Theories of learning that underpin teachers classroom practice

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Everyone has experienced learning and when we talk of learning we usually think of something which relates to school and the classroom, but learning is not exclusively confined to the classroom situation. Learning occurs even before a child goes to school and begins from the time a child is born and continues for even longer after the child leaves school. There are many different ways and settings in which learning takes place. Learning is a process in which a person acquires new knowledge, behaviours and skills. It happens very quickly and has been described and explained by a number of researchers over the years. Psychologists describe learning as a change in behaviour as a result of experiences.

Learning has a range of definitions; Pritchard (2005) describes learning as a process of gaining more knowledge or of learning how to do something for example learning how to ride a bike. It can be described as the acquisition of knowledge or a skill gained through study, teaching, instruction or experience. It is also described as a process by which behaviour is changed, shaped or controlled and a change in behaviour is the result of experience or practice. It is the individual process on constructing understanding based on experience from a wide range of sources. In essence learning brings together cognitive, emotional and environmental influences and experiences to obtain and enhance knowledge and skills.

A learning theory is important as it tries to describe the understanding how people learn. Bigge (1999) describes a learning theory as a systematic integrated outlook in relation to the nature of a process. People can relate to their environment in a way to be able to enhance their ability to use themselves and their environment in a most effective way. The term of a learning theory is associated with the behavioural view.

Learning is viewed differently by the various people who have studied and investigated it. There are three main sets of learning theories that are generally used in education and these have the headings of behaviourist, cognitive, and constructivism. Behaviourism and constructivism are the two main branches of the psychology of learning that have been developed and have made important influences in the practice of teaching over decades and these branches have a series of sub - branches.

Behaviourism concentrates on the central concept of a reaction being made to a particular stimulus, the objectively observable aspects of learning. Cognitive theories go further than behaviour and explain brain-based learning. Constructivism sees learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts.


Early studies in learning were centred purely on behaviour. Behaviourists say that learning can be defined as the relatively permanent change in behaviour that is brought about as a result of experience or practice. Behaviourists recognize that learning is an internal event, but that it is not recognized until the learning is displayed as an open and observable behaviour.

In schools there is always a response to the bell that marks the end of a lesson. This bell is a signal to the teacher but no matter how many times a teacher tells the class the bell is for the teacher and not the pupils. In this situation the class can normally not restrain themselves from collecting their pens and equipment together and moving towards the door ready to leave. Some schools have stopped using bells to mark the end of the lesson and only use bells to indicate the start of the school day and the end of break and lunchtime sessions. Schools that use this approach have seen a much more relaxed approach to the end of lessons. In some cases the pupils are still working at the end of lessons and need to be told by the teacher to pack their things away.

Behaviourism is based upon the simple idea that there is a relationship between a stimulus and a response. Behaviourism is studied by psychologists who concentrate their attention on this stimulus-response relationship, which is why behaviourists' theories are often referred to as 'stimulus-response' SR theories.

This method of learning is called conditioning, Pritchard (2005). There are two major types of conditioning which have been described and demonstrated by behavioural psychologists to show what humans and animals are capable of being taught to do certain things. These two different types of learning are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. The main influences in behaviourism are Ivan Pavlov who investigated Classical conditioning and John B Watson, an American psychologist and B. F. Skinner another American psychologist who investigated Operant conditioning

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is learning by association and behaviourists describe learning process as a response to a stimulus. the learner is conditioned Cotton (1997) to give the same response to a different stimulus. An association is made between a previously unresponsive stimulus and a stimulus that evokes a response. Learning occurs through interactions with the environment.

A Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) conducted the well known example of this work with dogs, Pritchard (2005). He experimented with the digestive system of dogs and found that dogs salivate at the sight and smell of food. He called the sight and smells of food the unconditioned stimulus and the salivation of the dog the unconditioned response. He introduced a second stimulus, the ringing of a bell. A bell was rung at the same time when the food was presented to the dog. The sound of the bell became an indication to the dogs that food was about to be presented to them. Eventually an association was made and the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell irrespective of whether food was presented to them. The sound of the bell could lead to a response. The ringing of the bell is a conditioned stimulus and is the basic principle of Classical Conditioning, Cotton (1997)

The reality of this conditioning is that people do not respond in the same way as the dogs used in these experiments. The principles are clearly to people especially in areas of safety and in good practical work and skills which is particular relevant in the teaching of science where most lessons are carried out in the laboratory environment.

