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In the context of your own specialism

In the context of your own specialism, discuss how an understanding of theoretical perspectives of learning impacts on your approach to classroom practice.

Over the years, there has been a lot of study of the nature of learning, and several theories have been proposed. In turn, the more successful of these theories have developed followings. Five of the most well known theories are Behaviourism, Neo-Behaviourism, Gestaltism, Cognitivism and Humanism.


Behaviourists believe that human behaviour and learning can be predicted and explained by studying the behaviour of animals (Reece and Walker 2000:105). They claim that learning takes place by responding to stimuli, that responses can be conditioned by repeating the stimuli and that reinforcement of responses is important to achieve learning (Reece and Walker 2000:105).

Behaviourists include Pavlov who noticed that his dogs salivated when they saw, not their food, but the man who brought them their food (Minton 1997:216). Pavlov went on to condition the dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, even after he withdrew the food reward (Reece and Walker 2000:105). Watson explained all behaviour as a response to stimuli and that learning is a matter of strengthening stimulus-response bonds (Reece and Walker 2000:105). He rejected the concept of memory (Minton, 1997:216) suggesting that the same behaviour is repeated on receiving the same stimulus again (Curzon 2001:49, Reece and Walker 2000:105). He ignored sensations, feelings and instinct, effectively removing the mind from psychology (Minton 1997:216). Thorndike demonstrated that pleasurable experiences reinforced stimulus-response while discomfort reduced the bond (Reece and Walker 2000:105). He suggested that there was a need to maximise the strength of a bond, primarily through increasing the duration and frequency of the link between stimulus and response (Reece and Walker 2000:105). External reward was seen as being particularly effective, while punishment was less important (Reece and Walker 2000:105).

Behaviourist theory suggests that teachers take an active part in the learning process, providing the stimulus that provokes the correct response from the learner, who is seen as taking a passive role (Reece and Walker 2000:105). The teacher then rewards the learner for a correct response, which in turn reinforces the learning (Reece and Walker 2000:105).


The neo-behaviourists considered that while the human mind responded to stimuli, it was more selective in its actions than behaviourist theory suggested (Reece and Walker 2000:107).

Neo-behaviourists include Tolman, who realised that while behaviour could be observed and measured, humans also used their beliefs and feelings when responding to stimuli, thereby creating a need to consider the whole rather than isolated stimulus-response incidents (Curzon 2001:65, Reece and Walker 2000:108). Tolman suggested that humans seek a purpose and are motivated to learn (Reece and Walker 2000:108), rather than just responding to stimuli. Learners require a logical sequence for learning to take place and a means of applying what has been learned, to test its validity (Reece and Walker 2000:108). Skinner concentrated on "operant conditioning" where the learner completes a series of actions in response to a stimulus (Curzon 2001:78, Reece and Walker 2000:108). He suggested the strength of a learned response can be positively reinforced using minimal encouragement, such as a nod of the head, and incorrect behaviour be negatively reinforced using a frown, removal from the situation etc. (Curzon 2001:78). Gagné devised a systemised approach to instruction (Minton 1997:219) based on his recognition that learning is influenced by the type of teaching that is taking place (Reece and Walker 2000:108). Gagné proposed a hierarchical chain of learning needs that needed to be met (Reece and Walker 2000:108). He suggested the use of "instructional sequences" related to this hierarchy. These included informing the learner what they are expected to do (objectives), establishing the learners’ prior knowledge, using cues to form the chains of concepts or "rules", questioning the learners to establish what they have learned and asking learners to verbally state the rule (Minton 1997:220, Reece and Walker 2000:108).

While much of Gagné’s proposal has a place in education, statement of learning goals, establishing learners prior knowledge and establishing what has been learned, neo- behaviourism relies on the teacher as being the manager of learning (Minton 1997:22: Reece and Walker 2000:109). The system does not allow for learner exploration, creativity and independent learners (Minton 1997:221).


Gestalt is a German word meaning a configuration, structure or pattern (Curzon 2001:85: Reece and Walker 2000:109). Rather than responding to individual stimuli, Gestalt psychology suggests we see patterns as a whole and thereby respond to the whole situation (Curzon 2001:88: Reece and Walker 2000:109). Prior experience influences the way we look at things and the way we perceive things.

