Beliefs about Learning
With thirty-three years of learning experience you would think that I would be a master learner and know the best tools and methods. The fact of the matter is I don’t believe anyone is ever done learning and what works for one person most likely won’t work for another. I have learned in a vast array of situations that include: life as a mom, teaching a classroom of high school students and middle school students, being a typical high school and college student, and just living day to day. I appreciated the definition of conditioning that Ormrod used, “an organism is conditioned by environmental events” (Ormord, 2016, p. 37). With the teaching profession I thought I was teaching and students learning but I quickly found out that it really was a two way street where conditioning happened to both teacher and pupil. Throughout this semester I found it intriguing to learn about the different theories that show how people learn. To start of the semester I thought I would find the golden answer to make me the number one teacher or administrator. Now that we are done I can see that there isn’t one way that will make teaching or learning any easier than the other. It comes down to specific situations and having the right tools and information to draw from so when one thing doesn’t work I can have the ability to change what I’m doing to get a different outcome. Albert Einstein credited for the saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. I am glad that I have all of these different tools that I can use with the power of intention instead of just a gut feeling. So in an attempt to summarize my thoughts on these theories I would begin by saying everyone can learn, they may learn different from you, they may learn slower or faster than you and they may learn something you aren’t meaning to teach them, but if you try your best to teach in a variety of ways to help all learners learn you will find success.
With that being said I want to focus on the top three theories that I think are the most important, behaviorism, socio-cultural and constructivism.
One of the strongest ways I think learning occurs is through behaviorism. B. F. Skinner is the behaviorist that has done much of the research on this theory and uses the term that I previously defined as conditioning. As a biologist, looking at all creatures and how they interact with their environment really solidified this statement, “Looking at how organisms have learned previously to respond to different stimuli can certainly help us understand why people and other animals currently behave as they do, but we’ll never be able to predict their future actions with total certainty” (Ormrod, 2016, p.37). Behaviorism is the first way that we all learned. Babies watch, test and get either positive or negative feedback. Ivan Pavlov studied and introduced the phenomenon of classical conditioning. He observed stimulus and responses that occurred in animals and was able to recreate similar situations in humans (p. 38-42). Behaviorism occurs through repetition where the outcome is visible. Many leaders call refer to this as “testing the waters”. The specific role of the leader is to provide reinforcement through rewards and punishment to get the correct response. This is easier said than done. Driscoll said it best when addressing appropriate reinforcers, “The choice of reinforcers for use in a behavioral change program depends on the learner, the instructor, the behavioral goals, and the practical circumstances surrounding the implementation of the program” (Driscoll, 2005, p.53). It is no wonder that there are trained behaviorists to help implement a behavior-changing plan to figure out all the variables that play a role in success or failure. In education one area that gets misunderstood is punishment versus negative reinforcement. “Negative reinforcement is NOT the same as punishment. In fact they have opposite effects: Negative reinforcement increases the frequency of a response, whereas punishment decreases it” (Ormrod, 2016, p.67). Many times teachers think they are punishing a student by taking away recess or something they personally enjoy but in reality the student is getting reinforced because they would rather stay inside or skip that activity anyway. One way that I know if I’m using negative reinforcement or punishment is if I tell them ahead of time. People use punishment as a way to deter the behavior, “Inform learners ahead of time about what behaviors will be punished” (Ormrod, 2012, p.88).
Theory into Practice
My pediatrician with my first child taught me the lessons that Ivan Pavlov studied through classical conditioning. He mentioned that every time the baby cried if I ran to pick him up and sooth him then he would get the stimulus of physical touch and so he would be conditioned to cry to get my attention. At the same time I was getting conditioned to the stimulus of a screaming baby that would pull on my heartstrings so I would run and pick him up and do whatever I could to get him to stop. I feel behaviorism with conditioning from stimulus and response is the main way people parent and learn.
