Educational theories; Past and Present

November 29, 2019

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Over time, our understanding of the learning process has evolved, but many people can find it hard to break with the past. Using mathematics as an example, parents over the past half century have been lamenting changes in math curriculum aimed at helping students understand the meaning of their work and develop a deeper number sense. In curriculum evenings around the world, parents express struggles in helping their children with math concepts, claiming “This isn’t how I learned it.” This satirical song from the 1960s is a good reminder that the best practices in education are continuously changing: New Math. Rather than get frustrated, if we look at the hands-on learning practices now that promote deep learning and problem-solving, we can see how our developing understanding helps to serve all children where earlier practices often encouraged one type of student.

In the world of education, three schools of thought set the basis for the many current theories and practices that we use today: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism. While each has relevance for explaining learning in certain situations, none captures the complexity of how students learn.

Behaviorism is best known because of B.F. Skinner, who researched stimulus and response in animals and people for many years. Behaviorism supports rote learning and drill practice as well as positive reinforcement for a job well done. While some aspects of Behaviorism may work in some cases, it does little to prepare students for new tasks and higher-level problem solving.

Cognitivism goes a bit deeper, looking at the way the brain processes information, but still focuses on memorization as a foundation of learning. Cognitive theorists believed there were two types of processing in the brain – visual and auditory. While these are two ways to process information, we now know that there are others paths to learning that build on this earlier understanding.

Lastly, Constructivism is an approach that promotes active learning and using prior knowledge to construct new knowledge. It is useful when the desired outcome is original work, as in a research project, but negates the importance of building a foundation of knowledge and skills for quick, predictable answers.

Looking at all three of these traditional approaches to learning, we can see how some of the leading educational theorists today have combined principles or expanded on the limited scope of each to create more comprehensive models of learning. Howard Gardner’s model of Multiple Intelligences, a widely accepted tool for identifying student strengths, challenges the two-pathway learning presented by the Cognitivists. Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, a model that brought us the concept of scaffolding student learning to get them to the next level, deepens our understanding of how Constructivism works by introducing a social aspect of learning from others. While there is a place for practicing facts and memorizing spelling patterns, classroom learning encompasses so much more than that. Teachers who develop active learners and who understand which approaches work for each child can create a room full of students who are engaged in the learning process, even if that process looks a bit different for every individual. Education is not one-size-fits-all.

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