Using theory in practice: overlaps and practical applications lecture

Introduction

In concluding the reading for Module 1, this chapter has four main concerns. First, the chapter considers the ways in which there are commonalities and continuities between the different approaches to education which you have been introduced to in each of the chapters you have worked through so far. The chapter then moves on to explore ways in which the core ideas from different educational paradigms may be synthesised together to produce new knowledge and understanding of approaches to learning and teaching. The third section of the chapter then considers the opposite, in examining aspects of these theoretical approaches which are fundamentally incompatible with each other. The fourth and final substantive section of the chapter brings together these differing theoretical positions and discusses them from practical classroom-based standpoints. This section is expanded on in the scenario which accompanies the chapter. Each section is accompanied by a reflective section offering prompts for further investigation and thought on the section content.

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand and explain the commonalities which appear across the theories you have studied in this module
  • appreciate the ways in which different theoretical approaches to education may be reconciled with each other
  • appreciate and articulate the ways in which incompatibilities exist between different theoretical approaches to learning and education
  • evaluate and discuss how you might draw from multiple theoretical positions teaching in practical contexts 

What are common elements that appear across the theories discussed in this module?

Perhaps the most obvious common element between the theories which have been introduced in this module is their concern with learning - and, to a lesser extent, with teaching - and how we might better understand how (and why) people learn. Each of them has its own focus on the same field of study, and each in its own way asks similar questions, although the answers being privileged by each of the paradigms may have both similarities and (as we shall see in the second section of the chapter) differences.

The theories privileged in this chapter are relatively new, and may be associated with the universalisation of formal education which occurred in the industrialising West from the mid-19th century onwards. It is perhaps easy to forget that education has not always been accessible to all, nor guaranteed by rights systems such as the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child, but has all too often been only available to those who could afford an education, and often denied or restricted to some on account of their gender, their ethnicity, or through presumptions based on ability or otherwise to fully physically or psychologically engage in education (HM Government, 2010). All the theories outlined in this chapter, therefore, are progressive in the sense that they are universal, and they assume that learning (and its formal counterpart, organised education) is universal too in its reach. 

Each of the theories addressed in this chapter have their roots in questioning ideas related to education; there are several expressions of these ideas but in Westernised cultures, these ideas find an early expression in notions of education associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 470 - c. 399 BCE). The Socratic method was based on the questioning of assumptions, and on the understanding that it was important to interrogate life, and people's perceptions of it, to find out more about it. This included questions related to learning and education, many of which find expression in the theories we have learned about throughout the module.

Among Socrates' questions, according to Bates (2015) are:

  • why do humans need to learn?
  • how do we learn?
  • from whom do we learn?
  • when do we learn?
  • under what conditions do we learn best?

Socrates was also concerned with critical engagement with ideas; not assuming knowledge, or accepting without question the ideas of others, but engaging with those ideas in a dialogue so that - through debate and analysis - more nuanced positions may be arrived at. As we have seen throughout the module, some ideas and theoretical positions are either refinements of pre-existing paradigms (such as the development of various forms of behaviourism over time) or are else refutations of what has gone before, and a reframing of the assumptions of previous eras (such as we have seen in Piagetian constructivism's refutation of behaviourism). We have also covered several critical pedagogies: the ideas of Montessori, of Gagne, of Freire, and of Steiner are of relevance here, each in their own ways questioning the nature of education, and the conditions under which meaning might be best experienced and delivered. 

Such critical engagements, though, indicate a commonality, in that all ten of the approaches discussed in the chapter have as their central concern how learning might be best achieved and understood. All are focused on the optimum preconditions or conditions for learning, and the development of people to their utmost through education (Schunk, 2013).