Classical conditioning techniques can be very useful in the treatment of phobias and anxiety problems. Teachers can apply classical conditioning in a classroom by creating a positive environment to help pupils overcome anxiety and fear. For example pupils who are new to a school, as in the case of pupils going from primary to secondary school or pupils who may find performing in front of a group an anxiety provoking situation. By making the classroom and surrounding environments pleasant and welcoming this can help pupils learn new associations and instead of feeling anxious and tense, the pupil will learn to stay relaxed and calm and creates a good environment conducive to good teaching and learning.

Another example of classical conditioning in the classroom in school is a bad tempered teacher who slams the door shut when entering a classroom. This action may make the pupils jump, and after a while the pupils don't need the slamming of the door to make them jump, they will jump when the teacher enters the classroom whether he slams the door or not.

Operant Conditioning

The second type of conditioning is operant conditioning and this is the most important type of behaviourist learning. Operant conditioning is where an association is made between the behaviour and the outcome which follows the behaviour. Pritchard (2005) describes operant conditioning as being more capable of change in its essential qualities than classical conditioning and is therefore seen as more powerful. This type of conditioning works in a positive way and involves increasing a learning process by reinforcing the behaviour by rewarding it but it can also work in a negative way by decreasing an undesirable behaviour which can be discouraged by following it with a punishment. There may be cases where by simply not offering the expected reward for a particular behaviour is considered a sufficient punishment.

In operant conditioning there are some key concepts. Reinforced behaviour increases and strengthens a particular behaviour and makes it likely that the behaviour will happen again there are two kinds of reinforcement; positive reinforcements and negative reinforcements. Positive reinforcements involve giving a reward for good events and outcomes, which are presented after the behaviour. In the situation of a positive reinforcement the response or behaviour is strengthened. Negative reinforcements involve the removal of an adverse stimulus for a bad event or outcome. In the situation of a negative reinforcement the response or behaviour is strengthened because it stops or removes something unpleasant. In both cases of reinforcement there will be an increase in behaviour.

The other key concept is punishment, which is the opposite of reinforcement. It is designed to weaken or eliminate a response rather than increase it. There is a consequence for a poor event or outcome and this causes a decrease in the behaviour. There are two kinds of punishment; positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive punishment occurs when the chances of a certain behaviour decreases as the result of something unpleasant which occurred after the behaviour. Negative punishment occurs when the chances of a certain behaviour decreases as the result of the removal of a favourable event or outcome after the behaviour occurs. In both cases of punishment the behaviour should decrease.

An example of positive reinforcement to increase behaviour could be a child earning a reward form a parent for the child completing their homework. The promise of a reward causes an increase in behaviour of the child. Before long the child will spend each day doing his homework and he is rewarded. This type of rewarding is known as reinforcement. It is likely however that the child may stop doing his homework if the rewards are suspended.

An example of negative reinforcement for a decrease in behaviour could be a child receiving a punishment for a behaviour occurring in a lesson. A pupil is told in a lesson that they will lose some of their break-time or lunchtime if they continue to talk or disrupt the lesson. The potential for this punishment may then lead to a decrease in the disruptive behaviours.

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) is the most famous psychologist in the field of operant conditioning, Pritchard (2005) and is probably the most famous behaviourist. He developed the theory of operant conditioning and his work centred on learning processes. He thought of himself as a radical behaviourist, Bigge and Shermis (1999). He believed that internal thoughts and motivations could not explain behaviour.

Skinner studied the behaviour of rats and pigeons, Pritchard (2005) and then made generalisations of his findings to humans. His work is based on the work done by Edward Thorndike who studied learning in animals using a puzzle box. Thorndike put forward the theory known as the 'Law of Effect'. He used a device called a Skinner box, which was a simple empty box in which an animal could earn food by making simple responses such as pressing a lever. Pressing the lever would result in a reward. The animals soon learnt that in order to get the food reward it must press the lever.

Skinner proposed that human behaviour is very similar to animals; therefore he believed that the principle of rewards and punishments can be applied to humans and to the majority of human behaviour. The principles of operant conditioning can explain all human learning.

Shaping is a reinforcement technique and the idea of shaping is used to teach animals and humans behaviours that they will have never performed before. The trainer will begin by reinforcing a simple response that can be performed easily. Gradually the responses required for the same reward get more and more complex. Shaping can be used to teach children with severe mental difficulties to speak by rewarding any sounds they make. Gradually the children are only rewarded for sounds that are given for the words being taught. In the classroom shaping can be used to teach progressively complex skills. Shaping can also ensure desired behaviour from pupils at such times as the end of the day or lining up for assembly etc.

