Comparison of Behavioural and Structural Theories of Adolescent Learning

1875 words (8 pages) Essay in Psychology

18/05/20 Psychology Reference this

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Compare and contrast two of the main learning theories of adolescent learning (Behavioural, Cognitive, Social, Constructivist and Psychosocial). Discuss the implications of one of your chosen perspectives for productive adolescent learning in secondary school classrooms.

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As students develop and move into adolescence and further towards adulthood, their minds and bodies also develop and change (Morrison, 2014). In order for educators to create an efficient learning environment, they must observe and understand how their students’ learning capabilities and styles have developed with them. Adolescence undeniably impacts how students process new information, therefore influencing how educators prepare and conduct classroom activities to allow for ideal cognitive development and growth within classroom sessions (Mawson & Haywood, 2017). Many learning theories and concepts from psychology do have a huge influence education. Educational psychologists have developed multiple theories that are applicable to the classroom as they describe the usual occurrences in the learning environment, as well as offer advice and guidance for the educators.  The main learning theories of adolescent learning include Behavioural, Cognitive, Social, Constructivist and Psychosocial learning theories. The two that will be further compared and discussed are Behavioural and Constructivist learning. Skinner and Watson, the two major advocates of behaviourism, studied how changes in the environment affects learning and also pursued to verify that behaviour could be predicted and controlled (Skinner, 1948). Piaget and Vygotsky were resilient advocates for constructivism which observed learning as a search for meaning and portrayed components that helped predict what students know or are capable of understanding at different stages of development (Rummel, 2008).

Behaviourism is a psychological approach on learning (McLeod, 2017) which emphasises on the role of environmental factors in influencing behaviour. It is a perspective on learning that emphasises on students’ visible and observable behaviour such as changes in what they do or say (Lumen Learning, n.d.). Behaviourism is a ‘teacher centred approach to adolescent learning. In the classroom, behaviourism is valuable for recognising relationships between particular actions and habits of students and the immediate consequences of the actions. One variety of behaviourism that has evidently proved to be useful to educators is operant conditioning (Lumen Learning, n.d.). Operant conditioning emphases on how the consequences of behaviours impact them over time. It starts with the idea that particular consequences result in particular behaviours occurring more frequently (Lumen Learning, n.d.). For example, if a student is complimented for a correct comment made during a class discussion, it is more likely that the educator will hear more comments from that student during future class discussions. Considering that the original research about operant conditioning was conducted using animals in the 1930s and 1940s (Lumen Learning, n.d.), it is fair to question its relatability to human behaviours in a learning environment. Evidently, there are numerous examples of consequences affecting students’ behaviour in ways that resemble operant conditioning. To a large extent, educating is about making certain consequences, such as praise or discipline, which depends on students’ engagement in learning activities including reading or assignments (Lumen Learning, n.d.). In a school setting, educators use positive and negative reinforcements to reward or punish a student’s behaviour. The behaviourist theory relies on extrinsic behaviour such as prizes, good grades and praise as a way to ensure the replication of the behaviour (Weegar & Pacis, 2012). Educators who follow the behaviourist learning theory would present lesson objectives in a linear way by providing hints to guide students to a desired behaviour and then use consequences to reinforce the behaviour (Weegar & Pacis, 2012). One main advantage of behaviourism its capability to outline and measure changes in behaviour. Although, behaviourism only presents a small portion of human behaviour. Important aspects including emotions and motivation are not considered. While the behaviourist perspective is characterised as a teacher centred approach to adolescent learning, constructivists view learning as the process where a student actively constructs their own form of meaning.