Furthermore, although approaches to learning may differ, there are commonalities in the core tenets of many of the schools of thought; these involve both learning in definitional terms, and what constitutes learning. As Schunk (2013) notes, in definitional terms learning is generally seen - whatever the paradigm being advocated may otherwise focus upon - as a change in behaviour, or a difference in the ability to behave in certain ways under certain conditions, which is resultant from practice or else from other kids of experience. Schunk (2013) goes on to assert that - in general terms - that learning has four criteria associated with this definition. First, that learning involves change. Second, that learning persists over time. Third, that learning and experience are associated. Fourth, that we cannot observe learning in others directly, but we have to infer it through observation or other evidence of their modified behaviour or their enhanced abilities. This is the function of assessment; often, part of the function of education is to evidence learning as much as to deliver or otherwise facilitate learning. However, we may be able to discern in ourselves that learning has taken place without needing to necessarily evidence it for ourselves, though such evidence may be useful.  

So, educational theories each work to explain how and why learning takes place, but as their focuses and underlying assumptions are different, the conclusions reached by each theoretical position is in turn different. They are all working towards the same end - the understanding of learning so that it may be supported. As the same core goal is being targeted, we can - with care and discretion - take both theoretical insight and practical advice. It may be that you feel more convinced by the ideas underpinning one approach than those of others toward learning, but that is not to say that others are without insight, or that they may not have ideas and information which can be of use to you. A perhaps sensible direction to take is to consider your personal approach to your own learning, and then think about what theories best accord with your own emerging position.

Reflection

Think of other links that you can make which have not been indicated above. With ten schools of thought introduced in the module, there are hundreds of possible connections to be made. Which ones come to mind first for you?

Consider also the ways in which educational theories have evolved over time; none of them was created in a vacuum. Each, to some extent (even if only to oppose their predecessors) draws on what has come before and has been developed with reference to earlier and perhaps oppositional, or more simplistic, approaches to learning. With a continuity over time of different schools of thought being developed, each with their own insights into education, it is perhaps only natural that you might be able to discern through-lines of thought. How might, do you think, educational theories might continue to evolve from what has been presented in this module in the future? Which concerns that have been highlighted in the past might become central to pedagogic thinking further into the 21st century?

How can these central ideas be synthesised?

The previous section of the chapter made several connections across the range of learning theories which have been the focus of the module. These ideas, which this section discusses in terms of synthesising them are as follows:

  • That all the learning theories are progressive
  • That the learning theories are intended to be universal
  • That learning is seen as a developmental improvement in ability or knowledge which persists over time
  • That there is a relationship between learning and experience
  • That learning needs to be evidenced, so that the learning may be observed by others to verify that it has taken place.

By synthesis, we mean the bringing together of different parts or components to form a whole which works together (Oxford English Dictionary, 2017). So, it is perfectly possible to take elements from, say, two or three different educational paradigms and integrate them into a single lesson. This kind of practically-based thinking forms the substance of the fourth and final main section of the chapter, so it will not be pursued in detail here, but it is worth bearing in mind. Also worth bearing in mind are the five elements listed above; taken together they could form the rationale for any programme of learning in either the longer terms (such as a scheme of work for a term or semester, or for a single lesson within that broader planning. Everyone is going to learn something; everyone is going to experience the new learning together; there will be activities and perhaps assessments to evidence that learning.

This section, though, focuses on synthesising ideas from the different paradigms at the theoretical level. The following section discusses discontinuities and points of argument between the theoretical approaches; here, though, the focus is on linkages and on overlaps between the different schools of thought.

As we have outlined above, the central connective concern is that each of the sets of ideas is focused on relates to learning in respect of a combination of experience and evidence; both of these can be provided through formal education, with the teacher as the person immediately moderating and guiding that learning.So, from a theory-informed standpoint, the teacher can use different educational theories in tandem to get the result in their learners which they are looking for, and can use a mix - or synthesis - of ideas from different paradigms to inform their teaching style, their planning and the resources used in the classroom and other learning settings (Waring and Evans, 2015).

