How differing theoretical perspectives and our interpretation of these might influence professional practice when working with children and young people

7 July 2016

There are countless theories surrounding learning, for the purpose of this essay, the theories looked at will be linked to Behaviourism and Multiple Intelligences. Behaviourism is defined by Watson (1913) as proposing to explain human and animal behaviour in terms of external stimuli and both positive and negative reinforcements, with the desirable outcomes being predictability and control. The majority of early Behaviourists research, Pavlov (1902) and Skinner (1938), was laboratory based and used animals as subjects, allowing them to collect a lot of supporting empirical data.

Where as Gardner’s (1987) Multiple Intelligence theory has been criticised for a lack of evidence (Brody, 2006), Hymer & Sutcliffe (2012) found that the implemented methods have a positive influence on children, without the need for negative reinforcements. This essay will investigate both theories, and how they are interpreted and implemented in professional settings. Historically the mind was seen as being tabula rosa or a blank slate. Locke (1689) believed that there were no innate characteristics of the human mind, anything learnt was due to input and experience, and not an inevitable natural development.

Locke’s work went on to form the basis of Behaviourism. Watson (1913), known as the godfather of Behaviourism, shared Locke’s view that the learner is passive whilst being molded, and does not play an active part in the process itself. Behaviourists such as Locke, Watson and Skinner (1938) were only concerned with external and observable markers of behaviour, as these could be scientifically measured. However, by ignoring internal behaviour processes like emotion and thinking, Behaviourism is believed by Gray & MacBlain (2012) & Tonneau (2007), to be an inefficient one dimensional theory, when applying it to the complex human mind.

However, in the early 20th century it was pioneering work, Watson also believed that humans did not possess free will, and that there were little differences between humans and animals, and as a result drew on the findings of Pavlov’s (1902) classical conditioning experiments. Pavlov (1902) conducted a number of experiments using dogs, to see if he could condition them to respond to a chosen stimulus. Pavlov observed that a dog salivates at the site of food, and this response is automatic, it is not learnt, he calls this an unconditioned response.

A neutral stimulus was introduced, something that previously had no response from the dogs, in this case a bell. When the dogs were fed the bell was rung, and after a time the dogs had learnt to associate the bell with food, they would now salivate if they heard the bell, even if there was no food. The bell became the conditioned stimulus, as the dogs had learnt to respond to it and changed their behaviour; the dogs had been conditioned by the bell. In later work Pavlov (1927) acknowledges that for this to be effective the unconditioned and the conditioning stimulus must be presented close together in order for an association to be made.

If the time between the two is too great, then the learning lesson is lost. Gray and MacBlain (2012) & Merrett & Tang (1994) illustrate how this conditioning model can often be seen in a school setting for behaviour management, but if a teacher praises or disciplines a student a considerable time after the event, the meaning is lost to the student, and they do not learn in that instance. Skinner (1938) built on the work of Pavlov (1902) and Watson (1913) in classical conditioning, by adding negative reinforcements, or punishments, to weaken certain behaviour, and reinforcers, or rewards, to strengthen others.

Skinner called this the Law of Effect Reinforcement; behaviour that is reinforced tends to be repeated, and behaviour that is not reinforced will be extinguished. Skinner (1948) progressed into developing his theory of operant conditioning, by conducting experiments using animals put inside a Skinner Box. Some of the boxes contained positive reinforcements, for example if the rat pressed a lever food would drop into the box, meaning that the rat quickly learned to repeat this behaviour and be rewarded. Some of the other boxes contained negative reinforcers, or punishers, such as an electric shock.

The rat could stop the electric shock by pressing the lever, and their ‘reward’ for that behaviour was the removal of the unpleasant stimulus. This has become known as escape learning (Bracewell & Black, 1974 and Skinner, 1953). Although Behaviourism is considered by many to have been superseded by cognitive theorists, (Gray & MacBlain, 2012, Tonneau, 2007 & Chomsky, 1971) it still has a large influence and presence in the education setting of today. Behaviourism prompted a string of behaviour modification therapies based on Skinner’s (1938, 1953) operant conditioning.