Although the behaviourist learning theory may be helpful in allowing educators to understand and influence students’ actions, educators generally want to know what students are thinking and how to enrich these thoughts. This is where the constructivist learning theory comes into play. Constructivism emphasises on how students actively create or construct knowledge and thoughts out of experiences (Lumen Learning, n.d.). Constructivism involves the students establishing meaning through experiences through reflection and reasoning. Constructivist models of learning vary about the amount of independence that the student has constructing knowledge compared to how much the educator prompts their learning. These models are called psychological constructivism and social constructivism. Both models focus on independent thinking rather than their behaviour, however they have different teaching implications. Psychological constructivism refers to a student learning by mentally organising and reorganising new experiences or information (Lumen Learning, n.d.). This happens by relating new experiences and knowledge to prior knowledge that is already comprehended and meaningful. Jean Piaget describes learning as an interplay between two mental activities called assimilation and accommodation (Piaget, 2001). Assimilation refers to the interpretation of new information regarding pre-existing ideas and information (Piaget, 2001). For example, a young child who knows the concept of a bird might label any flying object as a bird such as a fly. In assimilation, what is being transferred to a new setting is not just a behaviour like in operant conditioning, but a mental demonstration for an experience or object. Assimilation and accommodation work jointly. Accommodation is the revision of pre-existing concepts in terms of new information or experiences (Piaget, 2001). For example, the young child that generalised a bird to include all flying objects eventually revises the concept to only include specific types of flying objects such as parrots rather than flies. Assimilation and accommodation work hand-in-hand to enhance a students’ thoughts to create cognitive equilibrium, which is defines as a balance between reliance on prior knowledge and openness to new information (Lumen Learning, n.d.).

Unlike Piaget’s version of constructivism, social constructivism refers to educators explicitly focusing on the relationships and encounters between a student and others who are more knowledgeable or experienced (Lumen Learning, n.d.). Lev Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism focuses on how a students’ thinking is influenced by relationships with others who are more experienced than them (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky mentions that when a student is learning a new skill, they can perform better when accompanied and assisted by someone with more knowledge rather than alone, but still not as well as the expert (Vygotsky, 1978). For example, someone who has played little chess will compete against an opponent more sufficiently if assisted by an expert rather than playing alone. The social constructivist theory outlines that learning is like an assisted performance. While learning, the knowledge is in the expert or educator. If the expert is motivated, by providing continuous assistance and experiences, the expert allows for the learner to gain the skills and knowledge that is instilled in the expert. In both psychological and social constructivism, the student is not necessarily taught, but rather simply allowed to learn (Lumen Learning, n.d.). The student must not only have knowledge, but also know how to mentally sort experiences that make it easier for them to gain knowledge themselves. These are a lot like the requirements for classroom teaching. On top of knowing the content to be taught, the educator also has to organise the content into manageable sections, present them in a logical sequence, provide suitable practice, bring all sections of content back together at the end, and also relate all the learning experience to knowledge that is meaningful to the students (Lumen Learning, n.d.). 

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While both behaviourism and constructivism are comparable as they relate to adolescent learning, they differ in critical aspects. One variance between the two learning theories is the behaviourist ideal that the teacher is central to learning, which is opposed by the constructivist belief that students establish meaning through new experiences by reflection and reasoning (Weegar & Pacis, 2012). In the classroom, behaviourism is beneficial for recognising relationships between particular actions or behaviours by a student and the precursors and consequences of those actions or behaviours (Lumen Learning, n.d.). It is not beneficial however, for understanding changes in students’ thinking, hence why the thinking-oriented constructivist theory is purposeful. Another variance is that the behaviourist theory results in the short-term retention of information due to the students lacking relatedness and experience with the new information being taught (Alley Dog, n.d.). This explains why students have the ability to perform in exam conditions, but struggle to recollect information in the long term. On the other hand, the constructivist theory steers away from what can be observed and emphasises on the students understanding and mental storage of the new information, which allows for the information to be stored accordingly and be retained (Piaget, 2001). The implications of both constructivism and behaviourism were made evident at St Maroun’s Secondary College during teaching placement. Within the secondary school classrooms during food technology, educators would enforce particular groupings while conducting a practical class. This promoted productive adolescent learning as the grouping accommodated for the students’ capabilities. This was achieved by monitoring the students to ensure safe and correct behaviour to create the anticipated result from the classroom activity.

In conclusion, as students develop and move into adolescence and further towards adulthood, their minds and bodies also develop and change (Morrison, 2014). This means that as educators, we must create and adjust an efficient learning environment by observing and understanding how students’ learning capabilities and styles have developed with them. Adolescence undeniably impacts how students process new information, therefore influencing how educators prepare and conduct classroom activities to allow for ideal cognitive development and growth within classroom sessions (Mawson & Haywood, 2017). Skinner and Watson, the two major advocates of behaviourism, studied how changes in the environment affects learning and also pursued to verify that behaviour could be predicted and controlled (Skinner, 1948). Piaget and Vygotsky were resilient advocates for constructivism which observed learning as a search for meaning and portrayed components that helped predict what students know or are capable of understanding at different stages of development (Rummel, 2008).

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