Evaluating two paradigms of education: passive and active learners.
This post relates to my position as a Junior University Officer in the Aim Higher and advancement department at UCLan. This is all part and parcel of my journey, from Soldier to Scientist and another of my activities in public engagement in Science. We even got a visit from the Queen who officially opened the project last year which the kids loved. In this position it was my responsibility to mentor and educate children under the age of 16 on the project as to the nature and importance of higher education in their future. It was my specific responsibility to deliver workshops on Psychology for which I provided many lectures based on the degree level major psychology route year 1, however, adjusted to be more age appropriate. I was also chuffed to bits when I also won an award for my classes! The title of this essay relates to my experience in that post in that I identified two teaching and learning methods derived from the constructivist and behaviourist approaches which will be explored further.
The post will attempt to outline a brief background into educational psychology. It will evaluate the behaviourist approach of Watson (1913) and other contributions, the constructivist theories of Dewey (1859-1952) and contemporaries and end in a critique of both strategies (I bet you can guess which I’m in favor of) with a conclusion as to which approach is best suited to modern day classrooms.
Educational psychology focuses on creating better techniques for teaching and improving the learning experience by drawing on the scientific study of educational practices including methodology, those that teach and those that are taught. The field is historically attributed to a few pioneers before the start of the 20th century. William James (1890) wrote the first psychology textbook entitled “the principles of psychology” from which many took their lead. Following this he gave a lecture series called Talks toTteachers (James 1899). His lectures became popular with educators, who used them extensively in teacher training programs throughout America. James’s contributions were inspiring to many and carried the message of promoting healthy-mindedness; a feeling of positivity and goodness in everything. Some believe he did not live up to his message and even that he was a hypocrite who profited greatly from his books and lectures (Richardson 2006; Frederick 2009). These criticisms do not detract, however, from the fact that without this originator different paradigms may never have even emerged. In terms of validity such views are lacking in that they were the original theories and in this case there was not much evidence to show if these truly were the methods educators should be taught and perhaps James’s observations might prove to be misleading. The fact that his lectures were so widely used in the training of teaching staff is significant as it shows that the journey towards a psychological understanding of the teaching process had begun and others soon followed. One such follower is John Dewey (1902), from whom the term children as active learners (constructivism) comes. This is the antithesis of a passive (behaviourist) learning strategy which assumed children should learn in a rote manner and merely absorb stimuli, this strategy will be discussed next.
Passive learning strategies can be traced back to the works of the behaviourist John Watson (1913). Watson argued that the mental experience was not observable and so not an issue and went on to use laboratory experiments to create the stimulus-response (SR) model with which he used observable behaviours as a measure of learning. The model dictates that learning is (1) observable behaviour and not internal thought; learning manifesting as behavioural change, (2) behaviour is shaped by the environment; perhaps the teachers input and provision of learning environment and (3) contiguity (closeness of events) and reinforcement (repetition of events). This model gives teachers complete responsibility for the learning experience and is indicative of traditional lecturers where a student is merely subjected to information until they understand it. The behaviourist approach seems to have merit as it is still being used today in large scale lectures (University and college although there are seminars and workshops too) however with adjustments to the method such as focus on student feedback as to what is valuable in a session such as perception of greater educational value in passive scenarios (Haidet, Morgan, O’Malley et al 2004) which shall be discussed later. Capitalising on this behaviourist approach researchers noticed behaviour could be adjusted through negative or positive consequences termed Stimulus-response theory (Thorndike 1932). Later called “operant conditioning” (Skinner 1973), the strategy grew in popularity and worked in tandem with Watson’s method of instruction. The child would be taught, rehearsed and those behaviours that were conducive to the learning experience would be rewarded and those that were not, ignored or punished. The theories seem to work well as behavior could be observed and so could be measured, which was Watson’s paramount concern to understand the learning process.
These theories are relevant in that they provide the basic understanding at the time (1902 – 1973) of how to instruct a child. The SR model has a flaw in that it assumes the internal state of the child is unobservable and so is not an issue and thus not addressed at all. This leads to the model being very superficial and seems to be incomplete in terms of understanding the entire teaching process. In today’s schools there are a myriad of different social and ethical considerations that must be met in the educational process. Understanding of these factors shows the researcher that the blanket teaching strategy of the behaviourist falls short in understanding the child’s part in the experience and also the responsibilities of the teacher (Dewey 1902). The teacher must learn about the needs of the student as well as provide the best learning environment. To do this many other factors must be addressed such as the student’s individual understanding, adaptation to the learning environment and emotional state. In the modern world racial and spiritual considerations are also of paramount concern in providing an agreeable environment for the student to learn in which the behaviourist theorist fails completely. The active learning paradigm attempts to integrate the child as an active participant in their own learning taking into account these issues.
