Following a recent post on a friend’s blog about undertaking postgraduate certificate qualifications in teaching at university, I thought I would start the process I have been promising myself I would do for months now: publish my blogs on learning to teach. NB: some of this material has been recently submitted for assessment purposes, enjoy the read but don’t quote in your own teacher training programme!
I formally started the teaching at university programme about six months after I began working at my current university. Unsurprisingly, like at a lot of universities I have heard of, the programme was not held in high regard by academic staff, mostly because they were compelled to undertake it and had developed (over the course of the PhD or over many years of research focussed work) some cynicism towards the programme tutors. Broadly, this cynicism related to three factors; (1) a belief that students who are motivated to learn, do, regardless of techniques applied by lecturers, (2) a view that programme tutors did not sufficiently account for the constraints on lecturers following from large class sizes, limited resources and bureaucratic impediments to change, (3) skepticism about the political aims behind the programme and whether this signified a move to a ‘customer oriented’ model of teaching that fundamentally undermines the authority of the lecturer as ‘expert’. Following from this third element was a critical attitude towards the political status of universities in the UK and the consequences of changes to student fees and recruitment in the most recent attempt to create a higher education ‘market’. But I’ll come back to this issue in a later post.
Today’s post focuses solely on point (1): theories about learning and the motivation to learn, and summarises two broad theoretical approaches; behaviourism and cognitivism. What is interesting is that each model has a different role for the teacher, and requires them to engage with the students in a different way. Each also suggests that different rewards or learning environments will produce varying results in how much and how well students learn.
These approaches to the study of learning have much in common with the fields of psychology and social psychology generally, and as such I have been a bit sweeping in my assertions which follow. Each has it’s historical place in influencing learning institutions and systems, and consequently some aspects of learning, teaching and assessment that are often taken for granted can be linked to different parts of these theories.
Behaviourism: looking at external action not internal subjectivities
Behaviourism is one of the earlier approaches to learning, drawing on the notion that since the internal workings of the mind are objectively unknowable then only the external factors can be studied. “Learning is defined simply as the acquisition of new behaviour” (Pritchard 2008:6). Central to this is the basic premise that all creatures respond to stimulus to increase positive experience and decrease negative experience. Central theorists include Watson (1958), Skinner (1953) and Thorndike (1966). Historically, this approach to the study of psychology was particularly functionalist, and much of the research in this area focused on ‘conditioning’ subjects into a particular habit of response. You might have heard of famous examples of this sort of research such as Pavlov’s dog experiments, where dogs are trained to associate the noise of a bell with food, such that eventually, even when the food is not present, the sound of the bell will make them behave as if food is present.
While many conditioning experiments may seem crude, or even laughable, by today’s standards, they were incredibly influential in their practical implications. However, the perspective was not universally well-received, as it placed human beings in the same category as any other kind of animal. Skinner’s (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity is a particularly vehement response to his critics, arguing that humans had to ‘get over’ their belief in their own special status if society was to be functionally improved. This experimental approach was also criticised for oversimplifying the study of behaviour (see Eddie Izzard’s sketch about Pavlov’s cat for a laughable example of what happens when not all variables are controlled)
Based on a simple view of student motivation as merely learned response to stimuli, learning approaches that adopt this view might be summarised as ‘stick’ or ‘carrot’ techniques. Approaches as different as the Victorian ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and contemporary practices around the need for ‘positive feedback for psychological engagement’ all fit in with this approach. Any focus on rewards for correct behaviour is underpinned by behaviourist theory, whether it is a directly ‘conditioned’ response or a ‘shaping’ (using goal-setting approaches) towards ideal behaviour.
Limitations to using a behaviourist approach to designing learning activities are usually listed as including a limited or ‘surface’ approach to learning, as the desired response could be produced without developing an understanding at a ‘deeper’ level; it is limited to rote-learning (Pritchard 2008).
An interesting part of behaviourism, however, is that it places the responsibility for ‘correct learning’ directly upon the teacher, provided the student complies with the system. It is the responsibility of the teacher to identify desired behaviours and reward them appropriately. Additionally, students may have come from schools or colleges that use this sort of approach, and therefore to an extent are already ‘conditioned’ to expect this sort of learning activity and reward.
