Theories of Learning Neha Atri Theories of Learning

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Understanding how children learn is imperative for teachers as it informs their pedagogy, planning and most importantly facilitates positive learning outcomes. In turn, behaviour management within the classroom is likely to be self-regulated. This discussion will focus on some of the key theories of learning and whether they are observable in schools today; in particular relating this to my own experience. The personal, social and cultural aspects of learning will be addressed in terms of its importance. It will also examine whether inclusive environments are promoted to accommodate individual needs.

We all think and learn in different ways, which makes us unique individuals. The same is true for children. Therefore it is essential that this is addressed when implementing the curriculum, to create effective learning conditions. The behaviourism, cognitive (constructivism) and social cognitive perspectives are the predominant theories of learning, which shall now be discussed.

The behaviourism approach to learning was greatly influenced by the psychologists Skinner and Watson. They considered introspective approaches to be invalid and argued that behaviour is shaped as a result of life experiences; which are observable and measurable. Skinner (1976) developed the theory of operant conditioning, whereby learning occurs through reinforcement. In the context of education, it is suggested that effective reinforcement requires regular repetition of learning material, which involves small, progressive tasks that are positively reinforced. This absence results in the learned responses becoming obsolete. This theory is still relevant in schools today and is a format that I have practically observed. For example, in terms of lesson structure, the starter is usually teacher-led, followed by independent or group work which is concluded by a plenary.

Behaviourist teaching methods have predominantly been successful in delivering structured material such as numeracy; as this can be broken down into smaller teaching units. Likewise, it could be thought that the curriculum as a whole is structured in this way in terms of its subject specific areas; although many schools now deliver a cross-curricular or topic based approach. However, Pollard (2002) highlighted a weakness in this approach; if a child does not understand subject division, the learning may fail to make sense out of context; thus is unlikely to be a transferable skill in everyday life. This is a significant issue, as it is imperative that children can apply taught skills outside the classroom. Therefore, it could be argued that this is a simplistic view as it implies that behaviours are created and sustained within the classroom inclusively.

Nevertheless, Skinner's theories have had significant influence in many schools as a mechanism of breaking down barriers to learning; most notably enforcing behavioural management policies so that learning can take place (Hughes, 2010). For example, most schools have reward structures and sanctions to regulate behaviour. In terms of my experience, I have seen the use of rewards points being issued to promote positive behaviour. Once the rewards charts are completed, children receive a certificate from the head teacher; which is presented in their golden achievement assembly. Children also receive 'Golden Arrow' certificates for outstanding behaviour or contributions in work; which is inclusive for all children, especially those with learning difficulties. This supports the behavioural view as it is based on the principle that highlighting children's achievement will not only build self-esteem but encourage positive behaviour. In turn this is likely to encourage other peers to follow suite as they associate good behaviours with a positive outcome. In terms of my practice, it will be important to follow the school's behavioural policies to promote learning environments (Q10, Q18, Q31).

However, there have been criticisms of this approach to explain how children learn. For example, Lepper and Hodwell (1989) stated that although rewards are needed to motivate children, it does not necessarily sustain a learning culture. This is because children may associate the goal of learning to acquire rewards and not strive for achievement. Furthermore, research has shown that using rewards with children who are already motivated may diminish subject interest. In terms of my experience, I have noticed the upper school children to be driven by responsibilities such as 'environment monitor' roles rather than rewards. Therefore, indicates that the behavioural view of learning is too simplistic to explain behaviours. In addition, this approach can be associated with traditional teaching methods. This is where the teacher is in control of the leaning and pace of lessons; hence assumes children are passive learners. It also does not consider the cognitive, social and cultural development factors that can impact learning. Even though there are limitations to this approach, it can benefit some children who have low self-esteem, motivation and anxiety issues (Prichard, 2010). To develop my practice, using elements of this approach can promote an environment to reinforce appropriate classroom behaviours and expectations from children (Q2, Q30,Q31).

