That was a question asked following the learning and development session last week. Why were we being asked to look at the theories of learning given by these three psychologists, some of which dated as far back as the 1930s? Of what relevance was it to my attempts to devise my own identity as a teacher, trying to remember why Cuisenaire is a better tool for teaching fractions to 6 year-olds than Unifix? That feeling was further compounded by colleagues in the staff room. “It doesn’t have any relevance. It’s necessary if you want to write an academic essay but it doesn’t have any bearing on how you teach. I can’t even remember what Vygotsky did”. What have ‘operant conditioning’ or ‘sensori-motor stage of development’ got to do with the everyday running of a classroom?
Well, quite a lot actually. In his book Teaching and learning: Pedagogy, Curriculum, and Culture, Moore claims he has chosen the theories of Skinner, Piaget and Vygotsky as having higher relevance because they were “writers whose work appeared to have been the most influential in contributing to, supporting or even determining public policy on education” (Moore 2000, p. 3). And there is much evidence to support that statement. It seems clear that Skinner’s theory of positive reinforcement has influenced the behaviour management strategies of stickers and house points and ‘Golden Time’ that the majority of us have seen in our classrooms. Ideas behind ‘student-led’ and ‘child-centred’ learning spring from Piaget’s views of the child as responsible for constructing their own learning with the teacher as more of a facilitator than an imparter of wisdom (I’m sure those phrases must be ringing bells for some of you). You can also see direct links with Piaget’s stages of child development and the stages of development and attainment as they are written for the National Curriculum. Due to his work there is now an incorrectly (to my mind) held belief that there exists a fixed line of child development and those failing to meet the acquired levels of achievement at the specific age range given are deficient in some way. And how many of us have asked children to do an activity in groups or with their talk partner, thereby echoing Vygotsky’s theory of learning in the 1960s as a necessary social interaction between peer-to-peer or student-to-teacher?
The more I explored the more it became apparent that teaching isn’t something that just happens and that we as students passively learn through observation and repetition, but is influenced by many changing theories and philosophies both historically and in present day on education and child development. If we are to be reflective about our practice we must investigate why it is that a belief or strategy is held or utilised so that we can understand and evaluate that practice. On the surface the reward system of stickers and marbles in the jar seem both effective and harmless until you consider that what you are doing is conditioning children to give an appropriate behaviour response, rather like Pavlov’s dogs (for an explanation of Pavlov and his classical conditioning see this YouTube clip:
Eaude (2011) looks at both extrinsic (external forces controlling behaviour) and intrinsic (internal self-discipline) motivation and how the system of rewards method of positive enforcement can lead to a decision to behave appropriately based purely on the knowledge a reward is coming rather than due to an understanding as to why it’s important to behave in that way. And what of the child who does not care for the reward? What behaviour strategies will be put in place then?
I have heard many critiques of the new National Curriculum based on its apparent lack of basis in established contemporary theories of learning. Teacher friends have reflected on its return to a more 3 Rs way of learning, with the teacher as the imparter of wisdom and the child the passive recipient, a theory of learning that has been challenged by both Piaget and Vygotsky. Clearly to gain an understanding of why the classroom and the practices within it are shaped and conducted as they are we need to gain an understanding of what theories are behind them and develop our own opinion of them before we unthinkingly accept them as part of our own pedagogy.
Eaude, T. (2011), Thinking Through Pedagogy for Primary and Early Years, Learning Matters
Moore, A. and Quintrell, M. (2000), Teaching and Learning: Pedagogy, Curriculum and Culture, taylor and Francis