Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 2: The Learning Process

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When my son Michael was old enough to talk, and being an eager but naïve dad, I decided to bring Michael to my educational psychology class to demonstrate to my students “how children learn.” In one task I poured water from a tall drinking glass to a wide glass pie plate, which according to Michael changed the “amount” of water—there was less now that it was in the pie plate. I told that him that, on the contrary, the amount of water had stayed the same whether it was in the glass or the pie plate. He looked at me a bit strangely, but complied with my point of view—agreeing at first that, yes, the amount had stayed the same. But by the end of the class session he had reverted to his original position: there was less water, he said, when it was poured into the pie plate compared to being poured into the drinking glass. So much for demonstrating “learning”
Each year after that first visit to my students, while Michael was still a preschooler, I returned with him each year to my ed psych class to do the same “learning demonstrations.” And each year Michael came along happily, but would again fail the task about the drinking glass and the pie plate. He would comply briefly if I “suggested” that the amount of water stayed the same no matter which way it was poured, but in the end he would still assert that the amount had changed. He was not learning this bit of conventional knowledge, in spite of my repeated efforts.
But the year he turned six, things changed. When I told him it was time to visit my ed psych class again, he readily agreed and asked, “Are you going to ask me about the water in the drinking glass and pie plate again?” I said yes, I was indeed planning to do that task again. “That’s good,” he responded, “because I know that the amount stays the same even after you pour it. But do you want me to fake it this time? For your students’ sake?”

In some ways what Michael did demonstrated learning, but not in other ways. He did not learn that the amount of water stayed constant just because I told him to, but he did learn to comply with my requests to display a particular belief about the water. The key feature identifying true learning—both for Michael and the rest of us—is its permanence: the change in behavior, skill, or knowledge had to last. You do not “learn” a phone number if you forget it the minute after you dial the number; you do not “learn” to eat vegetables if you only do it when forced. The change has to persist. Notice, though, that learning can be physical, social, or emotional as well as cognitive. You do not “learn” to sneeze simply by catching cold, but you do learn many skills and behaviors that are physically based, such as riding a bicycle or throwing a ball. You can also learn to like (or dislike) a person, even though this change may not happen deliberately.

Teachers’ Perspectives on Learning[edit | edit source]

For teachers, learning usually refers to things that happen in schools or classrooms, even though every teacher can of course describe examples of learning that happen outside of these places. Even Michael, at age six, had begun realizing that what counted as “learning” in his dad’s educator-type mind was something that happened in a classroom, under the supervision of a teacher (me). For me, as for many educators, the term has a more specific meaning than for many people less involved in schools. In particular, teachers’ perspectives on learning often emphasize three ideas, and sometimes even take them for granted: 1) curriculum content and academic achievement, 2) sequencing and readiness, and 3) the importance of transferring learning to new or future situations.

Dependence of Learning on Curriculum[edit | edit source]

When teachers speak of learning, they tend to emphasize whatever is taught in schools deliberately, including both the official curriculum and the various behaviors and routines that make classrooms run smoothly. In practice, defining learning in this way often means that teachers equate learning with the major forms of academic achievement—especially language and mathematics—and to a lesser extent musical skill, physical coordination, or social sensitivity (Gardner, 1999, 2006).[1][2] The imbalance occurs not because the goals of public education make teachers responsible for certain content and activities (like books and reading) and the skills which these activities require (like answering teachers’ questions and writing essays). It does happen not (thankfully!) because teachers are biased, insensitive, or unaware that students often learn a lot outside of school.

A side effect of focusing learning on curriculum and academics is that classroom social interactions and behaviors become issues for teachers—become something that they need to manage. In particular, having dozens of students in one room makes it more likely that I, as a teacher, think of “learning” as something that either takes concentration (to avoid being distracted by others) or that benefits from collaboration (to take advantage of their presence). In the small space of a classroom, no other viewpoint about social interaction makes sense. Yet in the wider world outside of school, learning often does happen incidentally, “accidentally” and without conscious interference or input from others: I “learn” what a friend’s personality is like, for example, without either of us deliberately trying to make this happen. As teachers, we sometimes see incidental learning in classrooms as well, and often welcome it; but our responsibility for curriculum goals more often focuses our efforts on what students can learn through conscious, deliberate effort. In a classroom, unlike in many other human settings, it is always necessary to ask whether classmates are helping or hindering individual students’ learning.

