Learning about Learning: From Theories to Trends
Bush, Gail, Teacher Librarian
THERE HAS BEEN NO MORE ENGAGING AND HEARTFELT SUPPORTER OF DYNAMIC TEACHING PRACTICES THAN THE LATE GREAT AMERICAN EDUCATOR NEIL POSTMAN. IN THE CLOSE OF HIS 1969 BOOK TEACHING AS A SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITY (WRITTEN WITH CHARLES WEINGARTNER), WE READ THAT THE NEW EDUCATION "IS NEW BECAUSE IT CONSISTS OF HAVING STUDENTS USE THE CONCEPTS MOST APPROPRIATE TO THE WORLD IN WHICH WE MUST ALL LIVE" AND THAT "THE MEANING-MAKING PROCESS THAT CAN BE CALLED 'LEARNING HOW TO LEARN' ... COMPROMISES A POSTURE OF STABILITY FROM WHICH TO DEAL FRUITFULLY WITH CHANGE" (P. 218).
Fast-forward to 1996 when Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon presented a paper at Carnegie Mellon University about the developments in the science of learning. Simon's statements would have sent B. F. Skinner and his behaviorist cronies into apoplectic fits. Simon told the Department of Psychology audience that "the meaning of 'knowing' has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it" (as cited in NRC, 2000, p. 5)
These are just two examples of scholars' comments about the evolution of how educators think about learning. A healthy grasp of the spectrum from behaviorism to cognitive science is both daunting and necessary for transfer into meaningful teaching strategies. Educators working in schools today recognize the relevance of the Postman and Simon texts and yet may appreciate a little refresher to comprehend these statements within the broader context of the psychology of learning. For us to acknowledge the relative significance of each wave of educational trends and how (and if) to apply them to practice, we must have an informed perspective on the evolving science of learning as it progressed through the 20th century.
BEHAVIORISM--SEE IT AND BELIEVE IT
The turn of the 20th century saw the end of the industrial revolution and the establishment of factory life and the educational equivalent, the new school of behaviorism. Psychology is the study of the mind, and from the behaviorist perspective within the discipline of psychology, only observable, measurable, outward behavior is worthy of scientific inquiry. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the focus was on learning as evidence of changed behavior. Because there was an identified link between the effects of reinforcement on learning, scientists were considered to be connectionists reflecting the connection between stimulus and response and conditioning. Underlying assumptions included the beliefs that all learners gain the same understanding and that all students can learn given appropriate environmental influences. By far, the most prolific and thereby recognized behaviorist of the time was B. F. Skinner. The very idea of learning theories set Skinner (1950) off on a writing diatribe. Given that a theory is a set of principles used to explain a phenomenon and that Skinner believed that all learning was measurable through observing changed behavior, well, you can see the problem. As scientific studies in psychology continued to test the connection between stimulus and response (and classical and operant conditioning), limitations on the explanations of changed behavior developed a rift within behaviorism.
Notwithstanding the negative connotation of radical behaviorism and resulting traditional teacher-centered instruction, the current relevance of Skinner's view of learning does offer a foundation for the study of the adaptability of human behavior; after all, behaviorism supports the tenet that all students have potential. Also, Ralph Tyler's midcentury contributions (1949) as a curriculum scholar include the now-ubiquitous style of writing lesson objectives in the manner of student behaviors (In this lesson, students will ...). And let us acknowledge that educational research continues to support immediate positive reinforcement that is fully explained to students so that they might learn how to improve. Just try to take the stickers, classroom coupons, and motivational stamps away from our favorite teachers. …