In reviewing the process of learning theories a definition of learning would appear to be a fundamental focus point from which to initiate discussion. Without the knowledge of how we learn, how are we to understand its importance for learners and their abilities to grasp the information being given? This definition of learning implies three objectives: 1. that learning must change the student in some way;
2. that this change comes about as a result of experience; 3. that this is a change in the student’s potential behaviour; Cohen et al. (2003:15)
I intend to explore three theories of learning - the behaviourist approach of Frederic Skinner, the cognitivist model of Jerome Bruner and Abraham Maslow’s humanist approach. I shall explain these approaches and there use in practice using examples from research, my teaching experience and observations of colleagues. Finally I shall consider the implications they have for my future practice.
The behaviourist and cognitive approaches have predominated in education overtime. Operant conditioning was expounded by Skinner a behaviourist, in his theory of positive reinforcement. This theory makes three assumptions; firstly that learning is manifested by a change in behaviour, secondly that the environment shapes behaviour and thirdly that the principles of contiguity and enforcement (how close in time two events must be for a bond to be formed) are central to explaining the learning process. (Moore, 2000)
I have observed colleagues using negative and positive reinforcement. For example, whilst observing a year 9 PSHE lesson the teacher made it clear from the onset that she would be rewarding those students who she thought had contributed well, remained on task and behaved appropriately. She also instructed the students to place their school reward cards on their desks in front of them, so that a more visual reminder was in place. Their faces and body language indicated that they were excited at the possibility of being praised for their efforts. This was proof alone that rewarding good behaviour/work was an incentive for these students. The teacher proceeded with the lesson referring to the learning objectives throughout. I noticed how well the students worked for her, eager to please and clearly enjoying the tasks set. She stayed true to her word and continually rewarded using verbal praise or reward stamps. This kept the children motivated to continue working. Reece and Walker (2003:82) suggest ‘that an external reward is seen as being effective, whereas punishment is less important’. This theory however, does seem to view the active part played is that of the teacher and that the student is somewhat passive. As the student is responsible for the responses, it is the teacher who controls the stimuli, chooses the ‘correct’ response and rewards it appropriately. Feedback from the teacher is largely seen as related to the reward and this part of the process is seen as separate from, and flowing after, the learning process.
At one point in the lesson when a child was off task the teacher approached the student calmly, got down to their level and suggested a change in behaviour. She pointed to the behavior management poster and read the consequences for his actions clearly. She told the student that he was at level 2, she repeated what the consequence would be if he continued the negative behaviour this was a clear use of negative reinforcement. Allowing the student to choose to avoid any sanctions or punishment which would be unpleasant, permitted the student time to think about his behavior and adjust it. This strategy meets the requirements of standard Q31 by using a clear framework from which to work from to modify the students’ behaviour. If Skinner’s behavioral approach using operant...