The cognitive learning was hugely influenced by Piaget and contrasts the behavioural view as it focuses on cognitive processes rather than passive responses to external stimuli. In terms of how children learn, it is suggested that they actively construct their knowledge in order to interpret the world around them. Piaget focused on the cognitive development factors in learning and considered that children use a variety of thinking processes to enable them to adapt to their environment; which can explained in terms of assimilation and accommodation. He suggested that children build a bank of 'schemas'; any new knowledge assimilated is modified to accommodate this to make sense of their surroundings. This links in with his stage theory, which notes that children's development can be explained in a series of logical steps, which builds upon the previous stage and are age-related. The four stages are: sensori-motor, pre-operational, concrete operations and formal operations. Piaget emphasised these were 'invariant' and the more mature child (such as gifted and talented children) would likely enter a new stage. A fundamental concept underpinning his approach is a child's 'readiness' to learn:

'…'until a child is ready to take a step forward, it is a waste of time to try to teach him to take it.' (Piaget, cited in the Cambridge Primary Review, pg 94, 2010)

This theory is applicable in education today, where teachers organise the learning to enable children to learn effectively. Many schools are implementing a creative curriculum to enhance learning as reinforced in the DfES documentation 'excellence and enjoyment' (2003). From my observations, some schools use themes such as healthy eating to motivate learning and for children to make connections across the subjects. In terms of my practice, I will need to implement a creative curriculum where possible. More importantly, when teaching new concepts, children's prior learning (assimilation) will need to be taken into account so that I can adapt my pedagogy and sequence lessons appropriately to facilitate effective learning (Q14, Q22, Q25b, Q29).

Piaget's stage theory also reinforced that children's learning abilities may differ between the development stages. To accommodate these differences and to be inclusive of learning needs, many schools have ability groups. From my observations, children are grouped by ability for numeracy and literacy due to age-related expectation differences. The teacher differentiates activities so that it is inclusive of their individual needs and they can learn effectively within their capabilities. Furthermore, assessing children's learning is important to inform planning as sometimes adjustments are required in the sequence of lessons to enhance learning. This is crucial in terms of the cognitive approach, as teaching material needs to be presented in a meaningful way so that children can make connections. In terms of my practice, it would be essential to use assessment strategies to see where the children are in their learning and where they need to be. By doing so, it will inform planning and differentiate activities to help create the conditions for learning and be inclusive of the children's learning needs (Q10,Q18, Q19, Q25c).

The cognitive learning theory places greater emphasis on the active role and self-motivation of the learner. This implies that they are likely to be engaged in the learning process if the learning objectives and success criteria are shared with them; so they can be motivated to learn to meet the goals. Most schools adopt this approach so that children can self-assess their progress throughout lessons. From my experience I have observed the teacher to emphasise the purpose of what they are doing; which can have a positive impact. By providing a purpose they are motivated to learn, which interlinks with the 'what's in it for me' concept (Hughes 2010). In terms of practice, it will be important to continue to share the learning objectives and success criteria with the class, by ensuring that it is also expressed appropriately to those with SEN and EAL needs. This would enable all children to be engaged with the task and learn effectively (Q10, Q19, Q25d).

This perspective can be likened to the kinaesthetic style of learning, (which shall be discussed later) as it involves children to actively use their senses to acquire information. This is evident in the Foundation Stage and to some extent in Key Stage 1, which I have practically observed. In this stage, there are a variety of child-initiated activities to complement teaching; children have the independence to be involved in a variety of activities. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) has six strands of learning, which are inter-connected to support the holistic development of a child. Thus it could be argued that this framework closely aligns with how children learn and supports the cognitive theory as it recognises that children are likely to learn through making connections with their environment. However, our current curriculum for Key Stage 2 provides fewer opportunities for this type of learning. This highlights one way in which current practice does not address this approach and could be considered a critism of schools today. Providing opportunities for independent play is important as it is integral to the personal, social and cultural aspects of learning to shape development. In terms of my practice, I think it will be important to balance teacher-led activities with child-initiated activities so that children have the opportunities to learn independently and enhance learning too (Q15).

