Theories of learning
Theories of learning have been developed, argued and challenged extensively over the past century and yet we can continue to debate which method of teaching encourages the most effective learning.
Throughout the 1900’s psychologists and educators have developed learning theories from observations, research and an innate curiosity to know more about how and why children learn in different ways.
The act of learning has been described in countless ways by countless people both past and present. However, it is the process of how exactly children learn that usually sparks the most fascinating discussions.
From a number of psychologists and theorists, in a little over the last century we have come to learn that there are many different types of learning and teaching styles. In the following essay we will look at some constructivists theories and how these methods differ and how each can be applied and put into practice in an early years setting.
Constructivism is a theory about knowledge and learning. It describes both what ‘knowing’ is and how one ‘comes to know’ (Fosnot, 2004). It is a learning theory found in psychology which explains how people might acquire knowledge and learn and it has a direct application to education (Sydney.edu.au, 2018). It is an approach to teaching and learning based on the idea that learning is the result of mental construction, meaning that students learn by fitting new information together with what they knew previously (Deiner, 2010). The constructivist theory aims to allow the student the freedom to use their own thoughts, curiosity and motivation to learn. The teacher or director acts mostly as a facilitator to the needs of the learner, the learner occupies the top position rather than the teacher. Hands-on, project-based and task-based learning are just a few applications that base teaching and learning on constructivism.
In the past constructivist ideas were not highly valued due to people’s beliefs that a child’s play was aimless and of little importance, Piaget was one of the first to disagree with these old-style views. He thought that play was necessary for a child’s cognitive development, he went on to provide scientific evidence for his views and today constructivist theories influence how people teach and learn all over the world (Boy and Pine, 1999).
He believed that thinking is in a way an extension of biological adaptation. The two basic processes of the mechanism are accommodation and assimilation. Accommodation occurs when a child adjusts or alters their way of thinking to make sense of new information that they cannot explain by their existing way of thinking. Assimilation occurs when they incorporate new information into existing information (Sheehy, 2006).
Before psychologists such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget articulated the idea of constructivism, teaching methods relied heavily on behaviourists theories such as that of Skinner or Pavlov. Teaching was very much a practice of finding an action that could cause a reaction in a student causing said student to behave in a manner that the teacher deemed appropriate. Learning was through didactic measures and rote learning. Piaget is one of the first to encourage the move from behaviourism to constructivism in teaching and still has a huge impact on how we as teachers learn to teach today
Piaget believed that people constructed new information from past knowledge and experiences (Robins, 2012). He believed that intellectual growth is continuous he also believed that certain mental abilities were stronger at certain stages of development. He developed four stages of cognitive development and believed that every person would go through each stage at some point, he also believed that everyone would pass through the stages in the same order but at a different time. His four stages of cognitive development are:
• The sensory motor stage. Piaget believed this stage of development took place between the ages of birth and two years. It is known as the action stage and occurs before language is developed.
• The Pre-operational stage: This stage is when the child is between the ages of two and seven years old. The key feature of this stage is a child’s egocentrism. During this time Piaget believed a child cannot yet take other peoples points of view into consideration.
• The Concrete Operational Stage: This occurs when the child is between the ages of seven and eleven years old. During this stage the egocentrism declines and the child matures, and they learn to cooperate with others.
• The Formal Operational stage: The last and final stage in Piaget’s theory is when the child is between the ages of 11 and 15 or 16. Piaget believed that a child was capable of the highest level of thinking.
Paget did not believe in forcing information on children while they passively sat in the classroom but instead thought the learning experience should be shared. He believed the role of the teacher should be to guide the students and recommended that teachers play an active mentoring role in the classroom. He believed it was important that children should learn not only from the guidance of the teacher but also their peers. He also thought that making mistakes was a key factor in a child’s learning experience, he believed that children learn a huge amount about the world from trial and error (Schlinger, 1995).
Maria Montessori first qualified as a doctor and it was while she was working in a psychiatric clinic after she qualified that she developed her interest in education. Her interest was originally peeked by children with learning difficulties. While working with these children she developed a methodology which she believed would address the learning needs of all children. In 1907 Montessori opened her first Children’s House, the very famous Casa Dei Bambini. Montessori used her own materials in the children’s house that she had developed while working with children with learning or developmental difficulties. She adopted innovative approaches to pedagogy, the curriculum and the layout of the classroom. From her observations in the classroom she developed a precise and insightful analysis of the potential of each child when using her resources (Biography of Dr. Maria Montessori | Montessori Australia Foundation, 2018). Over time she developed her own methodology through observing how children acquired and understood information.
Maria Montessori based her method on a few key components.
• Respect for the child- She believed that adults seldom if ever, truly respected a child. As adults we tend to force information onto a child without taking their individual learning needs into consideration. Montessori developed her method to allow each child to have choices which she believed would promote independent learning (O’ Donnell, 2013).
