the language they use, the history and social context (Doherty, J. & Hughes, M., 2009). A concept that relates to the role of the learner that again shows how active they are is the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development. This concept views teachers as the catalyst in the development of the child. If the child is in their comfort zone and is pushed further than usual - the outcome is eventual schema construction to overcome the challenge (Doherty, J. & Hughes, M., 2009). This concept causes the learner to be seen as far more dimensional character other than an object at the mercy of his/her environment.
I will now begin to contrast between the two theories beginning with their differences and moving onto the slight similarities. As we saw, the two main differences are that both take a strong side with the role of the learner. In Behaviourism the learner can only be passive (albeit with slight choice operant conditioning), and Constructivism views the learner as an active participant in his quest for knowledge. This gap is not only caused by the role of the learner, but just as significant is how the theory places the environment. It seems that the environment is the key to understanding the role of the learner. In behaviourism the environment is seen as the active member that through causing different events forces the learner to receive and respond through reflexes. In constructivism it is near enough opposite with its theory on the role of the environment. Instead the environment is seen as a controllable variable that the learner uses to their advantage. It also ties in with the concept of maturation and that as we develop we obtain several different schemas that we use to overcome challenges in life. This can be as simple as learning the alphabet to as difficult as learning a new language. The main role of the schemas that we develop is to assist us in experiencing and exploring our world thoroughly.
On the other hand, Behaviourism takes a different approach. The theory suggests that we use our reflexes to deal with situations we meet day to day. This can change with time and eventually operant conditioning takes place where we use our experience to gain preferable outcomes. This may seem to hint that the role of the learner is somewhat active, but in actual fact it is still reliable on the environment to gain the experience and even place the learner in a situation that requires them to build upon what they already know.
Both theories are at either side of the spectrum and continue to stand as fundamental concepts for looking at the role of the learner and their development. As we discussed, Behaviourism is more interested in observing events that can be seen. The change in behaviour is seen as the only variable that is useful when studying development of the learner. This may seem like an odd approach as human beings are thinking creatures, but we are also instinctive. It is these reflexes that we unconsciously condition appropriately to our environment. However on the other side is the theory of constructivism which looks at the ability of adaptation and maturation. Through these two ideas there is a platform created for studying development not only physically but mentally. Using schemas it brings out an even more active role, as it shows us that we always exploring and learning to overcome anything we face. I believe by using a middle ground there could be space to learn more about instinctive reflexes alongside those that are constructed.
Moreover I would also like to raise a question as to the importance of knowledge and behaviour between the two. It seems behaviourism is far too focused on observing what can be seen, and yet most of our development, aside from obvious changes in behaviour, happens internally. Can it truly observe every change internally as an observable event? Constructivism's take on knowledge and assimilation also leaves a lot left to be desired. Schemas are one way of describing things, but I believe there should also be consideration for anomalies and that some people won't follow the same maturation pattern. Is this still natural, even though it goes against the cognitive approach adopted within constructivism? Both these theories are equally important in the studying of what role the learner takes and should be treated as such, side by side.