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1.12.2 Using theory in practice: overlaps and practical applications

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand and explain the commonalities which appear across the theories you have studied in this module
  • appreciate the ways in which different theoretical approaches to education may be reconciled with each other
  • appreciate and articulate the ways in which incompatibilities exist between different theoretical approaches to learning and education
  • evaluate and discuss how you might draw from multiple theoretical positions teaching in practical contexts 

What are common elements that appear across the theories discussed in this module?

The theories privileged in this chapter are relatively new, and may be associated with the universalisation of formal education which occurred from the mid-19th century onwards. It is perhaps easy to forget that education has not always been accessible to all, but only to those who could afford an education, and has often been denied or restricted to some on account of their gender, their ethnicity, or through presumptions based on ability or otherwise to fully physically or psychologically engage in education (HM Government, 2010). All the theories outlined in this chapter, therefore, are progressive in the sense that they are universal, and they assume that learning (and its formal counterpart, organised education) is universal too in its reach. 

Each of the theories addressed in this chapter have their roots in questioning ideas related to education; there are several expressions of these ideas but in Westernised cultures, these ideas find an early expression in notions of education associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 470 - c. 399 BCE). As we have seen throughout the module, some ideas and theoretical positions are either refinements of pre-existing paradigms (such as the development of various forms of behaviourism over time) or are else refutations of what has gone before, and a reframing of the assumptions of previous eras (such as we have seen in Piagetian constructivism's refutation of behaviourism). We have also covered several critical pedagogies: the ideas of Montessori, of Gagne, of Freire, and of Steiner are of relevance here, each questioning the nature of education, and the conditions under which meaning might be best experienced and delivered. 

Such critical engagements indicate a commonality, in that all ten of the approaches discussed in the chapter have as their central concern how learning might be best achieved and understood. All are focused on the optimum preconditions or conditions for learning, and the development of people to their utmost through education (Schunk, 2013). Furthermore, although approaches to learning may differ, there are commonalities in many schools of thought; these involve both learning in definitional terms, and what constitutes learning. As Schunk (2013) notes, in definitional terms learning is generally seen - whatever the paradigm being advocated may otherwise focus upon - as a change in behaviour, or a difference in the ability to behave in certain ways under certain conditions, which is resultant from practice or else from other kids of experience.

So, educational theories each work to explain how and why learning takes place, but as their focuses and underlying assumptions are different, the conclusions reached by each theoretical position is in turn different. But as they are all working towards the same end - the understanding of learning so that it may be supported - each works towards the same end. As the same core goal is being targeted, we can - with care and discretion - take both theoretical insight and practical advice.

How can these central ideas be synthesised?

The previous section of the chapter made several connections across the range of learning theories which have been the focus of the module. These ideas, which this section discusses in terms of synthesising them are as follows:

  • That all the learning theories are progressive
  • That the learning theories are intended to be universal
  • That learning is seen as a developmental improvement in ability or knowledge which persists over time
  • That there is a relationship between learning and experience
  • That learning needs to be evidenced, so that the learning may be observed by others to verify that it has taken place.

It is perfectly possible to take elements from two or three different educational paradigms and integrate them into a single lesson. The central connective concern is that each of the sets of ideas is focused on relates to learning in respect of a combination of experience and evidence; both of these can be provided through formal education, with the teacher as the person immediately moderating and guiding that learning. So, from a theory-informed standpoint, the teacher can use different educational theories in tandem to get the result in their learners which they are looking for, and can use a mix - or synthesis - of ideas from different paradigms to inform their teaching style, their planning and the resources used in the classroom and other learning settings (Waring and Evans, 2015). 

For example, both behaviourism and social learning theory as espoused by Bandura have links in that they see the child in experiential terms; we might rightly expect for there to be some similarities in their use to us in theoretical and planning terms. Both note the value of experience and of feedback mechanisms in promoting learning, and both approaches use ideas related to positively and negatively reinforcing preferred behaviours and unwanted behaviours in their explanations of how learning is cemented. However, social constructivist thought also recognises the value of experience, feedback, and positive reinforcement, although these ideas are expressed in different ways, and relate more to the social circumstances of learning and its support. Vygotsky's conceptualisation of the ZPD both acknowledges what the child may learn when working unassisted, and when supported by a mentoring figure. As educators, we have the capacity to draw insight and focus in our own approach to learning - and the teaching which drives that learning - through the connections which are possible to be made in the assortment of theoretical positions available to us.

Are there elements of any of the theories which are fundamentally incompatible?

