As a result of the work of many Educational Psychologists-over many years-various explanations of learning styles have evolved. All of these studies were undertaken to determine how we as humans learn. “In its broadest sense, learning can be defined as a process of progressive change from ignorance to knowledge, from inability to competence, and from indifference to understanding…. In much the same manner, instruction-or education-can be defined as the means by which we systematize the situations, conditions, tasks materials, and opportunities by which learners acquire new or different ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. Cameron Fincher,”Learning Theory and Research,” in Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom, edited by Kenneth A. Feldman and Michael Paulson, Ashe Reader Series, Needham, MA: Ginn Press, 1994 Traditional learning theorists seem to mainly fall under the following headings: Behaviourist, Humanist and Cognitivist-Constructivist. Behaviourism refers to the school of psychology founded by John B Watson 1878-1958. It is divided into two processes of learning. These are classical and operant conditioning. B. F Skinner developed these theories and even applied them to his own children.
Skinner believed that by praising a child for good behaviour or actions, it encouraged them to repeat the positive behaviour. “All we need to know in order to describe and explain behaviour is this: Actions followed by good outcomes are likely to recur and actions followed by bad outcomes are less likely to recur” (BF Skinner 1953). Operant Conditioning is a theory in which focus is given to reinforcing positive behaviour with rewards, or punishing negative behaviour with withdrawal of privileges. Skinner studied experiments Pavlov did on his dog-stimulus and response.
He rang a bell and gave the dog food. He repeated this many times and observed that when the bell rang the dog knew that food was coming-an example of a positive action followed by a positive outcome. This is an example of Classical Conditioning used to shape behaviour- by controlling the rewards and punishment behaviour can be shaped. Skinner compared this learning with the way children learn. This process can be used in the classroom with stickers or house points for positive behaviour and losing golden time (for younger children) or house marks for older children.
Skinner argued that control is not wrong, but some of his critics felt that his theory was too controlling and manipulative. Albert Bandura (1977) states, “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action. This is a concept that would be useful with all age groups. If the classroom is very noisy use a quiet voice to model the noise level required, encouraging the children in turn to use their quiet voices imitating the teacher’s behaviour. On reflection the behaviourist and Humanistic approach is very successful when working with the slightly less able children who may have lost confidence due to lack of success compared to their peers in the classroom. Setting achievable targets and giving rewards and praise for success (e. ) sending the child to head of year with their work, boost confidence self esteem. Giving this extra reinforcement using a behaviourist/humanistic approach also builds trust, and with this trust, self confidence and reinforcement they can build the necessary skills to move on to the next level. Many psychologists were not happy with Behaviourism as there was too much emphasis on single events and external stimuli. This was felt especially by Gestalt psychologists.
Where Behaviourists looked to the environment, others were concerned with cognition- the act or process of knowing. Cognitivists aim to teach for understanding, which means that new learning is built on existing learning. Constructivism is the theory that we generate knowledge from our own experiences. The onus is on the student here as they guide their own learning process by asking questions and discover how new knowledge connects with prior knowledge. This theory is based around cognitive mental development.
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) recognised the contribution of the environment, but also recognised the importance of the internal structure of cognition, this internal process is known as schema. He believed that adults were responsible for providing children with the tools to discover information for themselves by experiencing things for themselves, giving them an active role in their learning. He was not interested in a right or wrong answer, but rather what forms of logic nd reasoning the child used (Singer 1978). He believed in a linear progression involving three processes to learning; assimilation, accommodation and adaption. When studying ‘The Victorian School’ as part of the History curriculum for instance, for many years pictures were shown and children try to imagine what it was like for a schoolchild/teacher in Victorian times, what they wore, what the comparisons were between a child their age then and their lives now.
Children generally enjoy this topic, but a way it can be made more interesting and ‘alive’ for them is for example a school trip to Dunham Massey where the children dress up and become that child for the day. The children are accompanied but adults are not involved in anyway and they can discover for themselves where they would sleep, what work they would have had to do, what they wore, even how they felt etc. On return after a group discussion children can do a project in groups on what they discovered what they like best how they would feel etc.
This can bring this topic to life for the children without a teacher standing at the front of the class giving them facts and showing them pictures. Piaget identified four stages of development. These were sensori-motor (birth – 2 years), pre-operational (2-6 years) concrete operational (7-11 years) and formal operations ( 11 and over) . These are linked to the national curriculum eg key stage 1 age 5-7, key stage 2 age 7-11 and so on. Jerome Bruner also believed this theory and was influenced by Piaget primarily, but later by Vygotsky.