For example, both behaviourism and social learning theory as espoused by Bandura have links in that they see the child in experiential terms; we might rightly expect for there to be some similarities in their use to us in theoretical and planning terms. Both note the value of experience and of feedback mechanisms in promoting learning, and both approaches use ideas related to positively and negatively reinforcing preferred behaviours and unwanted behaviours in their explanations of how learning is cemented. However, social constructivist thought also recognises the value of experience, feedback, and positive reinforcement, although these ideas are expressed in different ways, and relate more to the social circumstances of learning and its support. Vygotsky's conceptualisation of the ZPD (zone of proximal development) both acknowledges what the child may learn when working unassisted, and when supported by a mentoring figure. Behaviourist and social learning theories may be usefully allied with Vygotskyian ones, as they are interested in the same ends, and may offer uses for different specific teaching moments, and for application in different contexts.

Similarly, social constructivist ideas about the value of working in collaboration with others, and particularly those others who can support or 'scaffold' the learner in the acquisition of new skills, competencies, and abilities integrates well with critical pedagogies such as those associated with Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. These latter approaches, both of which privilege free play, the holistic child, and a child-centred education which allows them to explore their own environment and to use the teacher in a supportive and facilitative rather than in a didactic manner, both drawn on ideas which have similarities similar to those associated with the social constructivist school, where learning is linked to modelling others; behaviours, to exploration of one's own competencies as a learner, and developing independence in new skills over time.

All link in some way back to the combination of psychological, physiological and associated cognitive development in the young which is associated most clearly in ideas linked with Piagetian thought. The extent to which age-related cognitive development by itself is a factor to consider may vary in the different paradigms, but there are links across the schools of thought to appropriateness of different kinds of education at different ages and abilities, and there are few who would meaningfully deny that there is a relationship between cognitive psychology and capacity to learn in any given context (Moore, 2012).

As educators, then, we have the capacity to draw insight and focus in our own approach to learning - and the teaching which drives that learning - through the connections which are possible to be made in the assortment of theoretical positions available to us. In that way, we are better enabled than educators a century ago, for whom many of these ideas were unavailable as they have yet to be devised. Over the course of an adult career it is entirely possible that fresh innovations, theories, and revisions of old ideas will come to the fore. It is thus important to be engaged with education as a subject after one has qualified and entered practice as a teacher; there are always new approaches to assimilate and to revise one's personal philosophy of teaching in relation to and with.

Reflection

Think in terms of what you can take from across the spectrum of educational theories introduced in the module. How do you position yourself with reference to these different approaches? Most educators drawn from multiple paradigms as they begin to construct their own theory of teaching and learning, so I what ways are you synthesising information from the available material to inform your personal philosophy of education? Don't worry if this isn't a consideration that you've made before. But is it perhaps time to reflect on your position with respect to the array of approaches to teaching and learning available, and to think about how you can arrive at your own unique position on learning from that material. Also, remember that the module is intended as an introduction to these schools of thought; there is much more information to be uncovered, so which schools might you investigate in more detail as your educational journey continues? And why is this; what reasons can you give for the choices being made?

Are there elements of any of the theories which are fundamentally incompatible?

As this chapter shows, there may be aspects of some of the teaching theories discussed in this module which do not work well together, or which have to be reconceived in some ways in order to be integrated into a personal philosophy of teaching. However, it may be that these are either unsurmountable issues, or there may be avenues for connections to be made. This section offers some tensions for you to consider, but ultimately the approach that you take in devising your own pedagogy and your attitudes to the competing and co-existing systems of knowledge about learning is your own.

At its simplest and most straightforward, behaviourism is not interested in what is going on inside the mind of the learning individual; its concerns are with observable outcomes, and as such, the function of the teacher working in a behaviourist-informed manner is to provide the appropriate material which will stimulate the learner in the required manner, and to dissuade them from unwanted responses. Strictly, there is no concern with the inner workings of the mind; all that matters are the externally-verifiable behavioural changes being sought, be that achievement in a certain kind of new mathematics competency, or in learning a physical skill such as aspects of a driving instruction course.

