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
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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.