This article talks about how people have chosen to answer this question for centuries and where we are currently at. It helps you answer this central question for yourself hoping that the answer will fascinate you as an educator.
The other day while sipping tea at a teacher conference, I overheard a few senior teachers (judging by their gray hair) getting nostalgic about their times “In my times, we would just talk (lecture) and my students would learn. They didn’t need anything else”. Hmm. But how do they “learn”? I asked myself. To my logical brain with limited knowledge there was a sure disconnect – something didn’t make sense - what was he trying to say? I may be wrong, but to me, it seemed like those students (the senior gentleman’s students) had heard their teacher out, memorised what he said and reproduced the same in their exam and got good marks. Was that the kind of “learning” the gentleman was talking about? Was that real learning? I wondered.
This brought to me a central question - how do students learn? What kind of learning do we want for our students? It is needless to say that ultimately it is a kind of learning we desire for our students that will dictate how we teach or what they will learn.
As teachers it is indeed one’s eternal wonderment about how students learn. Yet, ask anybody how exactly students learn and you unwrap just a few assumptions here and there – “seeing”, or “hearing” or by “experiencing” etc. In an age when contemporary learning theories are striving to take centre stage (multiple intelligence theories and more), it would be extremely useful to know that much water has flowed under this bridge – we aren’t the first to wonder; this question has pondered mankind for centuries. For over 2000 years, this question has fascinated philosophers and later the education psychologists with equal amuse. Let us take time off to understand what historical discourses came from, and how much of it has infiltrated the education system as we see it today.
Medieval Discourse: Greek vs. Roman
The Greek viewpoint
Learning for the Greeks was a discovery of the mind or a quest for truth; the earliest entrants who propagated this view were the Greek philosophers - Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. Plato and Socrates, the rationalists, claimed that truth or learning (used interchangeably in those times) could be found by self-reflection; it was something inherent within the human being – was an internal process and could be achieved by reflecting upon among other things, one’s environment, actions, words, interactions etc. However, Aristotle, the empiricist, was more scientific in his approach. He defined learning as something found outside which could be gathered using our senses. He encouraged a spirit of inquiry and viewed that most of the learning occurs when students/people step outside their known boundaries in search of knowledge.
The Roman construct
Contrary to the Greek views, for the Romans, their purpose of education was to build citizenry – they wanted their citizens to build roads and factories and viewed learning/education as a practical need vs. a philosophical one (Greeks). Hence their education desired vocational training, apprenticeship, skill building etc. as the influence of the Roman Catholic Church grew, universities were established and priests imparted learning to the masses. Education was mainly transmission based; which assumed that a person with greater knowledge was teaching somebody with lesser knowledge. Isn’t it fascinating that much of the recall, memorization, and rote based learning evident in classroom teaching even today draws its roots from this discourse?
Renaissance and learning
Between the 15th and 17th century, philosophers around the world further developed the two basic streams of thought. Greek philosophers revived the idea of arts and humanities education. Efforts by Copernicus and Martin Luther challenged the supremacy of the church and over time the influence of the church weakened; examining human values etc. outside the influence of religion began. However the central debate of education for ‘basic skills’ vs. education for ‘thinking’ remained.
However long after, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who propagated that learning could shape the mind. He said learning could happen through experiences. Rousseau pioneered the idea of what we understand today as ‘child-centric’ education or ‘child centred learning’. He said education should be shaped to the child; he also suggested that education or learning and life were interlinked. Education needed to draw most of its broader understanding from life itself. Child centred learning philosophies of Montessori, John Dewey and Piaget followed on similar lines.
Arrive “The Behaviourists”
As time went by, educational psychologists jumped into the fray to understand how students learn. Various studies or tests were underway in order to discover the best way to teach. The central question here about how people learn was – were the humans merely evolved mammals who operated based on response to stimuli mechanisms? (Behaviourist approach) Or – were humans cognitive creatures who used their brain to process and therefore learn from information received by the senses (Constructivist approach)? This behaviourist vs. constructivist debate raged on through the 19th and 20th centuries. Or should I say still continues in the minds of many in the education sector even today? Think about which side of the debate you wish to align yourself as you read on – it will surely make your reading more interesting!
Philosophers and Psychologists on both sides of the debate worked over time to gather evidence to support their argument.
A behaviourist, Thorndike (the father of modern education psychology) introduced scientific ways of studying how students learn. He concluded that students learn by trial-and-error method – that learning was incremental and was outside the mental constructs. He believed that students needed a stimulus for active learning. He said certain stimuli inside the classroom would produce learning. Skinner furthered this thought. He conducted experiments on pigeons and rats and concluded that if positive experiences were rewarded then that got reinforced as learning. The concept of positive and negative reinforcement (remember the child in class who is made to stand if he talks in class or given a chocolate if he behaved?) was brought in by Skinner. Wow! Does it amaze you that practices in classrooms/schools thread back centuries?
Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990)
Not surprisingly, such behaviourist theories had substantial influence on education and the idea of how students learn. It relied on the basic idea that learning had nothing to do with the brain or cognitive function; it was just a learnt response to stimulus, in many ways a learnt behaviour– development of structured curricula, workbooks, tools, programmed instructional approaches to reinforce concepts went on in full force. However, this kind of learning had its limitations. It was observed that the behaviourist approach worked well for things that could be learnt by rote memory. But evidence showed that more complex and higher mental processes could not be learnt through this behaviourist approach – for example, higher order thinking was influenced by how students perceive, process and make sense of what they are experiencing not by merely reproducing learnt knowledge without having processed it.
Constructivists – throw new light
Around this time, Jean Piaget was the first to state that learning was a developmental cognitive process where students create knowledge rather than receive it from their teacher. He recognized that students construct knowledge based on their experiences, and how they do so is related to their biological, physical, and mental stage of development. Russian scientists Vygotsky furthered Piaget’s idea of cognitive learning and said that learning was also influenced by social and cultural context. The influence of language was first noticed. This meant that students who are comfortable with a certain language learnt better in that language. Examples from their socio-cultural context helped students construct knowledge better.
Jean Piaget (August 9, 1896 – September 16, 1980)
Progressive learning theories
Stemming from Piaget’s understanding of child development and Vygotsky’s thoughts that learning should be socially and culturally situated, the Progressives sought to create child centred schools. A pertinent question was asked - what should be the proper balance for ‘ideal’ schools? The balance between focus on teacher transmission of knowledge (as in traditional schools) vs. the focus on the student’s learning from his/her own experiences with guided opportunities to explore, discover, construct and create (as in the progressive schools).
I shall leave you at this point to think and wish to pose a few questions.
So as the reader, what do you think? How would you like your school or class to look? Would you consider restructuring your class or are you convinced otherwise? What arguments are you taking back from this reading?
Answer these questions for yourself as you ‘construct’ your ideas on how students learn. Have I given away which side of the fence I stand? Doesn’t matter!
Watch this space for the next blog on “What impacts how students learn” – coming next week.
Happy reading and thinking until then!