On the other hand, those theories with cognitive biases have as their focus the thought processes and psychological abilities of the learner as a core consideration; there is a plethora of possible internal processes and considerations to bear in mind: the learner's expectations, their focus and attention, prior knowledge and their experience related to the new learning, their cognitive maturity, etc. In addition, there is the providing of external means of support for those internal processes to take root, such as creating expectations of learning in the pupils, in facilitating the learners to self-support so that they can recognise for themselves that the requisite learning has occurred, and so that they may devise their own learning strategies and competencies. Strictly speaking, the behaviourist is interested in little of this, wanting the right results only. Both have their uses: much teaching of babies and toddlers is implicitly - if not explicitly- - behavioural, and works on a system of positive and negative reinforcement (praise and scolding for example) moderate behaviour; much early childhood learning uses repetition to establish familiarity, routine, and conformity. Yet, behaviourist ideas have their uses with adults as well; classroom management for any cohort of learners relies to some extent on behavioural management, and the use of positive and negative reinforcement.

Other paradigms have different concerns to the ones outlined above. The work of Paolo Freire, for example, and other thinkers discussed in the chapter on critical pedagogy, relate less to the mechanics of learning as a behavioural, cognitive, or social process, or indeed any combination of these three imperatives, and more upon the social and cultural conditions within which that education is delivered. Critical theorists of education see that teaching and learning is a site of social control, and that as education teds to be controlled by governments and by the social, cultural, political and economic elites who articulate power through that government as well as through wider society (through media ownership, for example), then education - and within it processes of teaching and learning - are aspects of the cultural priorities being imposed and supported by those elites. Childhood, we are reminded, is a cultural and historical construction; curricula are government documents; teachers are agents - perhaps unwittingly - of social control (Moore, 2012).

Therefore, it is wise, as Freire noted in his banking analogy of learning which you have previously read about, to be suspicious of the education which is provided for you as learners in such contexts; if you can only learn what you are given to learn, then you are controlled. Freire argues for an education which is truly democratic, in that it serves the real needs of the people, not the false needs which elites would have them substitute for their realities. Models of teaching and learning which tend to the didactic, which privilege formal achievements over independent enquiry, and which demand obedience instead of the question-posing education which Freire sees as appropriate, demostraising, and equalising the power relationship between learner and teacher, as to be shunned. Some teachers find for themselves that it is less the teaching and learning in itself which is challenging in education, as the wider contexts of that educative working (assessment-driven teaching, classroom and school inspections, paperwork and administrative regimes and the like) which are at issue; these are all aspects of the banking model of education Freire sees as problematic.

Other approaches focus not on either the broader cultural context of education nor on the mechanics of learning but on the focus - or otherwise - on the child; Steiner and Montessori systems, and others like them, tend to the child-centric, and have been influential, not least in mainstream early years and primary school pedagogy in recent years (Cremin and Arthur, 2014). Rather than a fundamental incompatibility, there is a switch of emphasis in these approaches. The whole child is the focus, not on the immediate learning needs of the child, or of the teaching focus being applied, nor yet the broader conditions of the education being provided. As such, these approaches have usefulness in contextualising learning and teaching, and offering a frame in which closer interactions and teaching moments might occur.

We can perhaps see these different paradigms as having focuses which relate to levelness: on the immediate, on the holistic, and on the contextual. As teachers, we can perhaps focus on one at a time of these, but there is usefulness in bearing the others in mind. This involves being aware of their connections and linkages, as explored in the previous sections, and aware of their discontinuities and their scale of comment and insight into learning, so that we can approach our own pedagogy - in both abstract and in practical terms - with greater definition. It is to this practical aspect which this chapter now turns.

Reflection

How do you feel about the content in the section above? Does the idea that there are incompatibilities between some of the ideas expressed in the module cause you problems; if so, what kind of issues do you have?