Kohler suggested that understanding came from "insight", a "flash of inspiration" to solve problems, based on his studies of chimpanzees (Curzon 2001:88: Reece and Walker 2000:109). A chimp suddenly placed boxes on top of one another to climb up and seize some bananas suspended out of its reach. Another time, after many attempts, it put together some jointed sticks, which it then used to reach fruit placed outside its cage. Kohler interpreted these actions as exhibiting a pattern of learning, which he recognised as insight, transferred to conceptually similar situations (Curzon 2001:89). Wertheimer suggested that a whole possesses different properties to it’s individual parts in isolation (Curzon, 2001:87) thus emphasising the importance of looking at the whole pattern.

Gestaltists see learning as a dynamic process, with challenge and problem solving as part of the process (Minton 1997:224). Teachers need to arrange the lesson, to direct learners to the required solution (Curzon 2001:93). While "insight" and creativity are an important part of learning and development, they are not easily measurable, in addition some things simply cannot be learned in this way, such as historical facts (Curzon 2001:93). Sometimes the "flash of inspiration" doesn’t arrive.


While behaviourists are concerned with the task, cognitivists look at how learners gain and organise their knowledge mentally (Reece and Walker 2000:110). Learning varies because everyone creates a pattern that means something to them (Reece and Walker 2000:110).

Dewey suggested that learners needed to reflect on what they had done, in order to remember (Curzon 2001:93). By his definition, they were ‘learning to think’ (Reece and Walker 2000:110). Bruner believed that learning was more of a process, with new information being compared to what has already been learned, then reapplied to the new situation (Reece and Walker 2000:110). Ausubel saw a learner’s existing cognitive structure as being crucial to learning (Curzon 2001:102). Learners build new learning into what they already know (Reece and Walker 2000:111).

Cognitivists believe that learners need to understand in order to learn (Reece and Walker 2000:111). Learners need to participate in how they are being taught and need to reflect on what they have done in order for learning to take place. The teacher is therefore seen as a facilitator, allowing learners to discover things for themselves and giving them time to reflect (Reece and Walker 2000:110)


Behaviourism is seen by humanists, as reducing human beings to merely physical entities (Curzon 2001:121). Humanists rebelled against these, instead recognising individuals as worthy of dignity (Reece and Walker 2000:112).

Maslow created a hierarchy of human needs, suggesting that certain needs have to be met before learning can take place (Reece and Walker 2000:112). Rogers again placed the learner at the centre of the learning process through active discovery (Reece and Walker 2000:112). Kolb suggested that learning took place by active involvement followed by reflection and moderation in a continuous cycle (Reece and Walker 2000:112).

Humanists advocate the importance of learners being at the centre of learning. Teachers need to provide a learning environment that is safe and comfortable for the type of learning that needs to take place. Learners should feel part of a group and can contribute with confidence (Reece and Walker 2000:112).

The impact of learning theory on my classroom practice

All of the theories mentioned above have some resonance with my teaching situation.

The stimulus, response and reinforcement approach of behaviourism has a relatively small part to play. I am constrained by College and departmental policy, and can not offer many of the traditional positive reinforcements, such as food and drink. Some negative reinforcements (such as exclusion from a lesson) are available but discouraged, and some traditional ones (such as corporal punishment) are even illegal.

Neo-behaviourism and Gagné’s systemised approach contributes to the structure of many of the lessons I teach, including objectives and formative assessment. The characterisation of the teacher as a manager of learning seems out of favour, though.

I enjoy the "flash of inspiration" associated with the Gestaltist approach, and like to encourage it in my students where possible. I make lots of use of challenges and open-ended problem-solving exercises, particularly in the context of software development.

I should probably place more emphasis on a cognitivist approach, but I currently find a great tension between allowing the learners time to think and reflect, and the tendencies of many of my students to very quickly become distracted.

A humanist approach seems generally very popular. Inclusiveness; dignity; adapting to learners’ needs and providing a safe and comfortable environment for learning are central to College policy.


  • Minton, D. (1997) Teaching Skills in Further and Adult Education. 2nd Ed. City & Guilds.
  • Curzon, L (2001) Teaching in Further Education Continuum Education
  • Reece, I and Walker, S. (2000) Teaching, Training and Learning; a practical guide. 4th Ed. Business Education Publishers.

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