• The Absorbent Mind – Montessori believed that all children had an innate capacity to learn and the teacher or directress is just the facilitator of this learning. She believed that a stimulating classroom layout, her materials and blocks of uninterrupted time to learn would allow students to gain the most from their learning experiences.
• Sensitive Periods – Montessori believed that there were certain times during a child’s development where they were more receptive to learning new skills. It is the role of the directress to observe when a sensitive period is occurring and provide the correct materials and environment to accommodate the child’s learning.
• The prepared environment – A Montessori classroom is aesthetically pleasing to both a child and an adult. It is organized in a manner which allows the child access to the materials they want or need to use at different times and it presents the materials in an orderly format to the students.
• Autoeducation – Montessori believed that children can educate themselves. It is the role of the teacher to provide an environment that allows a child the freedom to educate themselves.
Montessori also had planes of development, she divided her stages into age brackets and made guidelines of what typically occurs during each stage.
• Birth to Age 6 -This is often considered the most important time of a child’s development. The foundation for everything a child will learn is laid at this time. At this point a child absorbs information and is learning to organize themselves physically. During the first half of this developmental plane, zero to three, the child is absorbing information effortlessly and unconsciously and during the second part of the plane, three to six, the child is consciously learning new information. Montessori believes that learning this huge amount of information is made easier by the sensitive periods.
• Ages 6 to 12 – During this period Montessori believes that the absorbent mind has come to an end and now students are learning through logic and reasoning. At this age the child is naturally curious about everything, inquisitive an eager to learn. They are also developing their conscience and learning between right and wrong.
• Ages 12 to 18 – At this age the student is busy constructing their social self. They are becoming more independent and are looking to find their own place in the society.
• Ages 18–24 – Montessori believed at this point in the young adult’s life they are busy constructing self-understanding. They have developed physically, emotionally, morally and ethnically and are now questioning who they are and where they belong as people in society.
The links between Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori.
The theories of both Piaget and Montessori were revolutionary for their time and became greatly respected in later years. From the beginning we can see obvious links between Piaget and Montessori, although he was a psychologist and she an educationalist there are many shared ideas between the two. He was twenty-six years younger than her and during his early career he carried out observations in one of her schools and was also president of the Swiss Montessori society so perhaps it is not surprising that they share some of the same ideologies. Both believed that children construct their own knowledge, they both agreed that children were not just adults in small bodies and learn in different ways. Both proposed that children develop in sequence and both developed their own stages of development. Although Piaget and Montessori were similar in their thinking, they had very different approaches to teaching. While Montessori believed that children learned the most in her first developmental plane, 0-6, Piaget believed that no ‘real’ learning takes place before a child turns seven.
The developmental process:
Piaget’s stages of development can be compared to Montessori’s planes of development. Although there are many differences between them the initial idea is very similar. Both theories of development can also be witnessed in classrooms everywhere today.
The initial phase of each of the developmental stages is concerned with the sensory development of a child. In almost all early year’s classrooms learning is enhanced by sensory play. It may be a sensory corner in the classroom, a common area or activities carried out throughout the day, but sensory materials are a huge part of a child’s developmental process at this age.
Look at a toddler room in almost any early years setting, at the very least they have a sand and water tray for children to experiment with different textures and materials. The will have mirrors for the child to grasp the concept of their own reflection and give them the freedom to explore their own facial features. There are songs and nursery rhymes as well as shakers or musical instruments. The whole room will be full of interesting colourful materials which appeal to one or more of a child’s senses encouraging sensory stimulation for learning. Another example of sensory materials can be seen when a child is developing writing skills in the classroom. Montessori developed the sandpaper letters for a child to experience the letter, not just see it but feel it. A child uses their finger to trace the letter ever before beginning to form the letter with a pencil on paper. In a typical classroom of this age, one which does not follow Montessori’s method, we can still find similar ideas showing us that Piaget and Montessori were correct in that children learn through their senses. In my current classroom just one example I use are salt trays with coloured paper underneath the salt and when the child forms the letter the colour paper is exposed. The child becomes familiar with the letter and how to from it correctly.
Piaget and Montessori agreed that a child’s environment was a very influential factor in their development. Piaget’s theory stressed the need for children to be actively involved in constructing knowledge of their physical environment (Piaget, 1952) and Montessori believed that a prepared environment would facilitate maximum independent learning.
Today both these concepts are a part of daily school life. In the past a classroom was designed to have rows of desks all facing a teacher, now however we are aware that the environment stimulates the students, that giving the opportunity to choose the method of learning we see better academic results.
A few aspects of both theorists are evident in most classrooms today whether we realise it. Most teachers in the early years sector and the beginning years of primary school set up their classrooms to have ‘areas’.