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Another example with punishment is when my six year old son wants me to drive him to school. I feel he can easily walk to school as it’s in our back yard but he will cry and drag his feet and end up in the field crying. He knows that school is something I want him to do and is important to me I will do whatever to get him to school on time. Now I drive him as I leave to my internship so he is on time and we don’t have a morning meltdown.
Specific Instructional Activities
To apply the theory of behaviorism and the skills of conditioning to being a principal is again not a one size fits all. When working with teachers I have see that true appreciation in the form of thank you notes, little gifts or recognition can go very far. I have participated in many positive behavior intervention system (PBIS) trainings and I really feel that positive reinforcement is more of my style. With students it is very important to discuss and get to know the student to see what their motive is that is pushing that behavior. Once that is determined it is easier to see if they need a positive reinforcement or a punishment. I had a conversation with a student and asked him how he feels he responds to things, if he would rather work toward a reward or avoid a punishment. He said he wanted to work for something. That helped me figure out how to write up his attendance contract. He and I decided that when he had 2 weeks of great attendance I would get him a large Coke from Sonic.
As a principle I think most often the behavior problems being sent to the office are going to need these skills, where the principal will need to condition a new response of how to behave at the school.
Russian psychologist Vygotsky suggested, “Society and culture provide innumerable concepts and strategies that children gradually begin to use in thinking about and dealing with everyday tasks and problems” (Ormrod, 2016, p. 303). Where behaviorism is learning from adults and peers the sociocultural theory focuses not only on those personal influences but also on how cultural beliefs and attitudes impact how instruction and learning take place. Some key ideas of Vygotsky’s theory that resonated with me include self-talk, scaffolding, and the zone of proximal development (ZPD).
Self-talk is a way that children guide and direct their own behaviors. When they stop talking to themselves out loud it isn’t that the talking has stopped it has just changed to an inner speech. I often find myself using inner speech and then I think I told my husband to do something and when he doesn’t I think it’s because he isn’t listening. I have caught myself a couple times where I realize I just said it in my mind.
Scaffolding is a way of breaking down instructions that can help any age of student accomplish challenging tasks. I feel scaffolding is one of the best teaching practices to have because it allows students of all levels to learn and perform the expected task. With our rushed world where we feel pressed for time it seems that scaffolding is either skipped or used too often to speed up the response time. “Providing too much scaffolding can be distracting and impose an unnecessary burden on working memory” (Ormrod, 2016, p. 313). Proper scaffolding will begin with teacher guidance providing structure and the teacher will gradually withdraw allowing the working memory to come into play.
The ZPD addresses learning with guidance. In his work he saw that children were able to “solve problems beyond their development” (Wink, 2002, p. 86). This specifically relates to students’ needs to be given challenging tasks to continue to learn and develop.
Theory Into Practice
My 6-year-old son is currently taking piano. He is smart and can catch on quickly but like any child he doesn’t like to practice. His teacher gave him a piece of work that is a bit harder than where he is at skill level for an upcoming concert. I have started working on it with him using both scaffolding and ZPD. I broke the song down by lines, I showed him how to count it, then I played it while he watched, then I put his hands under mine and played pushing his fingers a couple times, then we switched and he would push on my fingers and then he would play it by himself. Once he was playing it by himself, I began to walk away, still close enough to listen but far enough that he could practice and make mistakes without getting frustrated and expecting me to save him. He has now learned 3 lines in 2 days. I know that by the time he is done with this song his skill level will be up and his confidence will be higher.
Specific Instructional Activities
As a principal using this knowledge is important to make sure that proper scaffolding is occurring in classrooms. Using techniques such as ZPD allows teachers to stretch students for improvement but there is a fine line between success and failure. ZPD will only be successful as long as the information and skill is obtainable with the resources and support to model for them. Proper training and support for teachers and specifically IEP students could be very beneficial to make sure that frustration and student shut down isn’t occurring but rather success and growth.
