There what can be seen. The spoken word,

There is a large range of learning theories
influencing educational practice, but I will be focusing critically on two; behaviourism
and constructivism. Behaviourism focuses on measured and observed outcomes of
learning rather than more internal events such as thoughts, emotions, values
and beliefs.  It focuses on what can be
seen.  The spoken word, writing and
actions are all behavioural outcomes because they can be measured (Jarvis et al,


Constructivism is an aspect of cognitive
theory, relying on the concept that knowledge and understanding are developed
by individual learners.  It necessitates an
understanding of the internal mental processes involved.  These underlying structures of knowledge and
understanding are deemed to be critical.  Learning occurs when new information changes,
and adds to, an individual’s current structure of knowledge, understanding and
skills (Pritchard, 2014).  I will be
exploring behaviourism and constructivism in relation to the current
educational practice.  Those of power relations
between teachers and students; looking at the shift from teacher-centred
learning to student-centred learning, specifically in secondary schools and
higher education.

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In behaviourism, learning is defined simply
as acquiring a new behaviour.  This method
of learning is referred to as conditioning.  Conditioning enables us to be taught to do
certain things.  Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)
as cited by Pritchard (2014), was the first to demonstrate classical
conditioning when he trained dogs to expect food, and so salivate, at the sound
of a bell.  He observed that dogs begin
to salivate when they see food and have it presented to them.  In his series of experiments he rang a bell
whenever food was put in front of the dogs.  Eventually the very sound of the bell became
an indication to the dogs that food was available.  The dogs would then start salivating at just
the sound of a bell without any food.  The
dogs had then been conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell (Pritchard,
2014).  In classical conditioning the
focus is on a stimulus-response relationship.  In a school setting a child correctly
answering a question (the stimulus) in the classroom is a result of the
conditioned response.  They may not
necessarily understand the answer but passively being taught the answer
previously by the teacher means they know the answer.


Skinner (1948) as cited by Pritchard (2014) developed
operant conditioning with his study involving rats and pigeons.  Operant conditioning entails granting rewards
in response to reinforcing a particular behaviour (positive reinforcement).  It can also work in an opposite and negative
way by removing a stimulus after a certain undesirable behaviour to prevent it
happening again.  In his experiment he
placed animals in an empty box and the animals were able to earn food by making
a direct response e.g. pressing a lever.  The lever would result in food and
subsequently animals learnt they could earn food by pressing the lever.  He believed operant conditioning could also
explain human behaviour.

Operant conditioning can be applied in school
settings both positively and negatively.  Schunk (2005) used the example of classroom
work.  If students who complete 80% of
classwork correctly do not then have to complete it for homework then that is considered
negative reinforcement.  Skinner
(1904-90) as cited by Pritchard (2014) encouraged educators to focus the
reinforcement on success rather than punishing failure.  The positive reinforcements or rewards can
involve praising, ticks, written comments and gold stars.  These can then encourage students to do well.
 Elliot and Busse (1991) as cited by
Pritchard (2014) found that rewarding behaviour and work reinforces appropriate
classroom behaviour making it a better environment for learning.  However, granting rewards can undermine and belittle
the learning experience and can cause feelings of resentment, unfairness and
competition.  Rewards can detract from
the actual process of completing tasks and result in lower quality work.  Being quick to finish may naturally lead to
poor quality work and can result in a lack of attention to detail (Pritchard,


Behaviourism focuses on the teacher led
approach to learning.  Some might view this
approach to teaching as a form of indoctrination, as the teacher attempts to
control the students’ learning in order to achieve results.  Learners are passive and the conditioning
takes away their freedom, which is not efficient as learners are not thinking
for themselves.  Focus is on the end
means rather than the learning itself (Jarvis 2003).  Bright children can find simply listening to
instruction unsatisfying and boring.  Some
need to have an understanding and knowledge of the logic behind answers, not
just being taught how to achieve correct answers (Pritchard 2014).


One of the components of constructivism
theory is problem-based learning which seeks to engage more
with students during the learning process with the result of increased
motivation.  With students working in
groups they are more able to improve their cooperative learning skills.  Problem-based learning necessitates students
to adopt a more creative cognitive process. 
This leads them to explore and construct their knowledge in unique and
individual ways.  It is particularly fruitful
for projects that don’t have just the one correct solution.  Unlike behaviourists, constructivists believe
that teachers shouldn’t teach in the more conventional way of simply directing
instructions to students.  Rather, they
should structure their lessons so that students can become more actively
involved with the content through interaction with others (Skhunk, 2005).