His discovery learning theory stated that learners learn best when discovering facts and relationships for themselves, where learning is inquiry based with the thought that learners remember concepts better when explored for themselves (this contradicts Vygotsky’s theory who stated that learners can only learn effectively with support form others) . An example of this in a practical lesson would be when learning about capacity in a maths lesson. Children estimate on whiteboards how many cups of water would fill a variety of vessels.
The children then experiment for themselves to find out how reliable their predictions were and record their findings. He talked about a Spiral Curriculum constructed to help the learner revisit, extend and deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills. However, where Bruner thought a child can learn as long as instruction was appropriate, Piaget thought the child had to be at a certain stage of development. Vygotsky believed that each learner has a zone of proximinal development. This theory states that pupils can learn independently to a certain point.
At this point they need ‘scaffolding’ (support) this is one of the areas where the role of the teaching assistant comes into play on a one to one basis. The practitioner’s role is to create individualised ‘next steps’ to scaffold learning to the next level. Humanistic theorists such as Abraham Harold Maslow (1908-1970) and Carl Ransom Rogers (1902-1987) adopted a holistic approach to human existence through investigations of meaning, values, freedom, tragedy, personal responsibility, human potential, spirituality, and self-actualization, focussing on the whole person.
Behaviour is linked to inner feelings and self image and that we are all born with a natural desire to achieve our full potential (self-actualisation) In 1943 Abraham Maslow, an American Psychologist came up with a Hierarchy of Needs. These needs are portrayed in a pyramid shape under the following categories, from bottom to top, bottom being the most fundamental : physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and finally self-actualisation. (he described this final step as being the person’s full potential).
He believed that the learner can only move up to the next level of needs after satisfying the first. Young children’s physiological needs in particular are paramount, e. g. a child will not learn well if tired, thirsty, hungry, sad etc, more so than an older child who has the same needs but has the maturity to be able to cope with slightly more than the very young child. Carl Rogers approach focused on relationship. As he once wrote, ‘The facilitation of significant learning rests upon certain attitudinal qualities that exist in the personal relationship between facilitator and learner’ (1990: 305).
Freedom to learn (1969; 1983; 1993). He looked to his own experiences rather than from an academic point of view. Kolb created a model of experimental learning which comprised of a four stage learning cycle. These four stages consist of doing (concrete experience) reflecting on the experience (reflecting observation) learning from the experience (abstract conceptualisation) and trying out what has been learnt (active experimentation). This cycle can be started at any of the above stages but must be followed in sequence after that to become balanced integrated learners.
Geoff Petty thought that we must reflect on our experiences and relate them to our practice in order to do it better the next time we do something top enable us to learn from our experiences. We must also then reflect again after carrying this out. Whereas a teacher might explain to a year 1 parent that their child was struggling with reading because they just ‘weren’t ready’, Vygotsky would explain the importance of matching the language of communication to the child’s ability- he thought teaching was the art of effective communication, but, another consideration has to be what is described as a child’s individual Learning Style.
This is defined as being ‘the different and preferred ways in which children and adults think and learn’. An ideal lesson for one child would not work for another. For instance some learners work best with music in the background whereas others need silence. Some prefer to be taught with practical workshops whereas others learn best with a power point presentation. Not all learners are given the choice to be taught in their preferred learning style, so have to learn in a variety of situations. This is where knowledge regarding learning styles can lead to effective learning support strategies.
Environmental learning styles such as noise, layout of the room, temperature and lighting are important when supporting learners with ADHD, autism and dyslexia. Emotional learning styles e. g how much or how little adult supervision they prefer, how much information they need about the task to be able to succeed or whether they prefer choices in what or how to do a task. Some learners like to work on one task to completion others prefer many tasks on the go at the same time. Dunn and Dunn (1993) base the following review of different learning styles on extensive research.
Global versus analytic is an element that refers to how a student prefers to approach a topic. Global approach learners would first prefer to have an overview of the topic to see the whole picture whereas analytic like a more step by step approach, and find the whole picture too much to take in. Impulsive versus reflective refers to the amount of time a student will take to think about what they are about to do before they start a task. Taking too long can be a drawback as nothing is actually getting written down. At the other extreme-impulsive the student jumps in without reading instructions thoroughly.
Both can be a disadvantage and the TA can be important in ensuring that there is a balance between the two. Some learners prefer a particular social pattern e. g. either working alone or as a group. Physiological learning styles include visual-seeing information, auditory-hearing information and kinaesthetic-hands on learners. Most prefer one of these styles but some prefer to use more than one. A student learning style is of importance in a learning situation because if a student is not learning it could be because the information is being presented in a way that does not match their preferred style.
