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How Children Learn

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Consider the implications of current theories of cognitive development in terms of their relevance to teaching and learning in your subject.

Consider the implications of current theories of cognitive development in terms of their relevance to teaching and learning in your subject.

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  • 1. Julie Robinson 1327405 RP 1 Consider the implications of current theories of cognitive development in terms of their relevance to teaching and learning in your subject. There are several theories as to how children learn whatever the subject. Some theories support each other; others contradict. What is important is that teachers understand the need to ‘teach in a way that reinforces how people naturally learn’ (Muijs, 2012, p. 41). Looking at the mental processes used by people establishes how language makes people feel and how it makes them think. Muijs uses different evidence from a number of theorists, to understand the different processes pupils use to learn and how teachers need to teach in order to get the best from their lessons. Using the evidence presented by Muijs, it will be possible to see that there is not one stand-alone theory relevant to teaching and learning in English, but that a combination of these theories will enable teachers to teach effectively. In the 1920s and 1930s behavioural theorists used scientific experiments with animals and humans to look at how learning outcomes were directly related to changes in behaviour (ibid). However, as time has moved on, the theory has developed to include ‘expectations, thoughts, motivation, and beliefs’ (Muijs, 2012, p. 43). Behaviourists, such as Bandura, see learning as a process that occurs when responding ‘to external stimuli’ (ibid) and see this as conditioning the mind. Behaviourists have broken this conditioning down further. They see ‘classic conditioning’ as something that becomes a habit, and is something that occurs naturally. Year seven pupils are taught not to shout out but to raise their hand in response to a question; they stop talking when the teacher raises their hand and says loudly ‘three, two, one’ and a result of conditioning at primary school. This changes as pupils get older and get out of the habit of responding to teachers raising their hand to elicit silence. ‘Behavioural or operant conditioning’ occurs in response to external stimulus, which is then further reinforced by either a reward or punishment. For example, in English, when teaching Year 7 ‘Boy’ by Roald Dahl, a reward system can be used to get the best descriptive writing from pupils. The chapter ‘The Bicycle and the sweet shop’ uses descriptive language to describe the various sweets on offer. Handing out weird tasting sweets for the pupils to try will get mixed responses; some
  • 2. 2 will like them, some will spit them out, but the rewards come when they have produced an exceptional piece of descriptive writing and they are then rewarded with a nice familiar sweet to describe. Those who really have excelled receive more than one, showing the rest of the pupils what can be achieved. Piaget’s theory does have its limits, as children do not learn in the same way and they process information differently. When learners are ‘confronted with new situations [and] the mental stimuli they have learnt to respond to are not present’ (Muijs, 2012, p. 43) they do not know how to respond and it could possibly result in negative behaviour. External stimuli is not enough to understand ‘how people learn…[and it is therefore necessary to] look at what is going on inside the brain’ (ibid) to get the fullest understanding of learning outcomes. Although behavioural theory is useful in understanding how we learn, it is seen as too narrow and restrictive. Jean Piaget did not conduct his research in a laboratory. He observed children in their learning environments and his theories were developed as a direct result of these observations. Piaget saw three main factors affecting children’s ‘cognitive development…maturation…activity…[and] social transmission’ (Muijs, 2012, p.44). Maturation is something that is genetically programmed into humans; activity comes from a direct result of increased maturation allowing children to learn from their environment and act upon it; and social transmission follows on as children learn to interact with others and learn from them depending on how they were maturing and developing (ibid). Piaget disseminated this further by seeing learning as happening at four specific age brackets (0-2 years); (2-7 years); (7-12 years); and (12+years). In the first age bracket, babies knowledge is limited and learns from ‘actions and sensory information’ (ibid). Between two and seven, children can use general language and symbols to learn, yet they are still mentally undeveloped and struggle to think differently and adapt. When they reach the third stage they start to understand how to use logical rules and can start to think differently and move their learning in different directions. They are still limited and rely on images and visual information to continue to support their learning. Once they reach the ‘formal operational stage’ (Muijs, 2012, p. 45) at twelve plus, they can start to think differently and they start to ‘generate different possibilities for any given situation in a systematic way’ (ibid).
  • 3. Julie Robinson 1327405 RP 1 While Piaget has been very specific in how and when children’s learning develops, he does not account for children developing at different stages. His theory is ‘too rigid’ (ibid). Even in English, a Year 7 top set class can see a number of children with different learning ability. Some children still need visual stimuli in order to learn. Others have already moved onto the final stage of learning and are able to use their imagination in order to respond to various learning situations. In these situations, a teacher needs to respond to the varying needs of these pupils. While it is impossible to produce a lesson for each group and teach it simultaneous, differentiation techniques can ensure all children have excellent learning outcomes. Challenging those children who have developed at a faster rate than others is essential in order to move them into hypothetical situations. Teaching the same lesson ensures all pupils progress and learn from each other. Teachers who allow children to lead learning, whether a starter or plenary, confirms Piaget’s theory that social transmission allows children to interact with each other and learn from each other. Although influenced by Piaget, Vygotsky did not agree that ‘maturation in itself could make children achieve advanced thinking skills’ (ibid). Vygotsky looked at learning from a socio-cultural perspective. He believed that how children interacted with people, children and adults resulted in better learning outcomes. Vygotsky developed a theory of ‘scaffolding in the zone of proximal development (ZPD)’ (Muijs, 2012, p.46). This theory was built around how much a person could learn individually and how much more they could learn with the help of others with more knowledge and more skills (ibid). This scaffolding, just as scaffolding supports an unsteady structure, is used to support a pupil with learning needs. Vygotsky saw children learning from peers of the same age and from those who were older and with a higher developmental age (ibid). He saw co-operation and interaction with these higher achieving pupils and with parents and teachers as instrumental in raising children’s knowledge and learning levels. In the classroom, this can be translated into reality. Sitting lower ability children next to high achievers can result in those children being influenced to push themselves harder and in directions they may not have thought of. Asking pupils who have finished the task in hand to assist those around them not only challenges the pupil to assist their peers, but an also help those who do not want to ask their teacher for help. For
  • 4. 4 example, when putting together a timeline of a pupil’s life for use in their own autobiography, some pupils would be able to complete the task quite easily. A teacher can then use those pupils to assist their classmates who are not able to easily put things into chronological order in completing the task. This has a double effect of challenging the high achievers to lead learning and for those with less ability to learn from their peers, without them realising it. With the co-operation and interaction of other pupils in lessons, the scaffolding helps develop better understanding and learning. To conclude there are a number of theories at present which have strengths and weaknesses. However, every classroom practitioner in every subject needs to take into consideration all the available theories to create an effective learning environment. One size does not fit all. What works for one Year group, may not work for another. It is up to the teacher to ascertain the merits of each theory and apply the appropriate one to each classroom environment. This assignment has only looked at three out of many theories. To only use one of these three theories for teaching and learning in English would be detrimental to the pupil’s learning. What is needed is a combination of different theories to ensure effective teaching and learning in the classroom. 1426 Words
  • 5. Julie Robinson 1327405 RP 1 Bibliography Muijs, D. (2012) ‘Understanding how pupils learn: theories of learning and intelligence’ in Brooks, V., Abbott, I. and Huddleston, P. (eds) Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools, Open University Press, pp. 41-57.
  • 6. Julie Robinson 1327405 RP 1 Bibliography Muijs, D. (2012) ‘Understanding how pupils learn: theories of learning and intelligence’ in Brooks, V., Abbott, I. and Huddleston, P. (eds) Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools, Open University Press, pp. 41-57.

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