After reading several blog posts and #langchat responses, it felt appropriate to talk about "Learning" and different theories associated with learning. I think teachers have very good intentions about what they do in the classroom, and they often have beliefs that they feel very connected to. Where I think a disconnect occurs, however, is understanding the basis for those beliefs. In "Learning Theories, An Educational Perspective" Schunk (2000) quotes an oft-used definition of learning by Shuell (1986): learning is "...enduring change in behavior, or in the capacity to behave in a given fashion, which results from practice or other forms." So let's take a look at learning from the point of view of a couple of well-known theories. My hope is that teachers will recognize where they fall in their beliefs and be able to articulate why they do the things they do.
Behavioral Theories: seeing learning as a change in "rate, frequency of occurrence, or form of behavior or response" in response to associations between stimuli and responses (think Skinner but don't be scared). This theory focuses on the behavior within an environment and less on the mental part. Some frameworks that are based in behavioral theories include connectionism, classical conditioning, behaviorism, operant conditioning, and such.
Cognitive Theories - "stress the acquisition of knowledge and skills, the formation of mental structures, and the processing of information and beliefs." This theory really focuses on the mental part of learning and less on the behavior. Who might you look up to see these? Bandura, Dweck, Pajares, just to name a few.
Constructionist - although not a theory, it affects learning theory. In constructivism, learning is about interaction with others; this theory sees learners as active, not passive, who must construct their own knowledge. A focus here is integrated curriculum, where students are exposed to something in multiple ways. This theory is not wholly unified but instead, has several frameworks under which it operates. Vygotsky's sociocultural theory falls under constructivism ideology. A
In addition, many things affect student learning, such as motivation, prior knowledge, development (think Piaget), self-efficacy (what learners believe about their abilities), memory, etc. The difference is how each theory looks at these variables. For example, behavior theory will look at motivation in terms of probability of something happening from repeated responses to stimuli and things like reinforcement; cognitive theory views motivation and learning as related but not identical (Schunk, 2000, p. 13).
Transfer is how newly acquired knowledge or skills can be applied in a novel way. Behaviorists will want to see this with identical features (stimuli) in different situations; cognitivists will see transfer as the ability to apply knowledge to a completely different setting. This is a biggie when it comes to assessment practices! I've seen arguments about performance, proficiency, dynamic, tests, IPAs - all are good and all are based on learning theories. Instead of arguing which is best, let's try to figure out how to use them effectively for our students.
So what does all this mean for a world language teacher? Well, instructional implications are many. If you lean to the behavior theory side, you are going to approach SLA, learning, teaching, and assessment very differently than your cognitive theory neighbor. It's important to view your techniques and methods and approaches through a theoretical lens so that you can make informed choices and support what you do. Your approach to teaching speaking or vocabulary may be based in behavioral theory and your co-teacher is strongly cognitive. This doesn't mean that one of you is "right" and the other is "wrong" - it just means you are coming from different theoretical backgrounds. Teachers need to recognize that some practices are inherently tied to different theories. How we choose to embed standards, proficiency, performance assessment all come down to our core beliefs about learning.
The good news is, that learning theories generally hold several commonalities that can be shared across the board. These include:
- Learners progress through stages or phases
- Material should be organized and presented in small steps
- Learners require practice, feedback, and review
- Social models facilitate learning and motivation
- Motivational and contextual factors influence learning (Schunk, 2000, p. 25).
Here is something to think about... if we are going for proficiency-oriented teaching, do any of these theories hold true for the different levels and sub-levels? Do you think what works for novices may need to change for Intermediates? So I challenge teachers to reflect on their practices and examine the theories behind them. Analyze what you do and why you do it! What I think you'll find is that sometimes the lesson calls for behavioral approaches and other times it needs some cognitive ones. Begin to develop your own eclectic theory of learning that works for you and your students.
Schunk, D. (2000). Learning theories: An educational perspective (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.
*Note: there is a newer, 6th edition (http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Theories-Educational-Perspective-Edition/dp/0137071957)