This is not simple and does have its drawbacks because if every student has their own learning style how do we accommodate for everyone at the same time in the classroom? To find out each individuals learning style we need to ask questions of the learner, this can be difficult if a child has special needs, and may not be aware of how they learn best. To do this a child needs to be observed in a range of learning styles to see which one fits best for effective learning. Honey and Mumford devised a questionnaire aiming to show our preferred learning styles to see where our strengths lie.
These styles were said to be activist, reflector, theorist and pragmatist. The activist being the ‘do-er’ (having an experience), reflector the reviewer (reviewing the experience), theorist (concluding from the experience) and the pragmatist the applier (planning the next steps). This learning style is defined as being a description of the attitudes and behaviour which determines an individuals preferred way of learning. However, most people exhibit more than one trait.
There is a strong link between Honey and Mumford’s styles/stages and Kolb’s learning styles who believed that learning styles develop over time and are not fixed at birth. Gardner on the other hand stated that intelligences are fixed at birth in his Multiple Intelligences Theory (1983). He lists 7 different types of intelligences as opposed to the traditional logical/mathematical and linguistic types which used to be considered the only way to measure intelligence. The multiple intelligence theory explains why some children perform badly in standardised traditional testing methods.
Gardner suggested that intelligence could be divided into visual/ spatial, musical, bodily/kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist and existential intelligence. He thought that learners can excel in one or more methods but cannot excel in all. He explained that everyone’s intelligence is unique to them and that all learners develop ability in different areas by using their strong areas or preferred learning tendency. Musically intelligent learners learn best through rhythms using singing or clapping in the classroom.
This gives practitioners scope for using different routes for learning for different children. This is something that could be used within school using activities such as listening to story tapes, in maths-clapping when counting on in tens for instance and other circle games. A questionnaire was developed by Ian Fleming. It is known as VARK – visual-e. g. reading, watching videos, auditory- listening to tapes, listening to teacher talking, read/write and kinaesthetic- doing things, making models, tracing letters in the sand. This was devised to distinguish a learner’s preferred learning style.
Some learners have more than one preferred style and are know as ‘multimodal’. This system is controversial as there are doubts about reliability and validity due to lack of research, however it is widely used in school and colleges. It is important that teachers incorporate all of these styles in their planning so that they reach all pupils. There is also the question that if a learner preferred style is shown to be visual for example, should they then try to develop the less preferred style or concentrate on learning in the style they have been matched to in the questionnaire.
It is also not very scientific and there is not much evidence that, when applied in classrooms, these schemes really do help to enhance the character of teaching so that learning is improved. This system is controversial as there are doubts about reliability and validity due to lack of research, however it is widely used in school and colleges. It is important that teachers incorporate all of these styles in their planning so that they reach all pupils. VAK has been associated with the Montessori Method.
The Montessori method is a method of schooling that focuses on personal development rather than exam results. In summary any theory or model of learning styles is a simplification of the complexity of how we learn. There is no secure evidential base to support any one theory of learning styles – it is important to be aware of the limitations of any learning styles model. Learning styles are at best one of a range of factors determining how learners react to learning opportunities – environment, culture, teaching methods and learning aims are all part of a complex pattern of interactions.
Representing knowledge in multiple formats does appear to result in learning gains, although it is important to match presentation to the nature of the subject matter. There is a danger in learning styles of stereotyping learners-labelling and pigeon holing them e. g they could be kinaesthetic at the time but could change at a later date. It not always feasible for teachers to incorporate all of the learning style in a lesson and what do we do with the results of the questionnaires-do we teach to their preferred style or develop the opposite?
Given the lack of evidence in the field, labelling strategies seems safer than labelling learners. An awareness of learning styles theories may help to develop metacognition and the ability to learn how to learn. At least some aspects of learning styles and strategies can be taught, regardless of what we are naturally born with. The BECTA report on learning styles (2005) states ‘There is no secure evidential base to support any one theory of learning styles – it is important to be aware of the limitations of any learning style model and indeed of the field as a whole. And ‘There is a danger inherent in learning styles of labelling students as particular kinds of learners – given the lack of robust evidence in the field, labelling strategies seems safer than labelling learners’. Learning styles are at best one of a range of factors determining how learners react to learning opportunities – environment, teaching methods and curriculum requirements are all part of a complex pattern of interactions. 3044 words