Vygotsky (1896–1934) as cited by (Skhunk
2005) was a constructivist theorist who put an increased emphasis on the social
environment as a facilitator of development and learning.  Social interactions and critical
knowledge are constructed between two or more people.  He developed the Zone of Proximal Development
(ZPD) which is the difference between what learners can do by themselves and
what they can do with help and assistance. 
He asserted that interactions with others in the ZPD promoted cognitive
development.  This process requires a guided
participation approach with both the teacher and learner working together.  The teacher will continue to draw on the student’s
knowledge until they provide the answer.  In Vygotsky’s theory,
all learning is accomplished with tools such as language, symbols and signs.  Children acquire these tools during their formative
social interactions with other people.  They subsequently internalise them and then utilise
them for more advanced learning.

Constructivism demonstrates student-centred learning,
which is considered more reflective of today’s society where democracy, and so
choice, is important  (O’Neil and McMahon,
2005).  Research into a student-centred
approach has continued to grow alongside its policy and practice.  Student-centred learning involves a more active,
rather than passive, approach to learning. 
The emphasis being on a learning experience of more depth leading to
increased understanding.  This increases
the responsibility for the student.  The
student has an increased sense of autonomy with interdependence between the teacher
and themselves (Lea et al, 2003).  Teaching
professionals can allow students more freedom for them to progress their
projects and experiments.  This will
enable them to discover for themselves the outcomes of their work.  Contemporary society values problem solving
and the teaching of problem solving is an ongoing concern for teachers and educators
(Jarvis et al, 2003).  Estyn secondary
school reports reflect this contemporary approach to learning.  One school inspection report (Estyn, 2017) was
praised for providing a range of activities, which practice skills in an
engaging way.  The lessons were said to
help students develop skills and that learning was kept at a lively pace.  Another inspection school report (Estyn, 2009)
praised the school was using group work to actively involve students in
learning.  The school was however
criticised for occasionally not involving students enough in dialogue, with
discussions being too teacher led.

Barr and Tagg (1995) identified the beginning
of a shift away from the traditional teacher-centred learning approach to a
more student-centred approach.  They
identified this new paradigm as from teaching to learning.  They discussed how lectures are focused around
fifty minutes of delivering instruction.  It is a passive behavioural approach based on
the lecturer talking and students listening with little interaction.  However, this type of lecture is still being
used today for many courses.  O’Sullivan
(2003) said student-centred learning may not always be possible due to the
large classes at university.  An in-depth
study was conducted by The University of Glasgow (2004) (as cited by O’Neil and
McMahon, 2005) on the utilisation of student-centred learning with its full-time
undergraduate students.  Their analysis
concluded that student-centred learning became more prevalent toward the latter
stages of degree courses.  This was believed
to be down to smaller lecture sizes.

As cited by Lea et al (2003), Hall and Saunders (1997) examined
the focus of a more student-centred approach within a first-year university I.T.
course.  The course content included
teaching methods involving a more active learning approach e.g. interactive presentations,
quizzes and on-going assessments throughout the year as opposed to the typical lecture
followed by final examination.  The move
towards a student-led approach was not without its problems, however.  The staff workload increased and they
experienced a shortage of resources.  The
course, though, was seen to increase both student participation and their motivation.
This directly led to an improvement in their results.  A total of 94% taking the course said they
would recommend it to other students over the conventional course.  It therefore seems that a student-centred
approach has the potential to be a success for higher education students.

The two learning theories I have discussed have
influenced educational practice. The behaviourism approach reflects the more traditional
learning where students are passive to information.  Although there has been a shift to a more
student-centred approach, that does not mean behaviourism does not still
influence educational practice today.  University
lectures still reflect this approach.  However,
the current focus in general is based around the constructivist approach.  Students are active in their learning
experience and as Vygotsky(1896–1934)  said: the teacher is there to guide the
learner and help them draw on their current knowledge.  Recent school reports reflect the growing need
for more collaborative and engaging methodology of learning.  As cited by Terwel (1999) and Schwab (1970), no
one theory can provide an adequate foundation for practicing education.  In order to provide this sound educational
practice with a solid groundwork of concepts and ideas, teachers need to establish
what Schwab called a ‘polyfocal conspectus’, which brings together rudiments
from many educational theories and practices.  Although constructivism seems to be more
prominent in today’s society, aspects of behaviourism still remain.