The cognitive learning theory does provide an insight as to how children learn and the practical implications to inform development. But it does not consider the role of culture, language and social interaction, which can have a bearing on children's learning. The social cognitive approach considers these factors. This perspective was greatly influenced by Vygotsky (1978) who agrees that children learn by actively interpreting their surroundings, but emphasises that it is heavily shaped by social interactions. He developed the 'zone of proximal development' (ZPD) concept; this is the gap between what a child can do independently and the potential that can be reached through support of adult interaction. Scaffolding is deemed to be essential to help mitigate this gap. From my observations; intervention programmes, guided work, adult support within the classroom are all good examples to demonstrate this theory practically. This reinforces the importance of knowing children well, so that suitable provisions can be implemented to meet their needs and sustain an inclusive environment. The Foundation Stage, is another good example, where social interaction plays an important role in the child's learning development. To facilitate children's development in my practice, it will be important to encourage social interactions and scaffold their learning, especially building on prior experience to make connections (Q14, Q25a, Q25c, Q25d).

The theories of learning discussed so far provides an insight into how children learn. But they omit an important notion that we all learn in different ways and have particular learning styles; this can impact practice in terms of adapting pedagogies. The VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) model of learning suggests that individuals learn best through: seeing or listening to the information or by engaging in practical activities. Honey and Mumford (1986) suggested an alternative model, and state that there are four styles of learning; activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatics.

…'we need to adapt to one of the four learning styles in order to complete any given learning task satisfactorily'. (Honey and Mumford, 1986, cited in Prichard, 2009, p. 42)

These two perspectives can be reflected within the classrooms, where children learn best via one of these outlets or are characterised by these traits. Difficulties can arise in practice if there is a class with mixed learning preferences or are dominant in one area. It would be ineffective to plan activities for every learning style within the classroom. From experience, I have observed the teacher designing activities to accommodate these learning styles to be inclusive of children's needs; which I will need to incorporate into my practice (Q25b). As a fair proportion of the class are kinaesthetic learners, active tasks are balanced with 'calmer' lessons.

Building on from learning styles, Howard Gardner's (1993) multiple intelligence theory indicates that there are nine different intelligences which individuals possess at varying degrees. In an educational context, it is implied that children's particular intelligence strengths will influence their learning. Therefore it will be important to identify these intelligences and empower children in their learning.

'…someone with interpersonal strengths would be most likely to learn effectively in a social situation where relating ideas and knowledge to others can be encouraged. The opposite might be true for an individual with low interpersonal intelligence but strength in intrapersonal intelligence'. (Pritchard, 2009, p. 35)

This can have implications in practice as by presenting lessons in a variety of ways it can leverage the intelligences of individuals to strengthen their learning (Armstrong, 2010). The advantage of this learning style theory is that it encourages teachers to differentiate activities to be inclusive of the learners needs. In terms of my practice, I will need to understand the preferred learning styles so that the delivery of teaching can be effective to harness a greater learning impact (Q22). However, the caveat in practice is addressing these learning styles in an effective and efficient manner; thus reinforces the importance of knowing the children well.

The concept of learning styles and multiple intelligences are important to be inclusive of learners needs. Inclusion is important and the National Curriculum embeds a statutory inclusion statement, which emphasises that every child should be entitled to a 'broad and balanced curriculum' (QCA, 1999). There are three principles to develop an inclusive curriculum. These are: 'setting suitable learning challenges, responding to pupils' diverse learning needs, overcoming potential barriers to learning and assessment for individuals and groups of pupils' (QCA, 1999). The first two principles reinforce the importance to personalise learning for children to cater for their needs as Ellis and Tod (2010) state:

…'some pupils with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties may lack skills in relation to their capacity to work as part of a group, but may have the cognitive ability to meet fully the same learning objective as their peers'. (cited in Arthur and Cremin, 2010, p. 265)

The third principle is important as it addresses the need to mitigate learning barriers for all children, including those with EAL and SEN needs. From my observations, the work is differentiated for these children and there are 'focussed' groups to facilitate learning. Certain strategies are also employed for children who are autistic or have ADHD. Autistic children can learn perfectly well and some are highly intelligent; but they can have social and communication difficulties, which can act as a barrier. Therefore, they may not have a particular learning style but need to be managed differently to other peers. Through observations; routines, visuals and clear messages are some of the classroom pedagogies used to facilitate learning. The use of 'now and next' folders is another tool to help autistic and ADHD children to focus on learning. These principles can impact practice as the three elements need to be addressed and balanced in practice. But by employing the necessary strategies and finding a connection with the child; the conditions for learning can be created where they can access the curriculum effectively (Q15, Q25b). Furthermore, seeking the advice of a SENCO and the use of assessment for learning can inform my pedagogy, which would be important for: inclusion strategies, curriculum planning and selecting best classroom practices (Q10, Q18, Q19, and Q20).

