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3 - Learning theory, teaching styles and the influence of ICT

Learning theory

There are two major theories of learning. These are the behaviourist view and the constructivist view. Both of these views have heavily influenced the development of educational software.

The work of the American Psychologist B. F. Skinner has had the most influence. Skinner believed that people can learn more effectively if their environment is carefully controlled. He developed the principles of operant (behaviour) conditioning which basically stated that:

If the occurrence of an operant is followed by the presentation of a reinforcing stimulus, the strength is increased. (Skinner, 1938)

This provides the simple tactic of reinforcing the correct behaviour through reward and no action being taken for a wrong behaviour. This led to the use of computers as teaching machines (Skinner, 1958). Today many educational computer programs depend on supplying a set of stimuli, which are more often than not multimedia in nature, followed by the measurement of a response. However these programs often move away from being purely Skinnerian in nature by not only rewarding correct responses but also attempting to correct the wrong responses. There are many examples where operant conditioning is still used, especially in the use of ICT with disruptive or low attaining pupils.

The work of Seymour Papert (1980) concerns the constructivist approach. His vision of computers being used in education has proved very influential. Papert’s view of the importance of the motivational engagement of the learner contrasts sharply with Skinner who, although recognising this influence, considered it unnecessary for instruction. In the constructivist view the learner as an active participant is involved in structuring their own learning experiences. Papert worked with Piaget who emphasized the way in which knowledge is structured and organized as well as how the learner’s own perceptions of their prior experiences preform the knowledge structure. The importance of how the learner relates new experiences to existing knowledge becomes paramount. Papert used the Logo programming language with its screen turtle as a way of enabling learners to make the transition from concrete experiences such as body positioning and movement, to more formal abstract ways of thinking i.e. writing Logo geometry programs.

Within these two views of learning, operant conditioning emphasises teaching whilst constructivism emphasises learning. The constructivist would in fact argue that operant conditioning is harmful as it is learning without understanding. However neither approach takes fully into consideration the teacher and the relationship between teacher and learner. Both emphasize the role of the educator for setting up the learning experiences but the both see learning as able to take place without teacher intervention once the learning resource has been constructed. Another criticism of both learning theories is that they concentrate on the individual. Collaboration and group work using computers has been studied extensively in recent years particularly by Eraut and Holes (1998). They stressed the importance of the teacher - pupil relationship and the importance of research needing to be a collaborative exercise with practising teachers. Johnson et al (1986), provided evidence to suggest that cooperative learning rather than competitive or individualistic learning produced greater learning gains. They concluded that cooperative organisation of groups to carry out tasks has a central role to play in computer-based learning.

Teaching styles

Research shows that the teacher influence is very important. Teachers are used to being the dispenser of information at the centre of the classroom. This teaching style has remained unchallenged for a long time but over the last 50 years it has been questioned and deemed by many as unsuitable. In primary schools, as long ago as 1976, research was carried out to assess the effects of teaching styles on pupil progress (Bennett 1976). This followed on from experiments in more progressive teaching styles after the Plowden Committee reports (Central Advisory Council for Education, 1967). The 1976 study suggested that the progressive model was less common than first thought. Since then the pendulum has swung towards the progressive style and back as the debate has progressed.

Laurillard (1993) states that in higher education the traditional style is not successful, as it places too much emphasis on the lecturer yet failure is blamed on the response of the student. This is a fair description of how results are interpreted by staff in secondary schools, though the league tables are often interpreted as a measure of the school not the pupils. Laurillard, in trying to discern the best progressive strategy for higher education rejected the instructional design as put forward by Gagné (1977) and also intelligent tutoring systems (ITS), as being too restrictive. Furthermore she rejected instructional psychology as unable to come up with a suitable teaching strategy. She concluded phenomenography to be more appropriate. The aim of which is 'to make student learning possible' (Ramsden, 1992). This leads to a teaching style that requires the teacher to be a mediator:

'Thus teaching is a rhetorical activity: it is mediated learning, allowing students to acquire knowledge of someone else's way of experiencing the world.' Laurillard (1993)

In primary schools Neville Bennett (1976) compared the success of formal (traditional) and informal (progressive) styles of teaching. He reported that formal methods had more success. This study assessed progress in reading, maths, English and creative writing. In all areas the pupils taught by traditional methods matched or out performed the progressively taught. Though the date of this study is 20 years ago it is only recently that the Government has shown greater concern over a drop in basic reading, writing and arithmetic standards apparently caused by the failure of progressive methods. Earlier this decade there were many newspaper reports quoting political statements suggesting that traditional teaching should be re-established in our primary schools, the 'Back to basics' campaign of 1993-94 being typical. The literacy and numeracy campaigns and the National Curriculum have all moved schools back to a more formal taught approach.

