The Learning Process

My beliefs about the learning process are eclectic.  Each of the learning philosophies we have studied was created by observation of the same animal, Homo sapiens.  Each philosophy that reached our textbook did so after decades or more of use and scrutiny.  Each is time tested and descriptive in its own right.  Like the allegorical tale of the blind men and the elephant, each theory emphasizes a particular aspect of human learning and sees what it sees from that point of view. 

The two most prominent schools of thought today are behaviorism and constructivism.  Philosophers of the behaviorist school would generally believe that the “environment shapes the child” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 17).  Behaviorists believe that learning is a function of the outcomes of external stimulus and human response.  Behavior is shaped, they say, by positive or negative reinforcement of behavior by the environment.  They would argue that learning can be observed through the actions a creature takes.  Most behaviorists would argue that the ability to be measured is an essential characteristic of learning.  They would say that if it is not measurable, it is not learning.  Put succinctly, to them learning means changed behavior.

In contrast, Piaget and the constructivists believe that learning is largely internal.  For them, learning is the result of each human’s observations of the world and successive theories or models about how that world works.  They would say, “The child develops a series of fairly distinct ‘understandings,’or ‘theories,’ about the way the world works, based on her active exploration of the environment” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 15).  The change in these internal models over time is how learning takes place, they say.  Constructivists do not believe that learning is necessarily observable.  The central element of learning to constructivists is a change in thinking, which may not be externally observable.

I believe that each of these philosophies is valuable in its own right and has a place in the classroom.  My goal is to absorb all of these learning theories and to apply them as appropriate in my work.  This is not to say that I am indifferent between philosophies.  I do have a philosophical framework into which the individual philosophies fit.

The first element of this philosophical framework is that I agree with Rousseau that humans are inherently good and desirous of knowledge (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 4).  The second is that I believe each child is unique and needs to be considered independently.  The third is that all theories of learning together comprise a toolkit of knowledge from which specific explanations can be pulled as the situation and need dictates.

From there, I start with a core understanding that human beings are the product of million of years of evolution.  I believe that millions of years of evolutionary history determines, or at least informs, much of what we do.  In this sense, I start my consideration of learning in the shoes of Plato and Descartes, as a nativist.  I believe, as Arnold Gesell does, that behavior develops in “genetically programmed sequential patterns of change” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 6).  I believe, as he does, that these developmental patterns are universal and sequential.  However, there we begin to drift apart.  I do believe that some developmental patterns are “relatively impervious to environmental influence” (Bee & Boyd, p. 6) but for me the key word is “some.”  On the other hand, I, like the majority of the modern developmental psychologists Rutter examined, believe “essentially every facet of a child’s development is a product of some pattern of interaction of nature and nurture” (as quoted in Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 5).  Again, the key is in the details.  I believe sometimes nature has nearly no influence but sometimes nurture has virtually no influence.  I am much more comfortable believing different kinds of behavior have varying degrees of susceptibility to environmental influences.  In this way, I like Aslin’s five models of environmental influence.  These five choices allow the degree of nature and nurture to vary, creating a description of development tailored to the particular characteristic under consideration.

The last of the major ideas that makes up my framework would be that role models are important, and in some cases, essential to healthy development.  I like Vygotsky’s version of cognitive-developmental theory.  I do think children frequently look to adults for their behavioral and even existential clues.  I like both his theory of scaffolding and zone of proximal development.  In spite of the fact that they come from different schools of philosophy, I think Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory fits nicely with Vygotsky.  In addition, Bandura’s ideas of observational learning and intrinsic reinforcement tie this entire philosophical chain of logic back to the romanticism from which I started.  At the end of the chain, as at the beginning, my core belief is that all humans want to move towards their higher selves, in learning and in behavior.

In some cases, classroom learning will be observable.  The students will be working on a specific standard.  Learning will be observable in that specific tests will be given to assess learning.  Most steps in the curriculum will be additive, with most lessons building on the changed knowledge and behaviors of the prior lessons.  However, being a pedagogical progressive at heart, I view my role in the classroom as far more than drilling data and therefore changing behaviors.  My central role as a teacher is to inspire students to pursue their higher capacities.  I intend to do that by showing them the joy of learning and by modeling how that joy of learning can enrich their lives.  I hope their model of life will include the love of learning and a desire for the nutrition learning provides in all aspects of a life.  To the extent that I am successful, those changes in philosophy would be invisible and un-testable, only becoming observable as behavior much later, if at all.

In the end, this dichotomy between thinking and doing is a false one.  Very few of our meaningful human behaviors are purely reflex.  Our understanding of a situation influences our actions.  Likewise, there are few understandings that do not ultimately dictate actions and therefore become measurable.  The truth, as it so often does, lies in the middle.  That is where my teaching will begin, from the middle and using whatever philosophical wisdom applies.

References

Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Educational Psychology Interactive . (2003). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Retrieved February 15, 2010, from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/cogsys/piaget.html

Wikipedia. (2010). Behaviorism. Retrieved February 15, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behaviorism

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