What’s the relevance?


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

Kirsty Lee


2 thoughts on “What’s the relevance?

  1. Interesting read Kirsty. I have also been thinking about Skinner’s theory of positive reinforcement and agree that it has influenced reward strategies today. In my placement school, there are raffle ticket rewards, examples include for getting changed quickly for P.E or holding a door open for a teacher, amongst others and house points given for really good work or behaviour that is exemplary. The children are striving to do the best they can to get a reward, filling their house point cards to get a head teacher merit certificate. All this sounds positive, however the school I worked in started with the rewards of stickers, house points and golden time, but changed tact to the only reward being golden time, every child had 30 minutes at the beginning of the week but could loose it in 5 minute increments. The belief was that children should want to achieve for themselves and not for a sticker etc. Did they miss stickers? Honestly after half a term they didn’t miss them and the work was improving. As Kirsty has pointed out, reward schemes are a way of conditioning children rather than them achieving because they want to.

  2. You made a lot of really good observations Kirsty. Like Charlotte, I have also been thinking about the behavourist approach as it is all around us in the school environment. During the seminar, I thought about how interesting it is that there has been a distinct shift in behaviourist theory, from a focus on negative behaviour to a focus on promoting positive behaviour. Having conversations with my parents about their school experiences, they emphasise the fear they had of doing something wrong as the punishments were so severe. Obvously, I don’t condone those punishments but it is interesting how that view has been flipped and we are making examples of the good behaviour in the classroom, rather than the bad.
    I have seen lots of examples of reinforcing positive behaviour in the classroom to get the other children to behave and it is a technique that I think works quite well. I do understand and take on board what you were both reflecting on, about children should know how to behave and do it for themselves rather than for a sticker or a tick on the tick chart. But I do think it is a concept that we still appreciate and adhere to in adult life too. For example, if we were to be rewarded at work through a bonus or pay rise because of our achievements so far, would we turn it down because it is something we should know to do anyway? Or be thankful that our achievements have not gone unoticed and the hard work we have put in has been rewarded? We like to know and be recognised for positive behaviour or for good work we have done, whether it be at home, work or school. It makes us feel good about ourselves when we have been acknowledged in a positive light, so we can take pride in our achievements and go on to develop because of this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s