Learning and Teaching Theories: A Critique

Lecture hall instruction needs to be derived from learning theories. But, in reality this is not happening. Educators either do not have the time to use theory to drive instruction or have no basic understanding of the learning theories. In this essay I will discuss and critique the article titled “Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Conctructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective by Peggy Ertmer and Timothy Newby and chapter 11of the book entitled “Traditional Learning Theories” from the book entitled “Learning in Adulthood” by Sharan Merrian, Rosemary Caffarella and Lisa Baumgartner. In my discussion I will provide the relevant information gleaned from both readings and offer my own analysis of the learning theories as they relate to my own learning and teaching experiences. I will include examples from my own experiences to tie together the different learning theories to what is really happening in lecture halls across America in the days of data driven instruction.

The authors’ of the article point out the need of finding a bridge to connect learning theories to educational practices (Ertmer and Newby, 1993). They suggest that instructional designers could use this bridge to create good instructional activities based on the relevant learning theories. It is therefore paramount for instructional designers to understand the situations under which the developed instructional materials and/or activities will be used in order to facilitate optimal learning. Without such an understanding, it would be difficult for instructional designers to create learning materials and activities that would be useful to practitioners and learners (Ertmer and Newby, 1993).

According to Ertmer and Newby, the matching of instructional learning materials and activities to the varying situational and contextual needs of the learners and practitioners is not happening in the majority of colleges today. A study by Johnson (1992) supports this view by stating that “less than two percent of the courses offered in University curricula in the general area of educational technology emphasize theory as one of their key components.” This shows that instructional designers who create college courses either do not have a firm understanding of the learning theories or ignore using them all together when designing and creating the course curriculum and materials.

In order to design optimal instructional materials and/or learning activities the authors of the “Learning in Adulthood” book argue that an instructional designer needs to have a basic understanding of learning theories and being able to incorporate relevant information from a variety of learning theories in the designing process. The learning theories discussed in the article and chapter 11 of the book are cognitivism, behaviorism, humanism, social cognitism, and constructivism. In addition, the authors caution that using only a single theory will not suffice the needs of all learners and practitioners. The authors recommend a careful selection of the concepts and principals from the learning theories that meet the need of instructional situation (Ertmer & Newby, 1993).

As illustrated in the text, each theory plays a fundamental role in developing beneficial learning materials. Behaviorists believes that learning occurs when a response is produce from a given environmental stimulus (ertmer & Newby, 1993). For example, a teacher asks a question (an environmental stimulus) and a student answer the question (demonstrable response). Behaviorists are more concerned with the stimulus and the response. They put little emphasis on how the brain processes information. Consequently, the learner is presumed to not take an active role in learning their environment. They are merely reactive to conditions in the environment (Winn, 1990).

The second learning theory is humanism. In humanism the theorists believe that humans can control their own destiny (Rogers, 1983). The emphasis in humanism is that human can be whatever they want to be. There are no external forces that control your destiny but yourself. The third theory is cognitivism. In cognitivism, prior knowledge and the memory system plays important part in learning (Gredler, 1997, p.144).Therefore, cognitive theorists describe learning as involving the re-arrangement of our memory system to make sense of the external stimuli. The fourth theory is social cognitivism. In social cognitivism, the agreement is that people learn from observing others. According to founding theorist Shunck, people acquire knowledge through observing other. Social cognitive theorists believe that attention, retention, behavior rehearsal and motivation are the most important aspect in observational learning (Shunk, 1993). The fifth theory is constructivism. Constructive theorists believe that “individual creates meaning from his or her own experience” (Jonassen, 1991b). According to Jonassen “humans creates meaning as opposed to acquiring it”. This means our minds have the ability to filter environmental stimulus to create our own unique understanding or reality.

Taking the theorists into consideration, the following are real life or classroom implications. Educators focus on text and behavior management. This leaves little time for learning or studying the learning theories and applying them in their classrooms or lecture halls. In my experience as an educator I have never had the opportunity to learn in depth the learning theories that were in the reading assignment for this week. It was an eye opening experience to read the different learning theories and understanding what their tenets were. I can describe this experience this way—I had some ideas on how to create learning materials and learning activities, but I never had an idea that there were actual theories governing the process of learning. It was as if I was wearing unclean prescription glasses before I read these theories and now I feel like wearing clean prescription glasses. I can see clearly the different learning experience I have seen in the past and being able to place them in the context of the five learning theories.

Since I started teaching I feel like the school systems I have worked under are all based on the behaviorism theory. There is more emphasis on “outcome” rather than cognitive understanding of learning materials and activities. This is evident in the No Child Left Behind Act and in the Race To The Top ideas where the emphasis is on measurable outcomes. Little or no emphasis is put on making sure that student can create their own experiences and realities through social interaction and learning from others.

Even the new teacher assessment system (Teacher Keys) relies heavily on students’ assessment (an outcome measure) regardless of the composition of the students in the teacher’s class. It is like apples and oranges when you compare the scores of a teacher that teaches gifted and advanced placement only classes with those of a teacher teaching general only classes. How are you going to normalize the teacher keys to accommodate the multitude of teachers with completely different teaching assignments and projected outcomes? It is an unfair system in my view that uses the one-fits-all tenet. These behaviorists’ approaches are applied in a situation without regard to the situational needs of each educator and student.

In conclusion behavior based theory is a common place in our education system. It starts with how the learning materials (the questions, practice and answers model) are developed to how students are assessed. In my view an approach that uses a combination of all or most of the learning theories will be desirable in producing learning materials and learning activities that will lead to optimal learning experiences for the students. In addition, teacher keys that are situational cognizant need to be developed to meet the varying working environmental of the different instructors. Therefore, it is imperative to design both learning materials and assessment tools that are derived from the best practices from the various learning and teaching theories.


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