Learning takes place in many forms. On a daily basis I learn new vocabulary in the language of the new country in which I am living; I may learn a new recipe or I may learn about a crisis taking place somewhere in the world. My learning comes from many sources. It may come from the television, the shop-keeper, my colleagues, the internet, books I read or from my tutor. Each of these involves different types of learning and a different process through which learning takes place. Learning may be described as a process ‘by which knowledge, concepts, skills and attitudes are acquired, understood, applied and extended’ (Pollard et al, 2008:170). Watching the news or reading the newspaper and learning about a war in another country gives me new knowledge and, arguably, a new attitude transferred to me by the medium in which it was communicated. Learning a new recipe is a skill that will possibly improve my overall ability as a cook. Reading books to learn more about memory and learning enhances my understanding of initially complex concepts, which become easier to understand as my knowledge level extends. Learning is therefore a complex process which can involve the know what (knowledge), and the know how (skills), depending on the type of learning one is involved in.
Skelton (Hayden et al., 2006: 46) takes this definition of learning further through the discussion of Claxton’s notion of ‘slow thinking’, stating that learning is a mixture of knowledge, skills, understanding and practice. Learning comes to light through the ‘slow’ emergence of understanding over a period of time and practice. Skelton goes on to state that frequently schools recognize the importance of knowledge, skills and understanding but view them within a hierarchy, usually giving more importance to understanding than knowledge and skills. Skelton argues that all should be given equal importance within a student’s learning and that real understanding is the product of a combination of knowledge, skills and relevant practice.
Krechevsky and Seidel (Collins and Cook, 2001: 44) argue that most teachers have their own concrete ideas of learning and intelligence which influences greatly the construction of the classroom, the lesson and the way of teaching. They state that many of us believe that by explaining things in the way we have come to understand them, others will understand them too.
Unfortunately, learning is not that simple. Pollard et al. (2008:172) state that learning is an extremely complex human activity that is still not completely understood. However, many influential educationalists for many decades, and indeed longer if one considers Aristotle and Plato’s ideas of education and the good life; (Blenkin & Kelly in Moyles & Hargreaves 2003:29) have been trying to understand the process of learning and how best to support it. Learning theory can generally be broken down into three main categories: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism (Dunn, 2000). Up until the 1960’s the prevailing perspective on learning was that of behaviourism, first introduced in 1911 by Thorndike and later developed by the psychologist Skinner (Pollard et al. 2008:173). The theory behind the behaviourist school was that the learner was generally passive, with the teacher deciding what and how to teach. The how to teach was commonly in the form of rote learning or repetition. In contrast to this school of thought, almost 80 years ago both Vygotsky and Dewey were advocates of respecting the social influence of learning, allowing the learner an active role in education. Dewey was arguing for learning that cultivated attitudes and skills for self-growth and self-management (Hlebowitsh, 1994:346). Whilst Vygotsky, through his creation of the social-constructivist school of education, introduced the idea of engaging the pupil’s existing cultural and conceptual understandings and scaffolding this to extend their understanding and learning; a concept known as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This concept has then been strengthened in modern education through the work of Bruner, 1986 and Wood, 1988 (in Pollard et. al. 2008:178). Vygotsky defines ZPD as;
‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more able peers’ (Vygotsky, 1978:86).
Vygotsky proposed that the ZPD is an essential feature of learning which
‘awakens a variety of internal development processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers’ (op.cit. p.90).
This point takes us back to Dewey who was suggesting that a need of schools was to make conscious much of the learning that was taking place on an unconscious level (Hlebowitsch,1994:340). This leads us on to consider the different aspects and kinds of learning which can take place. Eraut, 2002 (Hewitt, 2008:158) offers the idea of three kinds of learning: implicit, reactive and deliberative. He states that implicit learning is ‘not undertaken in any conscious way’. Implicit learning could be a child learns from the mother’s modeling a fear of bumble-bees, neither he nor the mother are aware the child has learnt it but the child has developed a learnt or modeled fear. Reactive learning is ‘near spontaneous in its genesis. The knowledge from this type of learning is only marginally open to conscious interrogation’. One could consider the acquisition of language through communication with others as a form of reactive learning; ones vocabulary extends without conscious effort of studying that language. The final type of learning is deliberative, deliberative in that it takes place in a ‘planned context, and is the most open to … conscious reflection’. This is where one is aware of the learning taking place. In order to improve one’s language and vocabulary, one could look in a dictionary for a new word in order to learn it, thus making a conscious decision to learn.
Dweck (1999, in Hewitt, 2008:32) considers two types of learning, connected to motivation to learn: performance orientated learning and mastery orientated learning. The main difference between these two types of learning is the attitude of the learner. The former learner has a more negative approach to learning, viewing intelligence as fixed and effort being the key factor. The latter has a more positive attitude in which intelligence is more malleable and flexibility to try new approaches is the key factor.
Many other researchers such as Dunn, 1987; Grinder, 1991; Markova, 1992 (in Sprenger, 2003:33) and Sternberg (1997, in Hewitt, 2008:50) feel that learning takes place through our senses and that we each have a preference for a specific developed sense or learning style. It is proposed that teachers should be aware of the type of learner each child is and ensure their teaching ‘connects’ to that learners preferred learning style. This type of learning has come to be known as ‘brain-based’ learning. However Coffield et al. 2004 (in Pollard et. al. 2008:188) state that there is no scientific evidence supporting these theories and that ‘focusing too much on learning styles could inhibit learner development more broadly’. Klein (2003, Hewitt, 2008:51) supports this by stating strongly that concentrating on a preferred style of learning is ‘theoretically and empirically mistaken’. He states that most educational activities employ and engage many cognitive resources and that these are task-specific and complex. It is unrealistic to focus on a style of learning when learning activities generally require different styles in order to be successful.
In order for learning to be optimized, a learner’s individual needs and strengths should be recognized and supported in order to scaffold learning and enable the learner to achieve a higher level of development.
Emma is the Primary School Coordinator for the English curriculum. She is the co-founding member of Acorn House along with Ms. Diena.