Selecting and Applying Learning Theory to Classroom Teaching Strategies

By Coker, Donald R.; White, Jane | Education, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Selecting and Applying Learning Theory to Classroom Teaching Strategies


Coker, Donald R., White, Jane, Education


Jerome Bruner poises the ultimate question for teachers when he asked, "How do you teach something to a child, arrange a child's environment if you will, in such a way that he can learn something with some assurance that he will use the material that he has learned appropriately in a variety of situations?" (Bruner, 1973, p. 70) When presented with this query, most teachers have difficulty responding even though their days are spent trying to accomplish this very purpose. Why do those of us who teach have such an apparent inability to define the nature of our instructional activities in terms of lasting benefit to the learner? Perhaps this dilemma results from confusion regarding basic concepts of how children learn.

Learning Theories

A generally accepted assumption is that whatever we do in the classroom results from our understanding regarding the nature of children and how they learn. Formally, this assumption is referred to as a theory of learning. Three major theories of learning have dominated instructional activities in American classrooms - learning as a mental discipline, learning as a response to a stimulus, and learning as a cognitive interaction. However, Bigge and Shermis (1992) maintain that in the twentieth century, "... systematic learning theories may be classified into two broad families, namely stimulus-response (S-R) conditioning theories of the behavioristic family and interactionist theories of the cognitive family." Nevertheless, elements from all three of these learning theories can be found in most classrooms. This results from the notion that, "Typically, a new theory of learning is not translated into educational practice until 25 years or more have elapsed. Then, as a new theory eventually comes to affect educational policy and procedures, it usually does not replace its predecessors: it merely competes with them." (Bigge and Shermis, p. 3) The authors continue this idea by stating that, "...as new theories have been introduced, they have been added to the old, and the educational scene has become more and more complex. Many teachers...adopted conflicting features from a variety of learning theories without realizing that they were basically contradictory in nature and could not be brought into harmony with each other." There is ample evidence that, indeed, this is the case.

For example, a teacher might have students involved in learning to spell and pronounce words using flashcards (mental discipline), working on a computerized instructional program which requires the student to answer questions with the "right" response (S-R), and explaining the difference/similarities between North American and South American cultures (cognitive interactionist). While most teachers do not feel any apparent contradiction in these activities, each of the strategies represents a different understanding of children and how learning occurs. In fact, each activity results from a theory of learning that has a unique and specific view of the basic nature of the learner and the process of learning. The mental discipline approach to learning has been around for several hundred years and was the dominant learning theory in the 1800's. The stimulus-response theory grew out of research from the late 1800's and early 1900's. The cognitive interaction model is a product of the 20th century and currently receives a great deal of research attention.

The Mental Discipline Theory of Learning

The mental discipline theory of learning is affirmed by a number of teachers and administrators, most state legislatures, and, seemingly, all media. This theory assumes that all children require that their minds are trained or disciplined in order for them to be self-sufficient adults. The mind is perceived as a muscle which must be exercised through educational activities such as drill and recitation with ample increments of physical punishment for those who stray from their task. Drill and discipline resulted in the development of unwavering determination, ceaseless industry, and sturdy resoluteness.

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