Different Learning Styles
Historically, teachers have presented information to students in a way that enhances the teaching experience rather than the learner’s experience. Over the past 100 years, that trend has changed based on the concept of the learning style. Because of the radical educational psychology and innovation of a few key people, teachers now view each child as an individual with specific needs when it comes to information acquisition. These unique needs and propensities towards learning are referred to as learning styles, and their use in the classroom have become popularized through educational research by a number of influential theorists.
Constructivism is the concept that learning is a natural human response to the world around us. This basic view of education dictates that student be placed in situations where they will have access to things and ideas to interact with and then make their own learning conclusions based on their own psychological, cultural and educational worldview.
A good example of this today are the schools created by Maria Montessori in which children have the option to choose stations of play, participate in guided explorations of objects and disseminate with the teacher what they have learned from the experience. In this model, the learner is primarily responsible for constructing meaning through activities, while the teacher acts as a facilitator.
Behaviorism was the radical 19th century concept that human behavior could be methodically and scientifically studied and changed through methods of punishment and reinforcement, regardless of the student’s mental state. This concept, championed by the psychologist B.F. Skinner, also incorporated the element of operant conditioning based on the work of Ivan Pavlov.
In his seminal works, The Behavior of Organisms and Schedules of Reinforcement, he uses the concept of operant conditioning to train rats and pigeons by providing rewards to them on an increased schedule. For example, a mouse will receive a reward by pressing a lever with any paw, but receive two if he presses with his front right paw. The complexity of training that Skinner was able to produce in these experiments lent credibility to his theories which are still partially in use today through the use of reward and punishment systems in schools.
Piaget’s Developmental Theory
In his groundbreaking 1922 work, Jean Piaget was able to prove that children learn different concepts at a standard rate of progress. He found as he worked that young children moved away from intuitive thoughts and towards rational, socially-accepted ones as adults. The stages of learning break down into the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational stages.
Sensorimotor Stage – Children from birth to 2 years old learn how to sense and recognize familiar shapes, sounds and activities. They move from a general desire to reproduce behavior to having goals and attempting to achieve them. The begin to understand object permanence and cause and effect.
Preoperational Stage – Children in the 2 to 7 year range are able to develop finer motor control. They have a dramatic mental shift to magical thinking and become very egocentric. Logical thought is not present at this stage.
Concrete Operational – Children from 7 to 11 begin to use logical thought, but cannot use abstraction. While they recognize others as being a part of the world, they still need assistance to make logical social choices.
Formal Operational – From the age of 11 up, children gain the ability to understand abstract thought in addition to logical reasoning. Social appropriateness becomes very important as well as rational decisions in all areas of life.
This work has been very important in the educational field as teachers are able to create lessons that the students in these levels will be able to grasp. Since abstract thought is impossible for a 3rd grade student, teachers will focus on concrete lessons that will be more easily retained.
This cognitive theory was presented by Albert Bandura and popularized by his Bobo Doll experiment. The concept was that students who observed adults acting violently would reproduce the behaviors with the given doll. This led Bandura to conclude that observational learning or modeling acted as a shortcut to learned behavior, requiring little practical experience with the behavior ahead of time. In another experiment, monkeys were shown a “tutor” monkey choosing an incorrect behavior, which led the observing monkeys to make the correct choice in much less time than the trained control group. This concept has been used in the classroom heavily, making the incorporation of observation and modeling before students complete tasks a necessary addition to a learning plan.
Lev Vygotsky’s Social Cognition
The key concept in this theory is the idea of schema. Vygotsky hypothesized that children created schema, or knowledge constructs that incorporated various ideas associated with a particular subject. For example, when learning the concept of “bedroom”, the child might evoke his previous knowledge of his bed, house, parents and pets as a part of his previous “home” schema. However, Vygotsky was mostly concerned with how students preconceived social schemas could attain new information. This is especially important today as classrooms become more diverse and students bring social schemas to school regarding authority, family function and education that may be different that the teachers’ personal experiences.
In this theory, William Glasser predicted that students would not respond as well to outside reward or punishment as they would to a motivational purpose. Glasser claimed that all students were internally motivated, it was just a matter of finding out what the student needed at the time. Current behavior models such as the Positive Behavior and Intervention Support system recognizes the need of individuals to either gain pleasant internal rewards or to avoid unpleasant ones. This is an extension of Glasser’s work, and is a key underpinning for the most widely used behavior models in the classroom today.
Left vs. Right Brain Learning
This is a widely held concept in the educational world that has some scientific underpinnings. In 1981, Roger W. Sperry, David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work documenting the different learning areas of the left and right brain hemispheres. Their work found that the left brain predominated in areas of logic, analysis and sequential learning while the right brain excelled in creativity, abstraction and subjective thought. These findings trickled into the classroom as teachers began to create lessons that appealed to both left and right brained students, incorporating self-diagnosis as well as cross-brain activities and student groupings.
Howard Gardner posited the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983. This theory broke learning down into specific styles or “intelligences.” The concept was that, although students could learn in almost any way, each child had a specific specialty area in which it was easier for them to learn. For example, students with musical intelligence would learn multiplication faster if they were put to music while students with a kinesthetic (movement-based) intelligence would learn faster when they were choreographed with dance. There are 8 major intelligences in Gardner’s theory including Logical-Mathematical, Musical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Interpersonal (social learning), Intrapersonal (internal learning), Naturalistic, Spatial and Linguistic. An additional learning style for those religiously or abstractly inclined was proposed, but it was never officially included in the theory.
Educational neuroscience is an emerging field that attempts to scientifically categorize learning through brain research. Through looking at the brain’s physical makeup and its function in regards to learning and behavior, educational neuroscientists hope to create a map that will allow psychologists, teachers and physicians enhance the learning or behavior of their students and patients. This field attempts to bridge science and teaching, allowing instructors to have empirical evidence regarding the learning process from a biological standpoint.
Cornell University provides a powerpoint lecture on some of the key players in educational theory including Bandura, Skinner, Watson and Vygotsky.
The Center on Research for Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan has a list of excellent research articles discussing learning behaviors. These articles also provide in-class connections for teachers wanting to use the learning model.
An online Multiple Intelligence Test is available through the Birmingham Grid for Learning. Although it is designed for secondary students, it is an interesting quiz that will help readers know their own areas of learning excellence.
The Public Broadcasting Station’s television program, The Human Spark offers a closer look at left and right brain theory in its segment Brain Matters.