Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Knowing/Learning
|“||Learning is the process by which novices become experts.||”|
Everyone is familiar with the saying “You learn something new every day”. This is absolutely true, you probably just learned something a few minutes ago, but HOW did you learn it? There are many theories behind how humans learn. This article will touch briefly on Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning, Piaget’s theory of mental mapping, and basic learning styles. Gail Bush defines learning as “the process by which novices become experts. Learners are viewed as those who acquire, assemble, store, and retrieve material and in the process make meaning transforming the information into knowledge”.
Most psychologists are familiar with Pavlov’s classical conditioning. The premise behind this is that if a human or animal (Pavlov did his experiments with dogs) is presented with a stimuli and then a result he will become conditioned to associate the result with the stimuli. For example, if you were to give a child a treat when he turned a light off, after enough times the child would turn the light off just to receive the treat. Pavlov’s experiment involved ringing a bell and feeding the dogs. They eventually began to associate the bell with food and would start to salivate when the bell rang. This process is called classical conditioning and we have all gone through it. When you get rewarded for doing all your homework you become conditioned to do so etc. It is essentially a reward or punishment system. It can be a punishment system because you can associate negative things with a stimuli. For example, if a child is sent to her room every time she punches her sister she will learn that a bad thing happens when she punches her sister and she will learn to stop doing it. Essentially Pavlov shows how we learn the consequences of things and learn to do rewarding things and avoid negative things.
Jean Piaget has a completely different model for learning, one that perhaps applies more to education and not behavior. He holds that children have mental maps or webs and when something happens, or when they are given information, they place these tidbits into these maps. He also holds that when children are very young they have less complex maps than as they grow and develop (Funderstanding – Piaget). This is demonstrated in how we teach. Look at the process a child goes through to learn to read. First they learn to recognize the letters and the sounds that they make. This builds on the mental map that children already have of the sounds of language. They then slowly learn to put letters together to form more complicated sounds, such as the letter combination ‘th’ not sounding the way that either of those letters do alone, this adjusts their mental map. Then words are slowly formed, such as the word ‘the’. From there a child can build on to get “then or there”. Teachers do not jump in and teach a child that the letter combination that looks like this “then” makes a certain sound or has a certain meaning. A child would not be able to understand this concept without the background of the individual letters and sounds. Because of this Piaget’s theory is very influential in curriculum development. Teachers are also taught to “help learners build connections to prior knowledge” which stems from Piaget’s theory (Bush). Piaget’s entire theory is based on repeatedly calling on and strengthening the memories and concepts that form these mental maps. Piaget’s theory is also called constructivism because “learning is a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge” (wikipedia.com). One of the major premises for this theory is that learning takes place in context, “without an appropriate context, comprehension and learning are difficult and unlikely to succeed very well. Keep in mind, however, that learners will attempt to make sense of anything unfamiliar. When they do so, they draw upon prior understandings and experience, but the meanings they construct may be quite different from what was intended if they cannot activate an appropriate context for learning” (Driscoll). In other words if teachers taught a subject without background context, the students would still try to find a map to fit it into, although chances are it would be an incorrect one. Because of the individual nature of each unique person’s experiences constructivism holds to the theory that no two people learn the same way.
There are several proponents of a dual theory that combines both of these theories. They describe these theories as: “Conditioning being the process whereby emotional learning takes place” whereas “Problem-solving [Piaget’s theory] being equated with effective learning” (Ernest). This seems to be the most logical way to think about learning, because neither of these theories fully address the entirety of learning in all situations. Pavlov relates more to behavioral learning whereas Piaget tends to relate more toward academic learning, so the two theories combined to a much more thorough job of explaining how people learn.
There are four main types of learning styles. These styles explain ways that certain people use to build on their mental maps. The first is a concrete perceiver, this is the person that needs to actually do something to understand it. This is the student that needs to actually count money to understand how to make change. The second is an abstract perceiver, the person that can understand a concept just by thinking about it. This is the student that is lost in thought about a topic, trying to make observations and analyses. Third is an active processor, who needs to use the information immediately to understand it or it is lost. The last is the reflective processor, this is the student who needs to reflect on information learned and is similar to the abstract perceiver (Funderstanding - Learning Styles). Chances are you will encounter all four of these learning styles in your classroom and you should build lessons that will touch as many styles as possible, and vary your lessons to appeal to each of your students.
