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Theories of Learning

Adapted from a presentation given by:

Dr.Jane Waters

Learning and knowing?

Do humans learn all that they know?

How do we come to know things?
Is all learning the same?
Do we learn in different ways?
Facts content: I know that..
Opinions ideas: I think that..
Social position: this is my friend, this is my teacher.
Emotions: I feel sad, I am angry.
Self image: I am a good pupil, I am a naughty girl.

What is learning?
The three central theories we will consider
suggest learning is:
responding to external stimuli
making meaning of experience for oneself
making meaning of experience through social
negotiation social constructivism;


the empty vessel;

the blank slate;
Burrhus Skinner (1904 1990) American
focused on observable, quantifiable events
and behaviour, the effect of the outside world
on individual behaviour;
not interested in hidden internal processes;


Skinners theory suggested:

the response a learner receives from an action

can increase or decrease the likelihood of that
action being repeated;
desirable action can be positively reinforced by
undesirable action can be negatively reinforced by
reprimand or punishment;
repetition of such patterns enables child to learn
what behaviour is desirable and undesirable;

Pavlovs dogs

behaviourism is similar to Pavolvs theory of

operant conditioning;
it is a stimulus-response model;
assumes learners modify their behaviour (the
stimulus) until they receive a positive response;
repeated positive response will ensure the
behaviour is learnt;
suggests that without positive reinforcement a
behaviour becomes extinct;

Behaviourist teaching

repetition of desired responses (drilling, flash

cards,times tables chanting )
reward for desired behaviour (smiley faces,
praise, house points, merits )
punishments for undesirable behaviour
(missing playtime, loss of golden time,
detention, warnings, sanctions )
have been adopted for behaviour
management programmes (catch them being


Making meaning
the lone scientist;
Jean Piaget (1896 1980) Swiss biologist
observed his childrens cognitive
development and thinking;
concluded that the human infant actively
seeks to make sense of the world;
learning is a result of the childs exploration of
and interaction with the environment;

Mental structures schema

Through the exploration of the environment the child

adapts his/her mental structures schema through
three processes:


New experiences are taken in (assimilated) and added to

an increasing store of memory and understanding
A new experience does not fit with existing understandings
and some adjustment (accommodation) in understanding
has to take place


The goal of every learner a balance is achieved

(temporarily until another challenge to that equilibrium
comes along and more accommodation is needed)

The active learner, the lone


learning is seen as an intrinsically motivated

(rather than motivated by external reward)
the child is mentally active (not a passive
Piagets active learner has been described as
the lone scientist exploring the world to
make meaning for him/herself, regardless of
social environment;

The learning process

it has been claimed that Piagets work

allowed theorists to consider cognitive
development (learning) as a process;
Learning takes place and provides a
foundation for future learning (Smidt 2006
the learner is ACTIVE in this process;
learning is not something that is done to the
learner, it is something they engage in

Linear development

Piaget is also associated with the stage

theory of cognitive development

This has been heavily critiqued but is still highly

influential in UK educational provision.

he proposed every child had to pass through

4 stages of learning sequentially;
these stages represent different (more
complex) ways of thinking and reasoning;

Piagets stages

Sensory motor period: 0-2 years

Pre-operational period: 2-7 years

Exploration of the physical world and how it related to the

self (ego-centric understandings)

Period of concrete operations: 7-11 years

Physical interaction with the world

Logical understandings of the world including reversibility,

ordering, sorting, conservation and seriation

Period of formal operations: 11-12 upward

Generation of hypotheses and ability to think abstractedly

and scientifically

Constructivist teaching

Practical activity, direct experience

Exploration and physical manipulation of
Focus on pupils making sense of what they
are doing/ thinking explain what you think,
tell us how you did it, write down your ideas
Starting from current understandings
I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I

Social constructivism

Active participant
Negotiated meaning
Lev Vygotsky (1896 1934) Russian
Learners actively make meaning and their
social world is fundamental to this process
All cognitive functions originate in social
interaction and are then internalised on an
individual level.

The role of others

Vygotsky believed the role of other people

(adults, siblings and other children) was
essential for children's learning
The tools of a culture shape the thinking of
the young child
Tools (cultural tools)

Symbolic tools: e.g. language, art, music

Objects: e.g. pens, phones, computers

It is through children's interaction with others

and symbolic tools that children
collaboratively construct knowledge and


Is not just about things (how it works,

scientific concepts)
Is also about being part of a community
By using the symbolic tools with other people
children are part of their culture

This includes beliefs, language, rules how we

act in different situations, with different people

Language and culture as tools

for understanding

All experience is mediated by the language

and culture of the group
Knowledge is co-constructed by an individual
within the social frameworks of language and
culture of the group.