Dependence of Learning on Teaching[edit | edit source]

Focusing learning on changes in classrooms has several other effects. One, for example, is that it can tempt teachers to think that what is taught is equivalent to what is learned—even though most teachers know that doing so is a mistake, and that teaching and learning can be quite different. If I assign a reading to my students about the Russian Revolution, it would be nice to assume not only that they have read the same words, but also learned the same content. But that assumption is not usually the reality. Some students may have read and learned all of what I assigned; others may have read everything but misunderstood the material or remembered only some of it; and still others, unfortunately, may have neither read nor learned much of anything. Chances are that my students would confirm this picture, if asked confidentially. There are ways, of course, to deal helpfully with such diversity of outcomes; for suggestions, see Part 2 (“Instruction and Assessment”) and especially Chapter 9 (“Planning Instruction”) and Chapter 10 (“Teacher-Made Assessment Strategies”). But whatever instructional strategies I adopt, they cannot include assuming that what I teach is the same as what students understand or retain of what I teach.

Sequencing and Readiness[edit | edit source]

The distinction between teaching and learning creates a secondary issue for teachers, that of educational readiness. Traditionally the concept referred to students’ preparedness to cope with or profit from the activities and expectations of school. A kindergarten child was “ready” to start school, for example, if he or she was in good health, showed moderately good social skills, could take care of personal physical needs (like eating lunch or going to the bathroom unsupervised), could use a pencil to make simple drawings, and so on. Table 1 shows a similar set of criteria for determining whether a child is “ready” to learn to read (Copple & Bredekamp, 2006).[3] At older ages (such as in high school or university), the term readiness is often replaced by a more specific term, prerequisites. To take a course in physics, for example, a student must first have certain prerequisite experiences, such as studying advanced algebra or calculus. To begin work as a public school teacher, a person must first engage in practice teaching for a period of time (not to mention study educational psychology!).

Note that this traditional meaning, of readiness as preparedness, focuses attention on students’ adjustment to school and away from the reverse: the possibility that schools and teachers also have responsibility for adjusting to students. But the latter idea is in fact a legitimate, second meaning for readiness: If five-year-old children normally need to play a lot and keep active, then it is fair to say that their kindergarten teacher needs to be “ready” for this behavior by planning a program that allows a lot of play and physical activity. If she cannot do so (whatever the reason may be), then in a very real sense this failure is not the children’s responsibility. Among older students, the second, teacher-oriented meaning of readiness makes sense as well. If a teacher has a student with a disability (for example, the student is visually impaired), then the teacher has to adjust her approach in appropriate ways—not simply expect a visually impaired child to “sink or swim.” As you might expect, this sense of readiness is very important for special education, so I discuss it further in Chapter 5 (“Students with Special Educational Needs”). But the issue of readiness also figures importantly whenever students are diverse (which is most of the time), so it also comes up in Chapter 4 (“Student Diversity”).

Transfer as a Crucial Part of Learning[edit | edit source]

Still another result of focusing the concept of learning on classrooms is that it raises issues of usefulness or transfer, which is the ability to use knowledge or skill in situations beyond the ones in which they are acquired. Learning to read and learning to solve arithmetic problems, for example, are major goals of the elementary-school curriculum because those skills are meant to be used not only inside the classroom, but outside as well. We teachers intend, that is, for reading and arithmetic skills to “transfer”—even though we also do our best to make the skills enjoyable while they are still being learned. In the world inhabited by teachers, even more than in other worlds, making learning fun is certainly a good thing to do, but making learning useful as well as fun is even better. Combining enjoyment and usefulness, in fact, is a “gold standard” of teaching: we generally seek it for students, and even though we may not succeed at providing it all of the time.