There are seven subtypes of learning styles. As stated above the more you know about different styles of learning the better you can accommodate your students. These seven subtypes elaborate the four main types of learning in more depth. They also relate how important the human brain is involved with the learning process. Each subtype also describes what area of the brain helps aid the function of learning.
- Visual (spatial)
- Pictures and images help to increase understanding. The occipital lobes at the back of the brain manage the visual sense. Examples : maps or posters in the classroom.
- Aural (auditory-musical)
- Learning by sound and music. The right lobe of the brain is especially important for music. Examples : catchy tunes to help you learn the ABCs, months of the year or important dates.
- Verbal (linguistic)
- Words help you learn such as in writing and speech. The temporal and frontal lobes (Broca's and Wernicke's) specialize in this area located in the left hemisphere. Examples : Lecturing or open discussion in class.
- Physical (kinesthetic)
- Use of your body, hands and sense of touch help aid in learning. The back area of the frontal lobe, the cerebellum and the motor cortex, enable our physical movements. Examples : Dancing to songs mentioned above.
- Logical (mathematical)
- Logic, reasoning and systems help you learn. The left side of the parietal lobes help us think logically. Examples : Working out problems using the blackboard, where there is always an answer.
- Social (interpersonal)
- Learning in groups or with other people. The frontal and temporal lobes handle our social activities. The limbic system which deals with our emotions, moods, and aggression also influences this style. Examples : Group work and activities involving more than one student.
- Solitary (intrapersonal)
- Working alone is your style of choice. The same frontal and temporal lobes as above handle this function, as well as the limbic system. Examples : Study halls or independent study. 
Teachers should design their instruction strategies with all learning styles in mind. This requires using various arrangements of experience, reflection, conceptualization, and experimentations (Learning Styles). According to Penn State University there are a few major principles of human learning that educators should follow for all students regardless of their learning style. Students cannot recall and apply knowledge unless they practice retrieval and use of some form, better learning occurs when we vary the conditions of learning, and when learners integrate knowledge from both verbal and visual examples, they can recall it and apply it with greater ease. In learning, less is more. For instance, trying to cover large amounts of material and information in a short time period will reduce the amount of information the students understand and remember. In order to avoid this, teachers should focus their efforts toward teaching in-depth understanding of principles (Penn 2003).
There are many theories of how we learn, but two of the most widely accepted are Pavlov’s classical conditioning, dealing with behavior and Piaget’s constructivism encompassing mental maps. These two theories are not mutually exclusive. In fact several people argue that a dual theory combining the two would be more accurate. Constructivism is somewhat individual lending itself to understand the four major learning styles. Overall, a teacher needs to understand how children learn so they can understand how to teach them and must try to have a varied set of plans to appeal to all types of learning.
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- Bush, Gail. (2006). Learning about learning: From theories to trends [Electronic version]. Teacher Librarian, 34, 14-18.
- Constructivism Learning Theory. Retrieved September 10, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_%28learning_theory%29
- Hilgard, E., Walker, E. (1951). Review of Learning theory and personality dynamics [Electronic version]. Psychological Bulliten, 48, 438-442.
- How People Learn. Retrieved September 21, 2007, from http://www.ericdigests.org/2003-3/learn.htm
- Learning Styles. Retrieved September 13, 2007, from http://www.funderstanding.com/learning_styles.cfm
- Pennsylvania State University College of Information Sciences and Technology (2003). "Ten tested principles of human learning." Retrieved November 2007, from the Web Site: http://tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/research/How_People_Learn.shtml
- Piaget. Retrieved September 15, 2007, from http://www.funderstanding.com/piaget.cfm
- Overview of Learning Styles. Retrieved November 8, 2007, from http://www.learning-styles-online.com