Cognitivism (or Constructivism): Looking inside the black box
A different approach to learning is apparent in cognitivism. Focusing on the workings of the brain from multiple different perspectives, cognitivism gives primacy to the idea that learning is an internal process. Much of the research on which these theories are based comes from developmental studies with children, or with those suffering from developmental difficulties. The underlying principle contends (against behaviourism) that learners are active agents in the learning process, and that learning should be approached in a holistic manner (this is associated with ‘gestalt‘ theories). This suggests that students respond to patterns as much as to individual stimulus.
Many different approaches tend to get clustered under the cognitivist label. Two early theorists in the area are Piaget (1926) and Vygotsky (1978). While both share similar principles, they do differ in terms of the priorities they give to particular aspects of the learning experience. Vygotsky’s approach (ibid) focussed on the social interaction between teacher and learner, stressing that it is within that relationship that the teacher can help provide a framework (and break down earlier frameworks) which the learner then strengthens and models for themselves. Piaget, by contrast, stressed that the learner engages with artefacts provided by the teacher independently and develops knowledge which is incorporated into schema (a sort of subjective framework, see Smith, Dockrell & Tomlinson 1997). Both theorists stress the significance of activity undertaken by the learner alone or with the teacher as a key part of the process (Jarvis 2003).
Compared to the behaviourist approach, the constructivist approach as a consequence of a more subjective understanding of learning (by experience) tends to offer a view of learning which allows pluralistic versions of knowledge (i.e. there is space for more than one ‘correct’ answer or way of doing things). By contrast, the behaviourist view presents a much more rigorous position on what does and does not constitute legitimate knowledge that indicates a one-way transmission of that knowledge from teacher to learner. Both different approaches also commit to different priorities and techniques for the design of the teaching and learning environment. Clearly, certain training programmes may tend towards the behaviourist perspective, as some interpretations or behaviours are considered illegitimate, misguided, or even dangerous, whereas disciplinary areas more tolerant of pluralism may be more inclined towards a cognitive view.
A synthesis of constructivist and behaviourist theoretical leanings is apparent in the majority of current approaches to institutionalised learning, perhaps thanks to inherited behaviourist systems of the past, or the failure of cognitivist learning experiments to revolutionise teaching styles. One frequently-used reference point which demonstrates this is Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of (cognitive) knowledge. Bloom’s taxonomy presents multiple ‘building blocks’ as a progressive hierarchy of knowledge attained through learning where the achievement of each stage requires proficiency in the stage below (this strongly informs international comparison standards regarding the level of achievement in particular qualifications) .
The original presents a continuum which presents a programme suitable to behavioural ‘shaping’, but also stipulates the cognitive activities it is expected that students will undertake. Bloom’s framework was revised in 2001 in order to more comprehensively represent changes in educational language and to incorporate the type of knowledge the student is expected to master (factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive), as well as the cognitive process they engage in to do so (Krathwohl 2002). There have been some critiques of Bloom’s taxonomy, however, which suggest that the hierarchy of cognitive approaches may be reversed, and that the production of knowledge in the form of ‘facts’ is a hard-won outcome of the other processes (Wineburg & Schneider 2010). After all, in scientific endeavour, that is how research produces knowledge!
Wineburg and Schneider’s (2010) argument could be seen as a revisit to Bloom’s framework which highlights a shift away from behaviourist models of learning towards cognitivist approaches. A behaviourist approach to learning, with its focus on stimulus-response-reward, privileges a basis in the accumulation of facts through rote learning followed by study in the skills of manipulating those facts for logical analysis and evaluation. In this presentation of Bloom’s taxonomy, the teacher provides students with ‘legitimate’ knowledge in the form of facts, then slowly leads them through a process whereby each stage in the process is reinforced through reward, often in the form of good test marks though also sometimes using more mundane rewards (such as sweets or book tokens). Wineburg and Schneider (ibid) argue that the taxonomy may instead be represented in the opposite direction, where knowledge is the outcome of the learning process rather than its base. This derives from a more constructivist approach which builds upon the notion of the learning ‘scaffold’ (see Sylva 1997).
 It is important to recognise that the committee of which Bloom was head intended to encourage a synthesis between three different types of learning; cognitive, affective and psychomotor (see Krathwohl 2002). I have rarely come across discussion of the latter two dimensions at university, which may be instructive in how far such discussions have penetrated in the educational domain.