Nelson (2010) & Brown (2013) investigate a behaviour therapy known as the token economy, commonly used in schools and by therapists. A system is created where a token is given for good behaviour, and a collection of tokens results in a reward. This can be seen with sticker charts, and behaviour boards, with individuals not gaining the tokens, missing out on the reward. Brown observes that this seems effective for the token receivers, but is often demoralising for others, and does not appear to necessarily condition their behaviour.

Behaviour modification therapies are also very popular for use with individuals with learning difficulties, one of the most prominent examples being Lovaas’s (1987) Applied Behaviour Analysis [ABA] for Autistic children. Applied Behaviour Analysis [ABA] is a method devised by Lovaas (1987) to modify the behaviour of autistic children, in order for their behaviour to be closer to a mainstream expectation. Keenan, Kerr & Dillenburger (2000) describes ABA as a highly structured programme designed to discourage stereotypical autistic behaviours and offer support to reinforce socially acceptable responses.

Intervention typically happens around three years old and is continued on an individual basis, depending on progression. Lovaas outlines a typical session to include a communicator, a prompter and the child. A series of prompts are issued by the communicator, such as show me…, put on…, give me the…, and the child is expected to respond appropriately, if they do then verbal praise and a reward is given, often edible. If the child does not respond correctly the prompter nudges or uses the hand over hand technique to reinforce the expected response, and to correct the mistake.

Emerson & McGill (1989) and Lovaas, Ackerman, Alexander, Firestone, Perkins, & Young (1981) all champion ABA describing the large number of autistic children it has successfully ‘normalised’ for mainstream school. Schwichtenberg & Poehlmann (2007) more recent study found that administering ABA to an autistic child actually increased stress levels within many families, as parents found it uncomfortable to administer, and questioned the ethics surrounding the method. ABA and conditioning methods as a whole do not take into account any innate human ability, Chomsky (1959) heavily

criticised Behaviourism for this oversight. Chomsky highlights that a child’s language acquisition is not taught as such, but it is an innate ability each human child is born with. Bruner (1977) and Cowie (1998) concur with Chomsky in that the human race has many native and innate traits, that Behaviourism does not account for, nor does it explain. Pinker (2002) goes further to suggest that the basis of Behaviourism, humans as a tabula rosa, is fundamentally flawed, with cognitive theories such as Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory taking into account all factors surrounding the individuals learning.

Although conditioning methods such as ABA are widely used in education settings Reichow (2012) suggests a more prescribed method is necessary, encompassing all aspects of the individual child. Historically the measure of intelligence used universally was the IQ test, and it was accepted (Palmer, 1986) that one’s level of intelligence was innate, and there was little to be done to change it. Gardner (1987) finds that this single measure of intelligence, does not represent everybody, he suggests that there are seven different forms of intelligence.

Gardner defines these as Visual-Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, Naturalistic and Logical-Mathematical, the last one being the only type that an IQ test measures. Gardner (1999) proposed that although an individual could be strong in a single category, for example Musical intelligence, the majority of people have a spread of talent across the categories. Although seemingly more inclusive, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence [MI] theory has received criticism for lacking in empirical evidence from both Brody (2006) & Gottfredson (2004).

Despite the critique, Stanford (2003), Barrington (2004) & Almeida, Prieto, Ferreira, Bermejo, Ferrando, & Ferrandiz (2010) all find that MI is widely and enthusiastically used by teachers internationally. Multiple Intelligence [MI] is implemented in the classroom in a number of ways, with Brain Based Learning [BBL] being one of the most widely used. Davis (2004) defines BBL as a multi faceted learning approach, tailored to the individuals abilities and differences in learning, for example teaching in a variety of learning styles to promote inclusion. Jensen (2000) describes how BBL also builds on the MI theory, to not only consider a

pupils specific intelligence area, but also the stress levels of the learning situation. Jensen and Levitt (2014) outline how stress levels can detrimentally affect a child’s memory, behaviour and learning, implying that teachers who better manage stress levels will have pupils that learn more. Duman (2010) believes BBL’s purpose in the classroom is to ensure a greater number of students are taught effectively, in the way that suits them. Jensen & Duman concur that when lessons are planned with MI and BBL in mind, any student can be included and be successful in the classroom.

