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The Power of Theory

Behaviorism Thoery

Cognitivism Theory

Constructivism Theory

The world of education as we know it is changing quickly and drastically. Some changes are harmful for the education environment, such as overloading teachers with task after task until they have no more time or patience to actually teach the students. Some change is beneficial and comes in the form of utilizing the most effective teaching strategies to provide authentic learning to the students. One way that we can determine whether a strategy is most beneficial or not is by using prior research and theories to guide our curriculum development. Using prior learning theories to guide our curriculum and instruction can help us focus on how and why students learn (Peters-Burton, 2016). From here, we can develop direct, individualized learning that benefits each student in their own unique way.

Click each subheading to learn about the different theories and their involvement in developing curriculum and instruction.

About the theory

Key Theorist

Learning through theory

About the theory

Key Theorist

Learning through theory

About the theory

Key Theorist

Learning through theory

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Well-Known Theorist

Behaviorism Theory

One of the main theorists associated with behaviorism theory is B. F. Skinner. Like other behaviorists, Skinner believed that learning stems from a conditioned response to an external factor. Unlike others, Skinner recognized two responses; elicited, associated with a specific stimulus, and emitted, a response unrelated to any external factors (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Skinner believed that these responses were elicited from direct reinforcement from either primary reinforcers such as basic human needs or secondary reinforcers, otherwise known as generalized, like approval or awards (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Skinner went on to classify these reinforcers as either positive or negative, and he believed that it was possible to modify behavior and teach complex concepts by specifically selecting reinforcements based on the student to help elicit a desired response.

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What is behaviorism?

Behaviorism theory is characterized by the influence of conditioning one's behavior to elicit a desired response (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Rooted from Pavlov's concepts of classical conditioning (dog, salivation, bell...ring a bell?), behaviorism theory presents the idea of controlling one's behavior, or in this case learning, by altering the environment or the elements involved, or by providing a stimulus which will elicit a response. In education, the idea is that, through song, motion, key words, or external motivation such as earning candy, teachers can "train" students to express understanding of a concept. Within this theory, it is believed that through this conditioning, students will eventually respond with knowledge when provided with the stimulus without needing the reinforcement item. The use of the new knowledge becomes habit, and eventually, this new learning is deeply engrained and is perceived as learning. This is debateable though, seeing as the response is a learned behavior moreso than a growth of knowledge.

One of the main theorists associated with behaviorism theory is B. F. Skinner. Like other behaviorists, Skinner believed that learning stems from a conditioned response to an external factor. Unlike others, Skinner recognized two responses; elicited, associated with a specific stimulus, and emitted, a response unrelated to any external factors (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Skinner believed that these responses were elicited from direct reinforcement from either primary reinforcers such as basic human needs or secondary reinforcers, otherwise known as generalized, like approval or awards (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Skinner went on to classify these reinforcers as either positive or negative, and he believed that it was possible to modify behavior and teach complex concepts by specifically selecting reinforcements based on the student to help elicit a desired response.

Key Behaviorist Theorist

B.F. Skinner

Behaviorism can be effectively applied in the classroom in many ways. One way to apply behaviorism to curriculum and instruction is through the use of a sticker chart, treasure box, or other similar incentive. This type of generalized reinforcer can encourage the use of taught strategies, influence proper engagement in the learning process, and reward students for proper classroom behavior (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). For example, a student may earn a sticker for showing their work on scratch paper during a math test. Several earned stickers leads to choosing from a treasure box. While these reinforcements do not necessarily build memory growth, they increase the use of the strategies. Repeated use of the strategies will lead to a habit being formed, and thus develops into success. Addittionally, providing incentives for positive behavior encourages the students to pay attention and listen to the instruction. Past theorists believed that learning was a change in one's behavior and a had a definite end goal (Gould, 2023). However, as time progressed, it became evident that learning centered more on one's cognitive function and less on one's ability to simply go through the motions. While this may be true, the theory of behaviorism proves to be applicable to this day in the classroom when focused on classroom management and collaborative practices. Therefore, while behaviorism may not directly increase knowledge, it can be a gateway for learning to occur.

Incorporating theory in learning

What is constructivism?

In the learning theory of constructivism, the learner must generate understanding of the concepts by engaging and internalizing them in a meaningful way (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Constructivist theorists believe that the student must be aware of their own thinking (also referred to as metacognition) while analyzing and transforming the new learning in a way that makes sense to them based on their previous learning. Within this learning theory, it is believed that the learner does not simply regurgitate or mimic the understanding of others but instead creates a new cognitive connection with the information. This personalized understanding is believed to allow the learners to engage in relevant learning which helps to build their knowledge. Students are more likely to remember the information because they have been able to build cognitive processes related to the new concepts. These processes, as related to cognitivism theory, build long-term memories which can then be built upon in the future.