Experiencing twice

Vygotsky suggested that children gain the

same knowledge on two levels

First: the social level by experiencing it with

others, maybe more experienced others
Second: the psychological level by making
mental maps of what has been understood

Learning happens first through interaction

then through internalisation
The child is a collaborative learner (not a
lone scientist)


Vygotsky introduced the idea of the zone of

proximal development (ZPD)
Child demonstrates alone what s/he has
already mastered

Knowledge and skill that the child has

Child can perform at a higher level when

he/she is supported by a more capable peer
or adult

Knowledge and skill that the child has not yet


Level of Potential Development
Knowledge and understanding which the child may gain in the
future but is inaccessible from where they are now (level of
actual development)

Zone of Proximal Development

Knowledge and understanding which the child may grasp with
the help of a more competent peer or adult the child is on the
edge of her capabilities and needs support [scaffolding]

Level of Actual Development

Knowledge acquired and solid conceptual understanding what
the child can do alone and independently


Jerome Bruner (born 1915 American psychologist)

It is important for anyone helping a child learn to

work within this ZPD

scaffolding - the social role of the adult in supporting a

childs learning

working below means the child learns nothing new

working above means the work is inaccessible for the child
and beyond their current capabilities

The educator scaffolds the childs performance

often by providing small steps of guidance

the scaffolding is removed once the child can perform


Social constructivist teaching


Collaborative learning methods, encouraging

talking together

Teamwork skills development

Discussion of ideas

Talk with your partner and write your answer


tell us what your group did/ found out/ explored

Scaffolded learning opportunities maximised

interaction with teacher/other is central to

learning process

Does it matter?

The way teachers think about the learning process

guides the way they teach..Yes it matters!

Sometimes what works is OK is the short term

Good professional practice involves reflecting on

why it works, whether it works long term and what
alternatives there may be
Such reflections will be influenced by
understandings of what learning is and how children

Childrens questions

What does thinking look like?

What colour is thinking?
Why is the moon tall in the water?
Where does the sun go?
What if I went shopping and I died?
Who decides about the vicar?
Why did the plane go into the tower?

Learning the biological


100 billion neurons in the

The neuron is the functional
unit of the brain
Neurons communicate
using electrical signals and
chemical messengers
called neurotransmitters
that either stimulate or
inhibit the activity of a
responding neuron

A neuron or nerve cell

The neuron, or nerve cell, is the functional unit of the nervous
system. The neuron has processors called dendrites that receive
signals and an axon that transmits signals to another neuron.

Neurons transmit information to other


Neurons transmit information to other neurons. Information passes from the

axon of one neuron to the dendrites of another across a microscopic gap.
Information crosses the gap via hook-ups called synapses.

What does the research tell


John Bruer, educationalist, states:

neurosciences tell us absolutely nothing
about early childhood
There are a number of ideas that some
theorists and practitioners have latched onto
There is now a HUGE market for brain
stimulation strategies due to ideas about:

Synaptic growth
Critical periods
Enriched environments

Impacts on classroom

However, some ideas based on brain

research have made their way into the

These include:

Left brain, right brain

Brain gym
Visual, auditory, kinaesthetic learning

Left brain, right brain

Language left hemisphere

Graphic and emotional right hemisphere

Pupils are either left or right brain users

Neuroscience suggests that it is dangerous to

suppose that language processing only
occurs in the left hemisphere of all people
Humans are not either or in their brain use!

Brain Gym

Look at this website:
Myth: These movements can have a
profound effect, developing the brain's neural
pathways through movement, just as nature
(from the above website)
There is no evidence to suggest that such
classroom activities have any effect on the
brain of young children

VAK learners

Learning styles

Everyone has a dominant learning style, either visual,

auditory and kinaesthetic

Neuroscience tells us that our brains interlink input

That is, information is taken in via pathways that are
inter-linked, for example:

Visual auditory
Visual - motor
Motor auditory
Visual - taste

To conclude

Three central theories

Social constructivism

You will see aspects of all three theories in practice

In the classroom you may see initiatives that claim
to be based on international practice or brain
research too
Maintain a reflective approach.
Good luck!

Further reading:

Follow up chapter: handout

Wray D. (2006) Unit 2:2 Looking at Learning from

Arthur, Grainger and Wray [Eds] Learning to
Teach in the Primary School

Additional summary material:

Smidt S. (2007) Chapters 1-3 The Developing

Child in the 21st Century. London: Routledge

Bruer J: Neural connections: some you use,
some you loose

Blakemore S-J. & Frith U. (2005) The

Learning Brain Oxford. Blackwell

Chapter 2: The Developing Brain