Major Theories and Models of Learning[edit | edit source]

Several ideas and priorities, then, affect how we teachers think about learning, including the curriculum, the difference between teaching and learning, sequencing, readiness, and transfer. The ideas form a “screen” through which to understand and evaluate whatever psychology has to offer education. As it turns out, many theories, concepts, and ideas from educational psychology do make it through the “screen” of education, meaning that they are consistent with the professional priorities of teachers and helpful in solving important problems of classroom teaching. In the case of issues about classroom learning, for example, educational psychologists have developed a number of theories and concepts that are relevant to classrooms, in that they describe at least some of what usually happens there and offer guidance for assisting learning. It is helpful to group the theories according to whether they focus on changes in behavior or in thinking. The distinction is rough and inexact, but a good place to begin. For starters, therefore, consider two perspectives about learning, called behaviorism (learning as changes in overt behavior) and constructivism, (learning as changes in thinking). The second category can be further divided into psychological constructivism (changes in thinking resulting from individual experiences), and social constructivism, (changes in thinking due to assistance from others). The rest of this chapter describes key ideas from each of these viewpoints. As I hope you will see, each describes some aspects of learning not just in general, but as it happens in classrooms in particular. So each perspective suggests things that you might do in your classroom to make students’ learning more productive. A third learning theory is connectivism.

Behaviorism: Changes in What Students Do[edit | edit source]

Behaviorism is a perspective on learning that focuses on changes in individuals' observable behaviors—changes in what people say or do.... (read more...)

Respondent Conditioning: Learning New Associations with Prior Behaviors
Operant Conditioning: New Behaviors Because of New Consequences

Constructivism: Changes in How Students Think[edit | edit source]

Behaviorist models of learning may be helpful in understanding and influencing what students do, but teachers usually also want to know what students are thinking, and want to enrich what they are thinking. For this aspect of teaching, some of the best help comes from constructivism, which is a perspective on learning focused on how students actively create (or “construct”) knowledge out of experiences. (read more...)

Chapter Summary[edit | edit source]

Although the term learning has many possible meanings, the term as used by teachers emphasizes its relationship to curriculum, to teaching, and to the issues of sequencing, readiness, and transfer. Viewed in this light, the two major psychological perspectives of learning—behaviorist and constructivist—have important ideas to offer educators. Within the behaviorist perspective are two major theories or models of learning, called respondent conditioning and operant conditioning. Respondent conditioning describes how previously neutral associations can acquire the power to elicit significant responses in students. Operant conditioning describes how the consequences and cues for a behavior can cause the behavior to become more frequent. In either case, from a teacher’s point of view, the learned behaviors or responses can be either desirable or unwanted.

The other major psychological perspective—constructivism—describes how individuals build or “construct” knowledge by engaging actively with their experiences. The psychological version of constructivism emphasizes the learners’ individual responses to experience—their tendency both to assimilate it and to accommodate to it. The social version of constructivism emphasizes how other, more expert individuals can create opportunities for the learner to construct new knowledge. Social constructivism suggests that a teacher’s role must include deliberate instructional planning, such as facilitated by Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, but also that teachers need to encourage metacognition, which is students’ ability to monitor their own learning.

Key Terms[edit | edit source]

Appropriate (as a verb)


Bloom’s taxonomy

Classical conditioning


Psychological constructivism
John Dewey
Jean Piaget
Social constructivism
Jerome Bruner
Instructional scaffolding
Lev Vygotsky
Zone of proximal development



Extrinsic motivation



Intrinsic motivation


Operant conditioning

Schedule of reinforcement

Ivan Pavlov


Respondent conditioning

Conditioned response
Conditioned stimulus
Unconditioned response
Unconditioned stimulus

B. F. Skinner


External Resources[edit | edit source]

Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis This journal is an excellent source of examples of how behaviorist learning principles can be applied to a wide variety of behavior-related difficulties. Any article older than one year is available in full-text, free of charge from the website. (If it is from the most recent three issues, however, you have to subscribe to the journal.)

Jean Piaget Society In spite of its name, this organization is not just about Piaget, but about all forms of constructivist research about learning and development, including social constructivist versions. They have excellent brief publications about this perspective, available free of charge at the website, as well as information about how to find additional information

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Gardner, H. (2006). The development and education of the mind. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Copple, C. & Bredekamp, S. (2006). Basics of developmentally appropriate practice. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.