One way of thinking about incompatibilities is that they present options to you as an educator. Discontinuities between theories indicate not only the diversity of thought on educational and related matters, but also that the theoretical approaches concerned have different priorities. You may find in your teaching practice that different approaches are useful to call upon when you are facing challenges; just because not all the approaches link together or are wholly complementary does not mean that they might not all be useful to you at some point in your teaching.

How can one unite different theories in practice?

This fourth and final section of the chapter takes a more practical and classroom-oriented examination of the themes which have been explored thus far. As such, it should be read in conjunction with the scenario which is to be found at the very end of the chapter materials, as this exemplifies some ideas relevant to what is being discussed here.

The first thing to state is we should not worry too much about using every theory. Contrary to what the rest of the volume might have led you to be concerned about, teachers do not spend all day every day being minutely concerned about paradigms of learning, about the precise differences between Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner schools and the like. Everyday concerns tend to the practical, the realistic, and to the immediate. That is not to say that learning theories do not have their part to play; they do, but they need to be framed within the daily considerations and working practices of the teacher.

Most of your time is going to be spent in class. Most of the rest of your time is going to be spent in either planning and preparing lessons, or in marking work completed as an outcome of those lessons. There are before, during, and after aspects to teaching. So, think of the theories which the module has introduced as support mechanisms to help you better accomplish your task, which is to support pupils in their learning, and to devise means by which that learning may be both accomplished and evidenced.

As the scenario below illustrates, you may find that you naturally draw on ideas which find expression in different aspects of pedagogical theory. Some are perhaps obvious and straightforward; any group work offers the potential for Vygotskian ideas on enhanced learning through mentored support to be privileged, for example. But it is not enough to put a group work task into a lesson plan and to assume that one has ticked a social constructivist box, and can them move onto another paradigm. There are considerations in respect of the groups to work together; are they each to be supported by you or other classroom adults in presence, or is there a mixed ability range within the group so that scaffolding might meaningfully take place within that group? What about the learners at the upper end of the ability range within each group; who supports them to develop further? If this is not considered, then there is the chance that some pupils will learn nothing new from the task (Hattie and Yates, 2014). Is there scope within tasks and activities (at times at least) to harness creativity and individuality, or are tasks restrictive, and demanding of a strictly regimented - and perhaps behaviourist-influenced response? Or is there a way to redesign the task so that essential learning can be recognised and rewarded yet have latitude within the activity for creativity, personal identity, and other qualities to be made evident? Crucially, does the learning make meaningful sense to the pupils themselves? Engagement with the worlds of children, and their needs for knowledge and for self-expression may invoke ideas related to a spectrum of critical pedagogies simultaneously, as well as tap into more pragmatic ideas as expressed by Dewey and by Gagne. Are the tasks being set appropriately challenging, and do they invoke ideas beyond those explicitly related to the learning theories privileged in this module. Is the learning appropriately challenging per Bloom's taxonomy, for example; are different perceived learning styles being supported across the diet of activities and assessments being offered, and are core competencies such as literacy and numeracy abilities being supported where relevant to the subject-specific delivery?

What you may find is that you are organically drawing from across the spectrum of possible learning theories in your work. One useful tactic is to design lessons and schemes of work, and to then reflect upon them, discerning for yourself where and how often specific theories are being invoked. What does this tell you about your preferences as an educator? If there are obvious imbalances which you feel uncomfortable with, then these can be addressed, and the learning opportunities being offered to pupils rewritten accordingly. Also, reflect on the experience of having delivered that session and having seen the evidence of learning produced by pupils; were your expectations met in the session? Where there any issues which arose that can be addressed for next time, either in the sense of the next engagement with those same learners or in the next presentation of that same material (Pollard and Black-Hawkins, 2014). If something works, can ideas from a different paradigm strengthen it; if something is not as successful as one would want, then might an approach with inspiration from another focus yield benefits? There are neither right or wrong teaching approaches in themselves but there are successful and enjoyable ones, and there are ones which are less engaging and meaningful for learners, and awkward and problematic ones for teachers. By having a knowledge bank informed by different theoretical approaches to teaching and learning to draw on, the educator is best placed to make their teaching vivid, meaningful, productive, and fun for pupils and for the teacher alike.