It was John Dewey (1902) who looked at the child in their learning environment, he thought of children more as active (constructivist) learners. The focus for Dewey and other Constructivists (Piaget 1926; Vygotsky 1962) was ensuring the child becomes able to adapt to the classroom and life outside of it enabling children to be reflective problem solvers rather than just a receptacle for narrow academic topics. Dewey was also responsible for ushering in an age of equality in education where heretofore the only people who were educated were boys from wealthy families. Social, ethnic and economic factors started to be considered where in the behaviourist approach they were not. Further to this the adaptation of new teaching and learning methodologies came about where student input is invaluable and is still the case today. A survey of almost 1,000 students, 13 to 17 in age reported sense of humour, interesting classes, and in-depth knowledge of the subject as the three characteristics most important for teachers to have (NASSP 1997). As a measure this contrasts the behaviourist approach which only measures through behavioural observation. This could have been interpreted incorrectly where as asking children exactly what they want is much more reliable. This is extremely relevant as it shows a shift in focus as to what is important in education. What the student wants and thinks (especially of their teacher) is now being addressed and is reflected in the way teachers approach their lessons. The complexities of classrooms in the modern world it seems do not allow effective teachers to follow a “one-size-fits-all” (Diaz, 2004) behaviourist approach to teaching as indicated by the child’s input. Lesson structure is also altered to fit with the Constructivist principles and that of individual children’s learning needs.
The alterations involve a variety of methods and learning environments. In the Constructivist strategy a child is encouraged to explore, discover and think critically about their learning environment and to learn by doing. Emphasis today for example can be put on group work which allows children to deepen their understanding by taking on board the views of others (Oldfather, West & White 1999). Not just children though, even University students of psychology spend an entire second year of their degree program working in groups to design and implement experiments, such is the belief in group work enriching the learning experience. Group work also gives children the chance to interact, develop better social and communication skills and challenge the views of others. This is a valid point in that it illustrates that in the classroom the child can indeed develop the skills that will help them in the wider world as Dewey (1902) had explained. No longer does it seem that education is the province of the disciplinarian lecturer and rote learning. Indeed, all children cannot learn in the same way due to learning disabilities (Samuel Kirk 1963). This provides insight into the fact that not only should children be taught differently but that some actually need to be due to specific needs. This is where a whole host of learning strategies spring up which seems to give strength to the constructivist view. Reid (1987) demonstrates that today children can be categorized into different kinds of learners; kinaesthetic (touch, learn by doing), auditory (sound), visual and combinations of the three although the terminology for these learning styles can vary. This shows that as research has improved it has in fact been identified that different techniques are needed for different children. These revelations illustrate not only what should be done but what must be done. Manipulating variables in terms of learning style does enable the learning process to be more effective for each individual. This seems to further bolster the Constructivist view and mark the behaviourist as archaic and outdated.
Looking at both approaches, the Constructivist view of teaching seems to be more in line with what children report they want in a class and also what psychological disability and learning style research dictate needs to be done to improve the learning experience. The evidence in favour of a constructivist approach appears to have more validity as it takes into account class observation (as the behaviourist does) but also the mental state and desires of the child. The evidence provided by scientific research is also used to complement this and reflects that what children think they need (attributes of a teacher and different learning styles) is actually what the research shows they do. The use of a more sophisticated evidence gathering procedure supporting the Constructivist view is also at odds with the behaviourist approach as it encompasses all these different areas in its summation of what is needed rather than the behaviourist focus on the external. It would seem then reasonable to say that there has so far always been an evolution of teaching practices where understanding motivates us to make adjustments that better the teaching methods used. What is needed and indeed is the current trend in teaching educators today is continued focus on a constructivist approach to learning. This is perhaps unavoidable anyway with the advent of new technology perhaps slowly replacing teachers. There is still a place for elements of the traditional behaviourist approach though and a place in the classroom for the stern authority of a lecturer, but in order to be an effective personal as well as professional tutor constructivist views must be used to augment their practices. A blend of authority in the classroom, being taught by someone with better subject knowledge than the child and someone who understands social and ethical importance would be ideal. A teacher who is also well versed in the current trend in educational research and also with a variety of learning strategies in their respective academic arsenal is what would ultimately benefit the learner and the class as a whole.
I hope anyone reading this is able to incorporate some of it into their own teaching practices as I have. I found it to be a great success. Focusing on interactivity and novelty really engaged students and I will continue to refine my teaching methods for this age group in future. It is completely different from lecturing, delivering therapy or fitness instruction to adults and I think requires a lot more effort but it’s worth it!
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Diaz-Lefebvre, R. (2004). Multiple Intelligences, Learning for Understanding, and Creative Assessment: Some Pieces to the Puzzle of Learning. Terloheis College Record. 106, 1, pp. 49-57.
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Posted on January 16, 2013, in Psychology, Science and tagged active, children, education, educational psychology, lecture, mentor, More, passive, Psychology, public engagement, teaching, teaching practices, teen, youth. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.