Term Paper: Learning Theories in 2009-2010

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Learning Theories

Jones, Wendell

By the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th century, researchers became fascinated by the differences in learning styles and concepts. This was perhaps a logical reaction to Darwinism, to scientific discovery, and to the realization that in the contemporary world, individuals expressed cognition in different ways. One of the key elements in the ongoing debate uncovering learning theory is the difference between empirical and theoretical learning (Theories of Behavior, 2008). Empirical learning is based on a process. That process compares a number of individually different objects, picks out their observable characteristics. Based on this, one formulates a general concept about this particular kind of object. This type of learning is typical for younger children, preschoolers and the like, and is one of the typical pedagogical tools available. Often, this results in the student acquiring spontaneous concepts. This concept is rather culturally oriented, and works for simple objects and within the parameters of basic cognition. There are, however, according to several misconceptions that show up using this method. For instance, if we show the student a pail of water, get a coin, a pen, and a needle and put them all into the pail a preschooler might find the commonality to be "all small things sink," as opposed to asking what kind of properties all three have in common (e.g. they are heavy, typically made of metal). Theoretical learning is based on a process of supplying the child with general and optimal methods for dealing with certain types of problems that lead the learner towards essential characteristics of the problems. For theoretical psychologists, human progress is somewhat measured in imparting knowledge to the next generation without them needing to rediscover it completely each generation. This theoretical learning is often direct instruction, with the teacher providing the basics for the lesson, but then also finding ways that allow the student to work beyond the lesson and thus assimilate theory into action (Mooney, 2005). We can better understand the differences in interpreting learning styles and pedagogical applications using the basic theoretical learning paradigms of some of the prominent theorists: Vygotsky, Thorndike, Skinner, Pavlov, and Piaget. Most, if not all, contemporary theories are based in some way on the work of these scholars, and many newer theories are an updating and combination of their basic tenets (See: (Johnson-Laird, 2009).

Thorndike -- the Law of Reinforcement -- Edward Thorndike, American psychologist and educator, helped lay the foundation on the learning process and modern educational psychology. He was a pioneer in the understanding of the way humans learn, as well as the theory of memory and cognition (Goodenough, 1950). Thorndike's experimental study with animals (1998) was a puzzle-box experiment. He simply measured the time it took a cat to pull out a string that opened a small door so the cat could eat -- and was struck by the decreasing time of the scores as the cat repeated the action. This improvement was smooth and steady, but never spiked -- which told Thorndike that the cat was not learning anything about ideas, but simply connecting the dots between (S)timulus and (R)esponse. Further work showed that the S-R connection is either strengthened or diminished by the environment. In other words, if the effect is positive, the connection is stronger; if the effect is negative, the opposite holds true (Thorndike, 1911).

Despite the fact that the original research for this theory is over a century old, we must realize that Thorndike's mechanistic view of learning dominated the first half of the 20th century. Thorndike's later research, though, has been buttressed by a number of more contemporary studies, especially in regard to the nature of the transfer of learning. For instance, learning to think in one subject, chemistry for instance, increases the ability to learn math, physics, and other cognitive skills. We now know there is a broader connection that Thorndike ever imagined, witness his famous quote, "To know [something] thoroughly involves knowing its quantity as well its quality" (Cremin, 1961). Do we then use Thorndike in the contemporary classroom as part of learning theory -- well, of course. The basis of utilizing a steady approach with numerous positive reinforcements is standard for most any learning theory. Thorndike can be seen, then, as a bottom part of a structural pyramid with other theoretical and practical methods built on top (Gibboney, 2006).

Skinner and Operant Conditioning -- B.F. Skinner, American psychologist and social critic, formatted the operant conditioning theory, which is essential a formalization of reward and punishment, creating the desired behavior through conditioning. He had a string influence in education by providing a template proving that positive reinforcement is a more effect at changing and establishing wanted behavior than punishment. Skinner suggests that it is possible to reinforce (teach) any age-appropriate skills based on a series of five steps:

Establish task or skill -- give the student immediate feedback.

Break down the task into small, individuated stapes.

Repeat the directions as many times as feasible.

Evolve the exercise from the simplest to the most complex.

Provide positive reinforcement (Rider, 2002, 30-4).

Pavlov and Classical Conditioning Theory -- Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov's works did not become available in the United States until 1927. At the time it reminded researchers of the theories of John Watson, in other words, learning and memory was a psychological reaction to stimuli. Pavlov emphasized inhibition, something that American psychologists had largely ignored but in time found fascinating. What was new was the procedure, the pairing of two stimuli; the bell and the food had to occur together. The critical contingency the experimenter had to control was the timing of the stimuli (Pavlov, 1927). With Thorndike's procedure the critical contingency was the relationship between the response and its "effect." The procedural contrast was called by different people Pavlovian vs. trial and error, or classical conditioning vs. instrumental, or respondent vs. operant. Emotional and motivational learning was about reinforcement and a combination of stimuli; repeatable and rather regular with certain types of learning, certainly like Thorndike as a basis, but not explaining advanced or taxonomic learning (Boakes, 1984, 64-91).

Within the contemporary learning schemata, classical conditioning is valuable in some rote styles and reinforcement -- it reflects underlying learning tendencies and the vey basis for any additional or more advanced theoretical precept. Studies show that early learning (e.g. age 2-4) constructs are typically enhanced using a typc of Pavlovian conditioning. In some special education situations, as well, the use of giving a piece of candy for an answer or behavior is really classical conditioning. However, enhancing complex learning requires far more than a simple S-R rubric (Durlach, 1989).

Piaget and Biological Sensing -- in psychological development, Jean Piaget formed his often quoted focus by hypothesizing that learning is a physical, biological function of dealing with successfully with the environment. Looking at Piaget's theory of cognitive development in more detail we find that he based it on two biological tendencies. The two tendencies are organization, and adaptation. Organization as Piaget saw it said that humans are designed to organize their observations and experiences into coherent sets of meanings. Adaptation is the tendency to adjust to the environment - a process by which we create matches between our original observations and new ones that might not seem logical at first, but provide new solutions to unique problems. This, for Piaget, is a crucial difference in human development, and one which allows or schemas (original observations and conceptions) to change and evolve based on environmental stimuli (Schickendanz, 2001).

From the late 1960s to the 1980s, Piaget's works transformed educational and learning theory in America and Europe, leading to a more "child-centered" approach. In fact, Piaget himself said," Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society . . . But for me and no one else, education means making creators. . . . You have to make inventors, innovators -- not conformists" (Piaget, 1989, 132).

One can easily say that Piaget's theory of moral education focusing on the task of the modern educaitonal system as helping chidlren develop moral ideas in the appropriate way and appropriate stage. Children, for Piaget, make moral judments based on their own observations and, depending on the stimuli, immitation. "The child is someone who constructs his own moral world view, who forms ideas about right and wrong, and fair and unfair, that are not the direct product of adult teaching and that are often maintained in the face of adult wishes to the contrary" (Gallagher, 2003).

Vygotsky and Environmental Learning - Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist and founder of the cultural-historical school which helped merge the ideas of cultural determined modes of thinking with developmental psychology; all which had direct application to education and pedagogy. Children learn best, according to Vygotsky, through interactions with their surrounding culture. This, he said, could be seen as their Zone of Proximal Development. To reach that ZPD, however, children need the help… [END OF PREVIEW]

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