Theoretical interpretations of learning have been investigated and researched by psychologists and experts since the 1800s. The earliest philosophical interest in learning was 'behaviourism', the study of the human mind and behaviour. The definition of learning is interpreted differently by researchers, however, all of the theoretical concepts have one aspect in common; 'that learning is a relatively permanent change that exhibits human responses from previous experiences' R.R. Mowrer. S, B. Klein (2001). The psychology of learning has now progressed further into the practice of teaching, which teachers can incorporate into their ideas and approaches to their classroom settings.
Theories are fundamentally an attempt to understand how students learn, influencing literacy instruction and approaches that teachers use. The four major learning theories include, but are not limited to, are:
- Behaviourism; (One of the earliest of the four major learning theories, credited by John. B. Watson as the first behaviourist in 1913, however the concepts dated back to Ancient Greece, Aristotle) It is the theory that instruction can be achieved by observable and measurable objectives met by students. Behaviourists believe that behaviour can be learned, and unlearned, and that learning is the result of stimulus-and-response actions, O'Donohue & Kitchener (1998). Furthermore, behaviourists believe that teachers can fine tune the behaviour of learners; controlling and modifying students using rewards and punishments. Though teachers may punish the undesired behaviours of students, research has proven that positive reinforcements have a stronger, and longer-lasting effect, A. Pritchard (2008). Thus, it is essential that teachers reward a preferred behaviour, instead of punishing.
- Constructivism; (Historical figures who influenced constructivism were Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and John Dewey) The constructivism theory describes student's learning as generating knowledge and meaning from their experiences. Constructivists claim that 'students integrate new knowledge with their existing knowledge' (Tompkins, 1997), and is immeasurable as it is a cognitive process. According to John Dewey (one of the first American constructivists), students collaborate, an inquiry process, in which students ask questions, research information, and strategize to solve problems. After their investigations, they reflect on their learning and actively create their own knowledge. Learning is purposeful, and meaningful, through social interaction and deeper engagement. Effective teachers value the knowledge and experience students bring to learning, and by using the constructivist philosophy, can support social engagement with peers and adults.
- Social Learning Theory; (developed by Albert Bandura, 1977, also known as the social-cognitive theory). This theory is the extension of behavioural explanations of learning, acknowledging psychological factors to the learning process. It provided educators an explanation of human behaviour, such as cognitive, environmental and behavioral influences.
Moreover, Bandura provided research and evidence that learning happens through imitation and modeling, for example the Bobo Doll Experiment (1961), to extend to his 'belief that all human behavior was learned, through social imitation and copying, rather than inherited through genetic factors', Shutteworth (2008).
>>A video resource of the Bobo Doll Experiment<<
- Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development; (One of the first theorists to attempt to describe the process of cognitive development in children) The definition of cognitive development is 'our ability to think, to reason, and to understand and remember the world around us. It involves the mental processes that are associated with taking in, organizing, and making sense of information...' K.L Krause, S.Bochner, S.Duchesne (2003). Piaget particularly focused on how children think, rather than how much they already know. Piaget determined that cognitive development occurs in stages; sensorimotor (goal-directed action), preoperational stage (language acquisition), concrete operations stage (ability to represent events mentally), and formal operations stage (abstract thought). He believed that all children progress through these stages in sequence, however, some may never reach the final stage.
As preservice teachers, our education philosophy will continue to develop and change. The purpose of learning theories are to help influence the way we teach in a learning environment. The theories guide and shape the learning environment to help children reach their potential; however, it is important to acknowledge that theories may also 'maginalise' children's learning. Thus, as we continue our incredible learning journey, we will develop and change our own theoretical perspectives in teaching.
- 'Learning Theories' video A fantastic presentation of a variety of Learning Theories
- The Learning Classroom; Theory into practice An interesting teaching practice of incorporating learning theories into the classroom setting.