Teaching and Learning: The role of Learning Theory

The Oxford Dictionary defines learning as “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught”. However, before any teacher even begins to engage in this process with students they must consider learning theory and its effect on the teaching approach they choose. Learning theories allow educators to design learning environments and improve the potential for learning, guided by a conceptual framework. The background of contemporary learning theory come from areas such as Behaviourism, Constructivism and the idea of IQ and Multiple Intelligences.

Behaviourism takes the view that the learner is passive and starts as clean slate, responding to environmental factors in the form of positive and negative reinforcement. Meanwhile Constructivism sought to move away from the outlook of Behaviourism. The learning theory aims to understand learners as information processors, building new knowledge based on what they already know. Cognitive Constructivism suggests different age groups think in different ways – challenging the previous view that children thought in the same way as adults but in a less advanced way. They also put forward that students build a “network of knowledge” around a subject. IQ, or intelligence quotient, was crafted into the widely used intelligence test. More recently IQ was led to the idea of multiple intelligences. This idea suggests there are eight distinct intelligences.

The idea of Multiple intelligences has led to the more recent application of Learning Styles in education. Learning Styles are an example of a more contemporary learning theory which is highly disputed. The Learning Styles approach states that each student has their own approach to learning which is best suited to their understanding. There are four types of learning style widely agreed upon by proponents of the theory. Visual learners learn best through visual and graphic mediums. Auditory and aural learners learn best through listening and speaking. Kinaesthetic learners best receive new information in an active and tactile way. Those that defend Learning Styles say they encourage a more diverse usage of teaching strategies and make students more aware of their learning strengths, empowering them as learners. Critics however label Learning Styles as a neuromyth.  In March 2017 a group of thirty neuroscience academics wrote a letter regarding their concerns. It was signed by figures such as Steven Pinker, Johnstone family professor of psychology at Harvard University and Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford and Submitted to UK newspaper The Guardian. They described Learning Styles as ‘one of a number of common neuromyths that do nothing to enhance education’.

Student-Centred Learning is another contemporary learning theory. As described by education consultant John McCarthy, Student-Centred Learning happens when ‘teachers encourage Student-Centred Learning by allowing students to share in decisions, believing in their capacity to lead, and remembering how it feels to learn.’ The principle behind student-centred learning increases student understanding and engagement around subjects. This is reached when a teacher and their students collaborate on the learning environment and how a subject should be taught. In defence of this educational approach is the Canadian teacher Shelley Wright. Speaking to Tedx, she recounted a story about how empowering Student-Centred Learning has been for her students. Wright concluded the talk by saying ‘our schools need to be places that set our student’s hearts on fire. That they can figure out what they are passionate about and we can give them opportunities to pursue it.’ However, the approach has been criticised by figures such as Frank Furedi, professor of Sociology at the University of Kent. Speaking to Times Higher Education, his stated his view. “I think that quite often it is adopted as a managerial convenience, something that makes it easier to motivate certain students, for example, rather than something that has a (strictly speaking) intellectual or educational rationale’.

Accelerated Learning is a learning theory which allows students to absorb information at a much faster rate. Learning through accelerated learning is said to not only be faster but also effortless and more enjoyable. The main strength that comes with Accelerated Learning however is the learner’s retention. The foundations for this theory were created by Dr Georgi Lozanov. Dr Lozanov used techniques to accelerate the learning of his students when learning languages, one report states his students had a 98% success rate. Accelerated Learning functions by using a range of techniques such as memory hooks, the breakdown of larger information and body movements. This has been used by schools in America who are using accelerated learning techniques to improve the teaching of maths to their students. One example of how American teachers have utilised this successfully is asking students to provide a narrative for an equation. Speaking to The Atlantic one teacher reported “the children invented stories involving fruit, the shedding and growing of teeth, and, to the amusement of all, toilet monsters.” However, a report by Unesco on Accelerated Learning Programmes has suggested that an important part of the success found in Accelerated Learning Programmes comes from the small class sizes students are taught in. Looking at Accelerated Learning Programmes in developing countries the report observed “relatively few ALPs in developing countries explicitly make use of rapid learning techniques.”

Learning theories and their application are intended to improve the quality of learning and retention experienced by students. One area of education raised recently by Luisa Tam in the South China Morning Post highlights the potential of learning theories regarding this. Speaking about education in Hong Kong, Tam explains that in her view ‘Hong Kong educators have forgotten that schooling should be fun’. Tam states ‘a good education should not just focus on academic attainment but also embrace genuine learning, creative teaching and encourage the overall development of the child.’ This is an issue of educational culture but also an area affected by learning theories. Learning theories such as Student-Centred Learning and Accelerated Learning address issues such as this. They aim to increase engagement and often in the process create a more ‘fun’ learning atmosphere. This has been reported by teachers such as Kevin Cobane speaking to UK paper The Independent who used accelerated learning techniques. One student interviewed for the article explained ‘it’s livelier and more fun now’. Cobane himself described his amazement that the previously troubled class was “already producing the level of work that he and Hocknull had been hoping to see by next summer.” There are still many teachers that question the need for any drastic changes to education. With small exceptions, they feel that the process of learning has functioned well up to this point and does not need any major shift or update. Tam ends her article by explaining the world of education has evolved and the current teaching styles do not meet the needs of today’s or tomorrow’s world.

Learning theories can be a divisive issue in the world of education, receiving support and criticism. They have had an impact on education up to this point and in a changing world it seems unlikely that they will not have a role in developing education further. One widely agreed upon requirement is that however an education system functions it must equip students to deal with the world they will live in.

David Horn

Kappu Education Researcher and Blogger

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