Behaviourists have argued, Sotto (2007) that this method of learning can be applied to learners in general within the classroom environment. They maintain that teachers can reinforce pupils' behaviours in the classroom which they consider desirable by rewarding them. It is perceived that by rewarding desirable actions and behaviour pupils will repeat these actions and thereby learn what they need to learn.

An article published in the Times Educational Supplement, Bloom (2009), questions the arguments of the behaviourists. It's thought that by rewarding good behaviour and good work in the classroom may only produce short term improvements. The article states that new research has shown that pupils who are given rewards such sweets, stickers, house points etc for good work and completing tasks will often lose interest in learning and may lose motivation altogether.

A review of new research into school rewards systems has shown that rewards such as points, stickers and treats could help to improve behaviour in the short term, but once the rewards ceased, behaviour would return to its original levels.

If rewards are given in exchange for good work; the rewards become less effective. Once the rewards are withdrawn, the work often falls below original levels. Pupils who failed to meet the necessary criteria for a reward lost motivation altogether. In some classes there can be some very strong characters and behaviour management can be a struggle at times. Some pupils although very bright and capable can lack motivation to do even the simplest of tasks. Rewards such as sweets could be given for a short period of time in the hope that behaviour and work rate will improve. Improvements may be seen in the short term but pupils expect these rewards all the time and may soon lost interest when they are not given rewards every lesson for good behaviour and work.

The reward system reduces the very essence of motivation and the teacher has greater hill to climb to motivate pupils to do good work and have good behaviour. Pupils who are told at the beginning of a task that they will receive a reward for completing the task see this as a bribe. They them come to rely on this bribe as a motivation to do good work and expect a reward every time the teacher sets a new piece of work. Teachers do use this example of behavioural conditioning to try and get good behaviour and work from a group of pupils.

Some schools have an e-reward system where pupils get points for good behaviour, good work and having a positive attitude. Pupils can also lose points for bad behaviour, poor work rate and defiance. The points are published every week and generally every week it is the same pupils who receive the positive and negative points. It has been seen that as a reward for the pupils with the greatest number of e-reward points, the top 20 % of pupils in Key Stage three are taken to an amusement park for the day. The rest of the pupils remained in school to do their normal lessons.

Some pupils that are left behind may say that they would never be able to go on the trip as the teachers only reward the same pupils in lessons. The article in the TES talked about pupils who lost motivation altogether when they failed to meet the standard necessary for a reward. The motivation among the pupils left behind could be low. These pupils could argue that they don't feel motivated to work that hard or behave well as they never got rewarded so why bother. There are pupils who always try their best but don't receive rewards so why should they put the extra effort in.

There needs to be consideration when using rewards, the rewards need to have value to the pupils. If the rewards come unexpectedly instead of all the time then genuine motivation can remain high. If rewards are given for work on a task even though the pupils' have little interest in it then it is important that everyone receives an award one for their best efforts. Rewarding only the best pupils is not a good approach as it is essential to keep high esteem, especially with the less able and lower attaining children.

The principles of behaviourism have a place for learning in the classroom, but behaviourism does not give great importance to mental activity, concept formation or understanding. To depend entirely on behaviourist approaches can present problems that need to be overcome when setting out philosophies of teaching and learning. Behaviourism should be included in the planning of teaching and learning but it shouldn't be relied upon alone.

Cognitive and Social Constructivist Learning.

For about fifty years the behaviourists theories were dominant, Sotto (2007) and were the strongest ideas when learning was considered. When it came to educational issues only the work of Jean Piaget was studied with the same degree. But today the theories of the behaviourists have been replaced by the Cognitive approach. Cognitive science has been around since the first half of the twentieth century, Pritchard (2005). Academics from many different disciplines including psychology, artificial intelligence and philosophy all realised they were trying to solve problems relating to the mind and brain.

Constructivism comes under the broad heading of cognitive science in the area of learning, Pritchard (2005). Cognitivism is the study of how people learn, remember and interact. It is directed at the mental processes that take place in a human rather than the restriction of an outside stimulus controlling behaviour as in the case of behaviourism. Behaviourism and reinforcement is not mentioned in research today. Cognitivism investigates intelligence and intelligent systems rather and makes fundamental assumptions that actions follow thought and that thought, be it conscious or unconscious is a matter of the brain manipulating symbols.

Constructivism learning is about mental construction which is that learning takes place when new information is built into and added onto a person's knowledge, understanding and skills. Constructivism is a set of theories about learning which lie between cognitive and humanistic views. Pupils can actively construct their own knowledge. Input from the environment will determine what a pupil will learn. Learning is active mental work and not passive reception of teaching, Pritchard (2005)

Cognitive constructivism is a theory about how individual learners understand things in relation to developmental stages and learning styles. Piaget was one psychologist who studied this theory. On the other hand social constructivism is a theory which emphasises how meanings and understandings develop from of social encounters and it was Vygotsky who studied this.

A Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is considered to be one of the most influential early advocates of the constructivist approach to understanding learning and has majorly contributed to field of child development and learning in children, Pritchard (2005). Piaget demonstrated that children's minds were not empty but their brains actively processed material that was presented to them. He suggested many comprehensive development theories.

One of his theories is the developmental stage theory and the basis of this theory is the idea that the child develops through stages and is able to build upon past experiences. This theory is known as the Cognitive Development Theory and has changed the ways in which psychologists, educators and parents understand the learning of children.

The theory sets out age related development stages and shows that a child's cognitive system is limited to motor reflexes, such as sucking at the time of birth but the child then develops these reflexes as it grows to develop more sophisticated behaviour. Children learn to generalise these specific actions to a wider range of situations and can make them increasing complex patterns of behaviour. The cognitive development takes place in four main stages. There is the Sensori-motor which occurs from birth to two years old. Then there is Pre-operational which happens from two years old to seven years old. Next is Concrete operational stage which happens from seven years old to eleven years old. Finally there is Formal operational stage which occurs from eleven years onwards. This theory is a useful guide to intellectual growth but modern thoughts have gone beyond these views.

Another aspect of Piagets work is concerned with the growth of knowledge and understanding, Pritchard (2005). He described learning as a process of adjustment to environmental influences and described two processes for these influences. he proposed the mechanisms of accommodation and assimilation as the key to processing information.

Assimilation is the process where new knowledge is incorporated into existing mental structures. This stored knowledge is increased to include new information. Accommodation is the process where mental structures are altered in order that the child can cope with the new experience which has expressed the opposite to the existing model. Equilibration is the process where a stable state is achieved, where there is no longer a conflict between new and existing knowledge.

How can Piaget's theory of cognitive development be applied to the classroom? Teachers should concentrate on the process of learning, how they handle and manipulate work rather than the end piece of work. Piaget's early work formed the basis of all that followed in the constructivist movement. Pupils should be encouraged to learn from each other, the teacher should conduct activities that provide opportunities for paired work or small group work. Teachers should act as guides in the learning process and that the curriculum should be adapted to pupils' individual needs and understandings. Teachers should assess a pupil cognitive development and set work that is appropriate to their needs and attainment and this will be motivating. Teachers should be guide the pupil and allow opportunities for the pupils to learn by exploring and discovering.

Piaget's early work formed the basis of the all that followed in the constructivist movement.

Constructivism had emerged as the leading phrase in terms of human learning by the 1980s and 1990s. There had been a significant loss in interest in behaviourist and information-processing perspectives. Vygotsky and others criticised the behaviourist approach as being too narrow, specialised, and isolated and only occurring within the individual self. Hua Liu and Matthews (2005).

Social constructivism adds important dimension and emphasis is placed on the interaction of the learner with others. It gives high priority to language in intellectual development. Talking becomes the vehicle by which ideas are considered, shared and developed. It is the role of the teacher to stimulate and maintain conversation. The teacher needs to engage pupils in conversation and support the development of their understanding. This should be done in a planned way and is known as scaffolding. Scaffolding a series of actions and functions that gives support to learners, Pritchard (2005) at appropriate times. This needs to be done at appropriate levels of sophistication to meet the needs of the individual, it enables the pupil to apply existing skills in new ways to gain new knowledge, Cooper and McIntyre (1996). To understand the concept of scaffolding it is important to understand the work of Vygotsky.

It was a Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) whose work has become the basis of much research and theory into cognitive development over the past several decades, particularly of what has become known as Social Development Theory. Vygotsky states that culture affects and shapes cognitive development and that more emphasis is placed on social factors and the role of language.

His theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) has impacted on teaching greatly over the last couple of decades. The ZPD is a theoretical space of understanding which is just above the level of understanding of a given person Pritchard (2005). Bigge and Shermis (1999). It's the area of understanding into which a learner will move to next and is important as it relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with the guidance and encouragement from a knowledgeable person. The ZPD is the discrepancy between the child's actual mental age and the level that the child may reach with assistance.

Vygotsky described the need for teachers to assess the ZPD, Fox and Malden (2005) and thought that children and adults should work together, Bigge and Shermis (1999) to bring the child up to an advanced level of independent activity that each child can achieve. The process begins with the adult doing most of the cognitive work, this phase is followed by one in which the adult and child share responsibility. In the final phase the child becomes able to think and perform independently. This phase is an ideal level at which to aim teaching, it is known as the 'Range of Performance', Fox and Malden (2005).