As stated by Stanford (2003) many teachers find implementing Gardner’s theory an extremely inclusive and holistic way to effectively teach. Along with BBL, philosophy for children [P4C] is another outlet for MI based teaching. Trickey & Topping (2004) depict P4C as an enquiry based, ideas sharing exercise, with no wrong answers. Albertini (2012) advocates P4C as the sessions are led by the students ideas, it encourages thinking in all children, and gives all students a chance to be heard, without the fear of being wrong.

Trickey & Topping and Hymer & Sutcliffe (2012) found that as little as one hour a week of P4C in schools showed improvement in all students cognitive skills, critical thinking, dialogue between peers and emotional and social development. Albertini also had reports from parents of increased engagement at home, and more intellectual conversation exchanges. Although P4C values are distributed throughout the national curriculum, it is not currently compulsory (Lewis & Chandley 2012). Another practical application of the MII theory is De Bono’s (1989) Six Thinking Hats.

De Bono’s concept is to divide a group into six sections, and assign each party a theoretical hat. Each hat represents the thinking process from a different perspective; The blue hat is the thinking process, the white hat is facts, the green hat is creativity, the yellow hat is benefits, the black hat is cautions and the red hat is feelings. De Bono (1995) describes how a situation is given to the whole group and they must think about it from the perspective of their hat. The hats are then moved round, ensuring that all students learn to consider things from all aspects, regardless of personal views or strengths .

De Bono’s theory is used in schools ( Rizvi, Bilal, Ghaffar & Asdaque, 2011) as well as in professional problem solving, Hmelo-Silver (2012) and Thompson (2011) praise De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats an extremely useful exercise to develop critical thinking, as well as social and emotional intelligence. However MI based methods are not without criticism, Rose (2012) and Hunt (2001) warns that teachers could be becoming too focused on a method that best suits their own MI strengths, and actually be, unintentionally, excluding students whose needs do not match their own.

Having looked at both Behaviourism and Multiple Intelligence methodologies in this essay, it is clear that both have a strong following and presence in educational settings, as well as their own downfalls. The collective work of Behaviourists such as Watson (1913) and Skinner (1938) have undoubtedly influenced how professionals modify behaviour. Nelson (2010) Token Economy and Lovaas’s (1987) ABA for Autistic children is a widely used example. These Behaviourist methods often report great success with Emerson & McGill (1989) and Lovaas et al. (1981) describing how ABA has been life changing and ‘normalised’ many children.

Despite the reported success Behaviourist methods have been heavily criticised, Gray & MacBlain (2012) find it too linear when applied to the complex human mind and Chomsky (1971) and Tonneau (2007) feel it has been superseded as it does not take into account innate traits or cognitive processes. Gardner’s (1987) Multiple Intelligence theory takes into account a more holistic view of learning, with methodologies in schools such as Brain Based Learning (Jensen, 2000), De Bono’s (1989) Six Thinking Hats and Albertini (2012) philosophy for children [P4C].

Stanford (2003), Duman (2010) and Hymer & Sutcliffe (2012) all find MI methods to be highly inclusive and successful, having been shown to increase cognitive skills, critical thinking, dialogue and emotional and social development. However, Gottfredson (2004) points out the lack of supporting empirical data and Hunt (2001) warns that teachers could unintentionally use style most suited to their own MI, thereby excluding some students. Advantages and disadvantages can be seen in all methods, suggesting that a reflective practitioner would use elements from both theories that are effective for the child or young person they are working with.

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