Within secondary schools there are differences between subject areas. Typically in the past PE, Art, Technology and more recently Science, have had less of a teacher centred emphasis than say RE, History, Maths and Geography. This is probably because of their practical nature. In the latter areas, moves within the curriculum to encourage discovery learning and project research have steered teaching styles away from the traditional. However, in this researcher's experience within secondary education the traditional style is used by the majority of teachers the majority of the time. Dick and Carey (1978) are of the view that teacher dependent, group-paced instruction is no longer the most profitable main style for the teacher but that they should be designers of instruction. In secondary schools the instructional design style is not easily manageable, except for certain discrete chunks, because of the demand on preparation time and classroom management. More progressive styles involving individualised negotiated learning are not feasible, except for a few targetted individuals, because of contact time and class sizes. Much of this may be a function of the design of school buildings with walled off separate rooms into which a pupil enters to meet with and be subservient to the teacher. Also the secondary timetable model, with bells and 1 hour lessons, encourages teacher-centred education. There are integrated days and open plan classrooms, modelled on primary schools but most secondary schools are still traditional in their approach.

There seems to be a conflict then as to which style of teaching is best, depending on how one wants to measure success. This apparent conflict can be reconciled. There is a need for a continuum from a traditional approach in primary schools to a progressive approach in tertiary education. In his Internet essay Bennett [URL 22] states that there is a crisis in education (his context is the USA) because too many students fail (drop-out) or of those that remain too many do not graduate. He advocates a very progressive new style of teaching in high school with a new computerised school curriculum, much like Laurillard advocates for tertiary education. In the UK however, especially as we have reverted to primary/secondary phases by moving away from middle/high school phases there must be a dynamic transition within this secondary stage. The secondary school has the difficult job of reconciling the two, providing opportunity for evolving learning styles and developing flexible teaching roles. Cole and griffin (1987) put forward arguments for teachers, particularly in the secondary school, being orchestrators of computer-based activities. They quote research by Shavelson et al (1984) which evaluated as most successful those staff who integrated their use of computers into the curriculum in a variety of ways, being prepared to change direction dependent on the response of the pupils.

The influence of ICT

For many ICT is the solution to the practical problems facing the progressive teacher. But is ICT and particularly the Internet a tool for the traditionalist approach or more progressive approach ? The majority of literature suggests that the latter is true. For example O'Shea and Self (1983) describe the revolutionaries in education as encouraging students to use IT which allows them to:

become liberated from the tyranny of a mass educational system with its national syllabuses and examinations, and its non-adaptive teachers demanding that groups of thirty or forty children together in a classroom exhibit the outward forms of learning. O'Shea and Self (1983)

Papert (1980) also provides a similar philosophy where he describes the need for children to 'absorb the computer culture', to become familiar with these tools. This echoes the learning theorists like Piaget:

The chief outcome of this theory of intellectual development is a plea that children be allowed to do their own learning good pedagogy must involve presenting the child with situations in which he himself experiments, in the broadest sense of the term. Piaget (1970)

However O'Shea and Self (1983) take the view that a computer in itself is not a tool that demands a particular teaching style but is unconstrained. In fact the didactic, expository style of the traditionalist can be mimicked by computer.:

this demonstrates beyond all possible doubt the mechanical character of the schoolmasters function as it is conceived by traditional teaching methods. Piaget (1970)

Of course a computer is an excellent tool for repetitive, didactic teaching and individualised learning pathways can be quickly constructed and monitored e.g. the Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) approach. This consists of a management system built around curriculum software. They include one UK based system the Global Learning System which is an Open Information Learning System (OILS) and three US based systems. Of the latter, SuccessMaker is in use in several parts of the UK. The open standard for the Global system means that any vendor adhering to that standard can write modules that work with that system. Research into the usefulness of these (NCET, 1994 and 1996) has shown that numeracy gains can be made and in particular SEN pupils made accelerated progress in both numeracy and literacy. However, the only gain for very able achievers was enjoyment as they found the constraints of the system frustrating. The open Global system promises much, more in line with the Internet's open way of working but no significant gains in numeracy or literacy were observed overall. It is worth noting that system failure was a major concern and gains with either system demanded adequate time on task. It was also concluded that supervision and teacher intervention was a major factor in those schools that showed positive gains in numeracy. Before the Internet the CDROM and multimedia were deemed to be the great breakthrough for ICT in education.

Hoogeveen (1995) discusses the effectiveness of the multimedia paradigm in teaching and learning. The use of multimedia is believed to lead to the following psychological responses:

The point being that learners experience information rather than simply acquire it. It has been argued by perception psychologists (Marmolin, 1991) that our senses are constructed to handle very complex flows of information as from natural environments, and that they cannot handle simple stimuli so well. Hoogeveen states that there are five variables involved in the psychological impact. As these are increased the level of learning is thought to increase but only if applied carefully. These are;

How these issues relate to learning and the use of the Internet in science in particular will be discussed in the next chapter.


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