In the classroom the teacher should select and structure activities that challenge the pupils but which with a sensitive teacher's guidance can be accomplished by the pupil. The teacher's task is to keep each pupil learning tasks either centred on or focussed slightly above each pupils ZPD. Reciprocal teaching is a contemporary application of Vygotsky's theories and is used to improve a pupil's ability to learn from text. The teacher and pupil will collaborate in learning and will practice four key skills: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. Over time the teacher's role in this process is reduced

Comparing and contrasting Piaget and Vygotsky

Both were constructivists, Prichard (2005) and both believed that people actively build their own knowledge and understanding. Piaget stressed the inner motivation to balance new information with existing knowledge and understanding, whereas Vygotsky stressed the importance of the social interaction in which the person participates.

The following table shows the similarities and differences between Piaget and Vygotsky theories.

Piaget - Cognitive Constructivism

Vygotsky - Social Constructivism

Children learn through being active.

Children learn through being active.

Children operate as 'lone scientists'

Learning is a socially mediated activity.

If a child is shown how to do something rather than being encouraged to discover it for themselves, understanding may actually be inhibited.

Emphasis is placed on the role of the teacher or 'more knowledgeable other' as a 'scaffolder'.

The teacher is the provider of 'artefacts' needed for the child to work with and learn from.

The teacher is the facilitator who provides the challenges that the child needs for achieving more

Cognitive growth has a biological, age related, development basis.

Development is fostered by collaboration (in the Zone of Proximal Development), and not strictly age related

Children are unable to extend their cognitive capabilities beyond their stage of development. There is no point in teaching a concept that is beyond their current stage of development.

Development is an internalisation of social experience; children can be taught concepts that are just beyond their level of development with appropriate support. 'What the child can do with an adult today, they can do alone tomorrow'.

Constructivism and Behaviourism in the Classroom

Constructivism states that children should be allowed to develop at their own rates and learn things for themselves whereas behaviourism emphasizes the stimulus as being able to control the development of the child through appropriate conditioning. Learning is central to schooling and the biggest concern for teachers, Golby and Macleod (2003). Schools exist to promote learning and the teacher is the catalyst for that learning, Cohen et al (2005).

As teachers play a crucial and vital role in the process of learning it is very important that they have a detailed knowledge of the ways in which learning should be promoted in schools. Teachers need to know what is important in terms of the learning theories and how these theories can be translated into the classroom environment. There has to be a place for behaviourism, cognitive and constructivism an understanding of learning styles and multiple intelligence theory.

The four aspects of learning which are considered to be the most important are: that learning is a process of interaction between what is known and what is to be learnt, that learning is a social process, that learning is situated and that learning is a metacognitive process. It should also be noted that other parameters should be included and these are: that learning depends on the individuals' preferred learning style and that learning depends on certain conditions which concern the brain.

Behaviour can be shaped by reinforcement through drill and practice. Clear objectives by the teacher will help pupils focus on clear goals and specific skills should be learned in a fixed order. Constructivism on the other hand is that pupils actively create and construct their own knowledge. Pupils construct their own knowledge by reflecting on their physical and mental actions. Learning is a social process in which pupils reflect and discuss with others as they develop intellectually


All psychologists who have studied learning believe their theories are the best for learners to gain and acquire new knowledge. Behaviourism cannot support all kinds of learning, Nagowah and Nagowah (2009) as it does not take into account activities of the mind. Constructivism states that there should be a curriculum that is tailored and suited to all pupils' prior knowledge. In reality this is not practical situation. The ideal learning environment should include the best practices that are in behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism.

It is very easy for teachers to only use behaviourism in their approach to teaching, but teachers need to include all aspects as this can benefit all learners. A lesson which only relies on the theories of behaviourism can be very boring for the pupils. An ideal lesson should include direct instruction from behaviourism, the pupils thinking processes from cognitvism and pupils developing and discovering their own learning from constructivism. Teachers can become better teachers by being supported by all available means to deal with every demand that is placed upon them. Learning must be central to teacher education, MacCleod and Golby (2003). Teachers need to give their full attention to the nature of learning so they can improve their practice and thereby increasing the quality of the learners' experience. Teachers need to reflect on their teaching and learning must be at the centre of a teacher's development. This means that teachers must reflect on their practice.

The ultimate goal for any teacher is to enhance the pupils' development and learning, and no philosophy or approach, behaviourist, cognitivist, or constructivist, should be viewed as sufficient. Fardanesh (2002).

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