As just discussed, inclusion is important to promote an effective learning environment for all children. However, there are other internal and external development factors that can impact children's learning, which also need to be addressed to promote an inclusive environment. These include basic needs such as; feeling safe and secure, valuing differences and a sense of belonging. These needs are essential for children so that they can thrive and develop emotionally, creatively and physically. As Langley-Hamel (2007) notes:

'when these needs are met…They are able to explore, take risks and discover; secure in the knowledge that they will be taken seriously and valued'. ( cited in Hyland and Jaques, 2007, p.172)

The Every Child Matters agenda reinforces the shared responsibility of schools for children's holistic development, and the varied role teacher's have rather than simply implementing the curriculum. Every Child Matters (ECM) is an initiative which addresses that the child's well-being and performance are interconnected. ECM focuses on five main outcomes which include; be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and to achieve economic well-being. Langley-Hamel (2007) suggests that these needs can be seen as a hierarchy. The child's needs for a healthy and safe environment needs to be met otherwise the other outcomes are unlikely to be achieved. This can be linked to Maslow's (1968) hierarchy of needs model (see below)


According to Maslow's model and the ECM agenda, if the child's basic developmental needs are met, children's self-esteem will increase thus maximising learning opportunities. From my observations within school, they take ECM very seriously like most other schools to ensure that children reach their potential; this is reflected in their policies and the school environment. For example, in terms of making a positive contribution, there are opportunities for children to participate in fairs, fundraising events and general school responsibilities. This demonstrates how current practice does cater for individual needs in an inclusive environment. In terms of my practice, I would need to ensure that I provide rich learning experiences for children so they can sustain high ECM outcomes; and most importantly create effective conditions for learning (Q3a, Q3b, Q21b).

When considering the learning theories and the development factors, it is also important to address whether these theories incorporate the personal, social and cultural aspects of learning. These are important aspects to consider in relation to how children learn; as it develops children's independence, confidence, social skills and understanding of other beliefs. Furthermore, children who are unsettled as a result of their life experiences may face difficulties in engaging with school and learning effectively. Low self-esteem issues can hinder their inclination to learn and social interaction. Research has highlighted the importance of emotional intelligence in facilitating children to understand their feelings and behaviour. Goldman (1996) suggests that it is essential to provide opportunities for children to become self-aware, to learn to manage their emotions. Most schools follow the Social Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme. SEAL is important as it helps children to develop essential social skills and manage emotional stresses to promote effective learning (PNS online, 2010). From my observations, SEAL is regarding to be highly important as it is recognised that children learn best when they feel safe, secure and respected by others. For example, circle time is one mechanism to address this and it could be thought that this encompasses the learning theories as it would be teacher-led and children will have time to think and socially interact with one another.

Linking to this, Corrie (2003) highlighted a robust link between emotional intelligence, raised self-esteem and success. She formulated a three part model to promote the development of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Therefore, in terms of my practice this will be an important strategy to connect with children's emotional development to shape children's thinking and facilitate learning.

'…creation of the intelligent classroom must begin with the teacher'. (cited in Arthur and Cremin, 2010, p. 173)

We can see that there are many theories to explain how children learn and the implications this can have in practice. However, it is evident that children's learning cannot be deduced to one theory. Learning is a complex process, which is influenced by internal and external development factors. As discussed, current practice goes beyond simply teaching children to learn, they consider many factors such as the personal, social and cultural aspects that can impact learning. Furthermore, inclusive environments are promoted to ensure that it caters for children's needs. In conclusion, we all learn in different and unique ways. Therefore in terms of my practice it is essential to know the children well by forming positive relationships to tailor their needs; and most importantly to have high expectations so that they can reach their learning potential.

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