Reflection on Learning Theories

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Here is a short final paper I wrote for my class in learning theory.  Even though it answers questions posed by a specific writing prompt, I hope it sparks a little discussion here on the blog.  As school winds down, I hope to get back to publishing more about writing fiction, philosophy, and learning.  For now, please let me know if you’d like to further discuss this paper.  Thanks!

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Learning Theories and their Applications to Teaching and Learning
As a result of this course, my knowledge of learning theories and frameworks became much clearer. While studying for an M.Ed., only one course in the program included a cursory overview of learning theory. Vygotsky’s Thought and Language was on the syllabus, but only selections from the text were discussed. An irony to which any classroom teacher will attest is that most book learning on education is quickly forgotten when starting to work in a school. The pace is too quick and students are too demanding to spend time contemplating the finer points of Bruner or Piaget.
Taking a graduate-level class dedicated solely to learning theory can help bridge the gap between theory and practice, however. As this course progressed from Rationalism to Empiricism and from Skinner’s Behaviorism to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, it became obvious that learning theory is actually practiced while teaching more than may be realized. Many teachers apply these theories and frameworks intuitively, while others may do so unintentionally when following district curricula. As a fledgling administrator and instructional leader, I hope to propagate the knowledge gained from this course among my teachers. The potential impact of the intentional and effective use of learning theories in the classroom is too great to ignore.

A Critical Assessment of Learning Theories
Theories always have strengths and weaknesses no matter the field of application. Three of the major learning theories and frameworks studied in EDL684 include Behaviorism, Social Congnitivism, and Constructivism. Each theory has characteristics that may help some students but hinder others. For example, Behaviorism requires reinforcement, punishment, and schedules to ensure students memorize and retain a regimented set of knowledge and skills. Social Cognitivism expects students to master self-efficacy and self-regulation in order to make the most of their learning. Constructivism “highlights interaction of persons and situations in the acquisition and refinement of knowledge; people are active learners and develop knowledge for themselves” (EDL684 Major Philosophical, p.2).
The main features of each of these learning theories can be seen as positive, as researchers have studied their beneficial effects on learning. However, the positive features of each theory can easily inhibit students’ growth if applied in the wrong context. For example, Behaviorism does not always work well with highly motivated students, as they may feel confined within rigid routines and rote learning. Emotionally troubled students may not succeed in a classroom steeped in Social Cognitivism. This is because they may have trouble with impulse control or hyperactivity. While Constructivism is a popular theory put into practice in many modern classrooms, it does not meet the needs of introverted students who need quite time to process new information on their own. Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that no one learning theory will meet the needs of all students; therefore, it is best to combine theories. This is especially true in blended and inclusive classrooms.

Adapting Learning Theories to Support Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
As a leader, adapting the use of learning theories where necessary—especially regarding curriculum, instruction, and assessments—is crucial. Even though I am not yet an administrator, I have already led change in these areas. For the past three years, West Hartford Public Schools (WHPS) revised most of the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum following Larry Ainsworth’s Rigorous Curriculum Design (RCD) model. He personally provided professional development for district teachers and administrators to assist in writing new curricula that meet the needs of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While teams learned much from his work, it is noted that following RCD somewhat limits the progression of an ELA curriculum. For example, in Rigorous Curriculum Design, Ainsworth (2010) emphasizes a spiraled curriculum featuring performance tasks of increasing difficulty. This is similar to Bruner’s work (Haynes, 2014). However, Ainsworth also focuses on the importance of pre-testing and post-testing followed by a buffer week to reteach concepts students have yet to master, but in secondary ELA classes, the post-assessment and buffer week combination does not fit with the demands of the classroom. This is because teachers cannot grade the complex essays and projects fast enough to enable adequate reteaching. The RCD model does not allow teachers much freedom to follow Constructivist teaching practices, either, due to its rigidity.

To remedy this, teams are incorporating more time for classes to pursue their interests and for teachers to ensure learning within the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). As opposed to teaching in a lockstep fashion, the team agrees with Blankstein (2012) who explains that employing relevant and engaging approaches to teaching and learning is essential when working with the neediest students. After reading Blankstein’s work, the ELA curriculum team decided to add more flexibility for teachers to devise new and creative lessons to supplement the performance tasks required by each RCD unit. There is much less a Behaviorist leaning in the classrooms now. Instead, students are encouraged to interact and to learn from each other as a means of achieving their Zone of Proximal Development instead of only relying on remediation lead by the teacher.

Furthermore, additional research on Marzano’s work is vital to make the WHPS ELA curriculum more effective. According to Marzano, the most effective teaching strategies include goal setting; this includes the work of teachers writing curriculum as well. When providing an overview of curriculum and school effectiveness, Marzano explains “Clear and measurable goals [must be] established and focused on critical needs regarding improving overall student achievement at the school level” (2012, p.11). Shunk (2012) seconds this when discussing Posttask’s work: “Students who believe that they are progressing toward their learning goals and who make positive attributions for success are apt to sustain their self-efficacy for learning, outcome expectations, perceived value, and positive emotional climate” (358). Goal-setting is a major part of attribution theory and must be a part of any truly effective curriculum.
When beginning to write the new ELA curriculum three years ago, the team worked hard to align it with the new Common Core State Standards. Nothing specific was planned to meet student deficiencies, especially since so little was known about the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test or what it would reveal about students. Now that the district has piloted the exam and teachers are creating assessments based on released test items, analyzing data and altering curriculum to help close achievement gaps can occur. This will require WHPS, as Marzano suggests, to set goals, change lessons, rewrite units, and remediate different skills and concepts. This will be the new and ongoing work of curriculum teams moving forward. As a new school leader, I plan to further the application of Constructivism, goal-setting, and positive attribution in curricula, instruction, and assessments.

References
Ainsworth, L. (2010). Rigorous Curriculum Design. Englewood, Colorado, Lead and Learn
Press.

Blankstein, A.M. (2012). Failure is not an option: 6 principles that advance student achievement
in highly effective schools. California: Corwin.

EDL684 Major philosophical and theoretical framework classifications [Word document].
Retrieved from http://learn-scsu.edu

Haynes, N. (2014) EDL684 Learning into practice spring 2014 [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved
from http://learn-scsu.edu

Marzano, R. (2012). Marzano levels of school effectiveness. Retrieved from
http://legisweb.state.wy.us/InterimCommittee/2012/Z02MarzanoLevels.pdf

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective. Boston: Pearson.

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