The rigorous study of pedagogy is the difference between a mere instructor and an effective educator. All teachers must have a thorough understanding of the various learning theories to understand how to support, motivate and inspire all students to succeed. By studying these theories, teachers begin to understand the process of learning and how children develop in a variety of subjects and reach particular developmental milestones.
The act of learning can be hard to unpack and conceptualize; after all, people learn in a variety of ways, respond to different strategies and styles, and improve on their own timeline.
With all the rich variety of human experience, is it any wonder that we all learn in different ways? Our preferred learning styles can be due to a variety of reasons including the following:
- Genetic or physiological factors.
- Societal or cultural norms.
- Individual preferences.
You already know how you prefer to take in new information or learn a new skill. Do you like to read or hear the information? Do you need pictures or diagrams to conceptualize the next steps? Or do you prefer to practically attempt a task in order to understand it? Have you considered how the students in your class may like to receive new information and what particular teaching and learning styles work best for them?
The ways you move forward through new or unfamiliar territory and process new information doesn’t affect the quality of learning. All learning styles can be considered equal, so long as they all lead to acquiring new information or skills.
Unfortunately, there has been a history of educational settings in which information is presented in a traditional learning model — a chalk-and-talk approach that doesn’t resonate with all students and can allow some students to fall through the cracks. Modern education practices encourage teachers to experiment with presenting key concepts in a variety of ways to reach all learners.
But before we can attempt to change our mode of delivering information, we must fully understand the different learning theories that attempt to explain how we all learn.
Throughout history, psychologists, doctors, educational researchers and scientists have attempted to explain exactly how humans learn new skills, concepts and knowledge. The answers to these questions have formed the basis for educational reform and initiatives, as well as curriculum changes.
The Learning and Education course in the online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction program at Louisiana State University in Shreveport cover the essential application of various theories, including the following:
- Information Processing.
- Social Cognitive.
These theories form the basis of a balanced and broad approach to learning. A curriculum underpinned by these teachings aims to reach the maximum number of learners and provide opportunities for them to learn, grow, develop and improve. Let’s look at them in closer detail:
The behavioral learning theory can seem a little old-fashioned to many young teachers, but it was likely the model in place when they were in school themselves. It teaches that students are essentially empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge — “blank slates” with no prior knowledge or experience and passive entities waiting to respond and react to the teacher’s guidance. Even though many aspects of teaching and learning have moved on from this model, it still provides the roadmap for consequence-based conditioning that is a behavior management technique in schools and homes everywhere.
This theory also advocates positive reinforcement and immediate feedback.
Classroom Application: This theory is most often used for behavior management but is limited in terms of learning opportunities, especially as it does not recognize prior learning, and as all teachers know, students are not blank slates; their life experiences are rich and varied, and they should inform teachers’ planning.
In contrast to behaviorists who assert that we learn by reacting to stimuli, information processing advocates suggest that as learners we need to process all the data we receive much like a computer.
Further, research has found that different types of information are stored simultaneously in different parts of the brain, yet remain connected. The theory is based on three types of information retrieval: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. Students must repeat tasks so that the knowledge moves from a sensory experience to working memory to a permanent and retrievable source of information.
Classroom Application: Teachers will often repeat key concepts in different ways, in different styles, and then return to the topic at a later date to ensure there are ample opportunities for consolidation.
Albert Bandura formulated many social cognitive theories which state that children understand the world around them by observation and mimicry. The social cognitive theory is divided into four main parts:
- Attention: We must closely observe others and the natural world in order to learn.
- Retention: Learners must remember the information.
- Motor Reproduction: The information must be processed; learners need to convert one form of stimuli to another.
- Motivational Process: We repeat actions that have positive effects and limit those that have negative effects. Essentially, we learn how to behave. In this theory parents and peers are children’s best teachers, and children learn mostly through close observation.
Classroom Application: Teaching by example, having high personal standards, and showing students by repeating activities to ensure retention of new information constitute ways to put the social cognitive theory into practice.
The developmental learning theory holds that students may sometimes not be developmentally ready for a particular concept or topic. Jean Piaget described children as “little scientists” who are constantly testing and investigating the world around them. Piaget was interested in the balance between acquiring new information and processing existing information. He called this “equilibrium.”
Classroom Application: Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is the gap between what a child can do independently and what they can do when aided. Teachers will often support learners, breaking down problems and providing scaffolding or by matching students up with buddies to work together.
This theory holds that learners “construct” meaning from stimuli around them and the world at large, by experiencing events and phenomena. They then reflect on these events to make meaning.
Classroom Application: Practical hands on experiments, real-world problem solving and encouraging children to be self-reflective learners are all constructivist techniques.
Graduate students completing a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction will be immersed in the principles of learning theories, while having the opportunity to apply this information in a practical setting on the required field placements. Experienced teachers will often integrate best practices and educational theory into their lessons and student interactions in an intuitive way. However, all teachers benefit from reviewing these theories and reflecting on how they are presented in the classroom and why they must underpin our practice.
Teachers are by nature lifelong learners. By updating their qualifications with a master’s degree in education and further studying learning theories, they can improve the quality of the education they provide and the academic prospects for all their students.
Learn more about the LSUS online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction program.
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