Reflection

Think about teachers you have had, either as a child or as an adult. With the knowledge you have gained about learning theories because of your studies in this module, can you identify ways in which those teachers you bring to mind have drawn on different approaches to teaching and learning in their classes? Think about teachers who you thought were more effective or more memorable than others; what was different about how they taught, and are there connections there to their abilities to synthesise ideas from different educational paradigms in their classes?

Now think about your teaching experience, be it in formal or in informal situations. Which theoretical positions do you tend to draw on in your teaching naturally? What connections are you already making, and to what extent can you link theory to practices which you were already embodying before you had the theoretical knowledge contained within the module? It may be that your teaching style, you innate preferences and approach to teaching and learning, already displays elements of ideas associated with a range of paradigms. If so, think about how you can solidify what you are already doing, to maximise the effectiveness of the insights from the approaches to learning which you are already favouring. If you cannot see any such links at present, reflect on this, and consider how you might develop your current teaching abilities by adding to your competencies from a broader diet of ideas associated with teaching than you are currently using.

Conclusion

This chapter has addressed commonalities between the different approaches to educational theory introduced in the module and has discussed ways in which both similarities and differences may be identified, and how these may be if use in teaching situations. As the chapter has indicated, there are connections and incompatibilities to be recognised, but there are also positives to be found in taking what works together in theoretical terms and applying that thinking in live teaching contexts, and in one's planning and preparation for pupils' learning. One of the hallmarks of the effective practitioner is their ability to synthesise information and insight from multiple schools of thought and bring them to bear as appropriate as part of a suite of educational competencies.

Finally, a note of congratulations in completing the module! We have covered a great deal of theoretical material in this module from a broad spectrum of philosophical and educational positions. Not all of it will sink in as much as others, initially, and each practitioner will tend to have their theoretical and practical preferences. However, there is something to be learned from each of the paradigms introduced in the module, and - as this chapter has worked to show - their insights can be combined in useful and productive ways.  

Reflection

Now you have finished reading this chapter, and thinking about the issues raised in the main body and in the reflection sections, you should be able to:

  • understand and explain the commonalities which appear across the theories you have studied in this module
  • appreciate the ways in which different theoretical approaches to education may be reconciled with each other
  • appreciate and articulate the ways in which incompatibilities exist between different theoretical approaches to learning and education
  • evaluate and discuss how you might draw from multiple theoretical positions teaching in practical contexts 

You should now complete the 'hands-on scenario' at the end of this chapter. Use what you have learned in this chapter (and across the module as a whole) to complete the short task included there.

Reference list

Bates, B. (2015) Learning theories simplified ... and how to apply them to teaching. 1st ed. London: SAGE Publications.

Cremin, T. and Arthur, J. (2014) Learning to teach in the primary school. 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gagné, R., Golas, K., Keller, J. and Wager, W. (2011) Principles of instructional design. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Hattie, J. and Yates, G. (2014) Visible learning and the science of how we learn. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

HM Government (2010) United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): how legislation underpins implementation in England, Gov.uk. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/united-nations-convention-on-the-rights-of-the-child-uncrc-how-legislation-underpins-implementation-in-England (Accessed: 26 June 2017).

Moore, A. (2012) Teaching and learning. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pollard, A. and Black-Hawkins, K. (2014) Reflective teaching. 4th ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Schunk, D. (2013) Learning theories: an educational perspective. 6th ed. London: Pearson Education.

Waring, M. and Evans, C. (2015) Understanding pedagogy. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.


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