Because the constructivism theory focuses on the learner’s awareness of their own cognitive process, Lev Vygotsky can be categorized as a constructivist as well as a cognitivist (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Vygotsky believed that learning development is molded by one’s interactions with the content (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). For example, the more one interacts with a concept, and the more ways in which they are exposed to the content, the deeper their connection and understanding of the new concepts with be. Vygotsky combined the cognitivism ideology of generating understanding through interaction with the constructivist view of cognitive self-awareness. He believed that one’s cognitive processing changes and adapts as the individual evolves over time and that these changes impact one’s metacognition (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Vygotsky also believed that learning did not occur until after the development process had taken place (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Essentially, this means that the learner had to have the developmental processing established before they could interact with, engage in, and ultimately make sense of the new learning. While he is typically viewed as a cognitivist, Vygotsky believed that self-awareness of one’s cognitive understanding is crucial to the learning process. These ideas allow him to be both constructivist and cognitivist.

Key Constructivism Theorist

Lev Vygotsky

When applied effectively, constructivism theory can be a powerful tool in strengthening curriculum and instruction. Because the theory’s focus is metacognitive practices, it should be implemented within lessons to help students make meaningful connections with the learning. One way this can be done is through the implementation of open-ended questioning both within the discussion and in the assessment process. While providing direct instruction, instead of giving explicit answers, one should guide students to develop their understanding. This is done by asking questions such as “what do you think will happen here?” “How do you know?” “Can you explain?” These kinds of questions encourage students to draw on prior knowledge and other senses to generate new understanding. Additionally, because they will have created a meaningful context in which to fit their new learning, the probability of them retaining the information and being able to apply it later on increases greatly.

Incorporating theory in learning

What is Cognitivism?

Cognitivism is a well-known learning theory in which learning is believed to generate based on the way that the information is engaged with and how the learner structures such information in their minds. Furthermore, cognitive psychologists are typically interested in the way that one's learning influences future learning (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). In the cognitivism theory, it is believed that information is stored in the brain in 2 ways: short-term memory and long-term memory. How new information is stored depends on the context in which the new learning was encountered. If the information was viewed as important or noteworthy, the knowledge is stored in the long-term sector. However, if the information does not prove to have any impacting value, it is not stored in one's working memory and does not move to long-term memory. This percieved "useless" information is then mentally discarded. Cognitive theorists, such as the late Piaget and Montessori, believe that the approach, or situation, in which new information is presented to the students highly impacts how they retrieve and store the new concepts. Meaningful context influences meaningful learning. This also impacts the way in which new learning is generated later on since new learning is believed to build on each other.

A main theorist assosicated with cognitivism is Jean Piaget. Piaget is best known for his 4 stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor (birth to 2 years), preoperational (2 - 7 years of age), concrete operations (age 7 - 11), and formal operations (11 years of age and up). Piaget believed that these stages mark a student's maturity level, and although these stages increase constantly, the attained levels differ based on a student's upbringing (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Alongside these stages of development, Piaget believed that students developed new cognitive structures while building new learning on prior knowledge, concepts which are better known as assimilation and accommodation (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2017). Piaget's theories went on to inspire further theorists who built onto his theory in many ways.

Key Cognitivism Theorist

Jean Piaget

Cognitivism theory, when applied to instruction and curriculum, can benefit our students in many ways. One way that learning occurs through the application of cognitivism is through the meaningful integration of new concepts through an activity focused on established knowledge. For instance, one might choose a game of freeze-tag to teach students a new concept about chain reactions. Students will be able to build their knowledge by relating their new learning to existing knowledge. Another way that cognitive theory can be applied to learning is through incorporating multiple means of representation that are all focused on a single target. For instance, students who are presented with a new concept through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic means are more likely to build new understanding which will be deemed meaningful and therefore be stored in the working memory. Cognitivism theory suggests that different cognitive processes occur based on the types of tasks provided. Therefore, by provided multiple tasks, such as reading, writing, speaking, and illustrating, focused on one concept, the student is able to generate multiple means of understanding which will allow for more long-term storage of the learning.

Incorporating theory in learning

- Gould, M. (2023). Learning Process. Salem Press Encyclopedia. https://eds-s-ebscohost-com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=71c47405-9e2a-4633-98c3-1e1258a6ea35%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=89164302&db=ers- Nagowah, L., & Nagowah, S. (2009). A reflection on the dominant learning theories: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. International Journal of Learning, 16(2), 279–285. https://doi-org.lopes.idm.oclc.org/10.18848/1447-9494/CGP/v16i02/46136- Ornstein, A. & Hunkins, F. (2017). Curriculum: foundations, principles, and issues. Seventh Edition. Pearson Education. https://bibliu.com/app/#/view/books/9780134058801/epub/OPS/xhtml/fileP7000499583000000000000000003757.html#page_ii- Peters-Burton, E. E. (2016). Application of learning theory to curriculum and instruction design. School Science & Mathematics, 116(8), 409–410. https://doi-org.lopes.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/ssm.12200

References