When dealing with students and behavior problems I think its good to find out what their inner-speech dialogue sounds like. Many times when I have talked to students and asked them what was going through their mind before, during and after the incident, I get a profound response that let’s me really understand what was going on and gives me a better way of handling the situation. During my internship I have seen that both high school and elementary principals take time to think about the situation and get as much of the story as possible before deciding on the punishment.
When someone says they are a “hands on learner” they are saying they relate best to the philosophical explanation of constructivism. Schunk (2008) defined constructivism as “ a psychological and philosophical perspective contending that individuals form or construct much of what they learn and understand” (p.235). So in layman terms, the responsibility of learning should reside increasingly with the learner where what they piece together in their own understanding through experiences and reflecting on those experiences to solidify their learning. The learner is an active participant that develops their thinking abilities by interacting with other children, adults and the physical world around them. Schunk (2008) argues, “no statement can be assumed as true but rather should be viewed with reasonable doubt” (p.236). This is apparent most in younger kids when they ask the many questions of why. With this type of learning students don’t just learn, they learn how to learn and self assess.
From the teacher’s instructional point, constructivism means that students study a topic from multiple perspectives. This means students will have the opportunity to be exposed to a set of information and work with that information through a variety of skills such as: reading, writing, studying scientific principles, drawing, singing and physically experiencing something if possible. This supports the need for cross-curricular PLC meetings and collaboration to help ease this load by planning the curriculum together (Schunk, 2008, p.237).
Theory into Practice
Human brains can only process a small amount of information and then even less of that information is stored into a memory (Ormrod, 2016, ch.7). “Long-term memory storage often involves a process of construction, whereby we use the bits and pieces of the information we do retain to build a reasonable understanding of the world around us” (Ormrod, 2016, p.192). When I would teach a concept in my science class I would teach the students with a PowerPoint and they would take notes, then I would always tell a story to help them see how it related into a normal person’s life. The next day we would do a hands on learning lab where they got to take the information presented and work through problems and questions. My favorite lesson for this was photosynthesis. I would teach the kids the scientific names for the organelles and steps. They would then color and label a diagram. I would then relate the process to a local arcade that most students were very familiar with, this was where most students got the “aha” moment. The next day I would have a piece of a water plant that they would use to see photosynthesis happen. Through trial, error and questions they would end up getting to the point where they added C02 (baking soda) to the water and set it next to a bright light, which are the two ingredients needed for photosynthesis, and then they would end up seeing bubbles (oxygen) coming out of the stem of the plant. Through this process students were able to learn photosynthesis and retain it for the end of level test, which resulted in being a high scoring standard.
Now it is obvious that not all standards or topics can be a hands-on or physical learning activity but with the list stated above it gives a lot of different ways for learners to make connections with the material that is being presented for longer memory storage.
Specific Instructional Activities
When thinking about the benefits a principal would have by knowing about this theory I quickly realized that it a game changer when doing drop-ins and evaluations. With constructivism the learning process can look very chaotic but if done correctly the teacher should still be showing an active role in what is happing in the classroom. With my example of teaching photosynthesis, I often worried that when the principal walked in it would look like I wasn’t teaching because the kids would be working on their own lab and asking their own questions. When I explained this concern to my principal she said that she could tell that I was teaching because I was actively monitoring and I would ask the students deeper questions instead of just telling them. A principal that doesn’t know what they are looking for in this situation can wrongly judge the learning that is truly going on.
Another benefit for a principal to support constructivism would be to be more supportive of fieldtrips and funding for extra activities. To have the resources that supports all of the different activities and learning opportunities cost money. On the limited budgets that teachers are given for supplies they really need the principal to give them extra money or brainstorm ideas to help support teachers in these endeavors.
- Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. (2004). Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/
- Driscoll. (2005). Radical Behaviorism. (p. 53).
- Ormrod, J. E. (2016). Human learning (7th ed.). Harlow, Essex, England: Pearson. (Ch. 3,4,7,8,11)
- Schunk, D. H. (2008). Learning theories: An educational perspective. Boston: Pearson.
- Wink, J., & Putney, L. G. (2002). A vision of Vygotsky. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.