As this chapter shows, there may be aspects of some of the teaching theories discussed in this module which do not work well together, or which have to be reconceived in some ways in order to be integrated into a personal philosophy of teaching. However, it may be that these are either unsurmountable issues, or there may be avenues for connections to be made.

At its simplest, behaviourism is not interested in what is going on inside the mind of the learning individual; its concerns are with observable outcomes, and as such, the function of the teacher working in a behaviourist-informed manner is to provide the appropriate material which will stimulate the learner in the required manner, and to dissuade them from unwanted responses. On the other hand, theories with cognitive biases have as their focus the thought processes and psychological abilities of the learner as a core consideration; there is a plethora of possible internal processes and considerations to bear in mind: the learner's expectations, their focus and attention, prior knowledge and their experience related to the new learning, their cognitive maturity, etc. In addition, there is the providing of external means of support for those internal processes to take root, such as creating expectations of learning in the pupils, in facilitating the learners to self-support so that they can recognise for themselves that the requisite learning has occurred, and so that they may devise their own learning strategies and competencies.

Other paradigms have different concerns to the ones outlined above. The work of Paolo Freire, for example, and other thinkers discussed in the chapter on critical pedagogy, relate less to the mechanics of learning as a behavioural, cognitive, or social process, or indeed any combination of these three imperatives, and more upon the social and cultural conditions within which that education is delivered. Critical theorists of education see that teaching and learning is a site of social control, and that as education teds to be controlled by governments and by the social, cultural, political and economic elites who articulate power through that government as well as through wider society (through media ownership, for example), then education - and within it processes of teaching and learning - are aspects of the cultural priorities being imposed and supported by those elites. Childhood, we are reminded, is a cultural and historical construction; curricula are government documents; teachers are agents - perhaps unwittingly - of social control (Moore, 2012). It is wise, as Freire noted in his banking analogy of learning, to be suspicious of the education which is provided for you as learners in such contexts; if you can only learn what you are given to learn, then you are controlled.

We can perhaps see these different paradigms as having focuses which relate to levelness: on the immediate, on the holistic, and on the contextual. As teachers, we can perhaps focus on one at a time of these, but there is usefulness in bearing the others in mind. This involves being aware of their connections and linkages, as explored in the previous sections, and aware of their discontinuities and their scale of comment and insight into learning, so that we can approach our own pedagogy - in both abstract and in practical terms - with greater definition.

How can one unite different theories in practice?

The first thing to state is we should not worry too much about using every theory. Contrary to what the rest of the volume might have led you to be concerned about, teachers do not spend all day every day being minutely concerned about paradigms of learning, about the precise differences between Montessori and Waldorf/Steiner schools and the like. Everyday concerns tend to the practical, the realistic, and to the immediate. That is not to say that learning theories do not have their part to play; they do, but they need to be framed within the daily considerations and working practices of the teacher.

Most of your time is going to be spent in class. Most of the rest of your time is going to be spent in either planning and preparing lessons, or in marking work completed as an outcome of those lessons. There are before, during, and after aspects to teaching. So, think of the theories which the module has introduced as support mechanisms to help you better accomplish your task, which is to support pupils in their learning, and to devise means by which that learning may be both accomplished and evidenced. You may find that you naturally draw on ideas which find expression in different aspects of pedagogical theory. Some are perhaps obvious and straightforward; any group work offers the potential for Vygotskian ideas on enhanced learning through mentored support to be privileged, for example. But it is not enough to put a group work task into a lesson plan and to assume that one has ticked a social constructivist box, and can them move onto another paradigm.

What you may find is that you are organically drawing from across the spectrum of possible learning theories in your work. There are neither right or wrong teaching approaches in themselves but there are successful and enjoyable ones, and there are ones which are less engaging and meaningful for learners, and awkward and problematic ones for teachers. By having a knowledge bank informed by different theoretical approaches to teaching and learning to draw on, the educator is best placed to make their teaching vivid, meaningful, productive, and fun for pupils and for the teacher alike.             

Conclusion

This chapter has addressed commonalities between the different approaches to educational theory introduced in the module and has discussed ways in which both similarities and differences may be identified, and how these may be if use in teaching situations. As the chapter has indicated, there are connections and incompatibilities to be recognised, but there are also positives to be found in taking what works together in theoretical terms and applying that thinking in live teaching contexts, and in one's planning and preparation for pupils' learning. One of the hallmarks of the effective practitioner is their ability to synthesise information and insight from multiple schools of thought and bring them to bear as appropriate as part of a suite of educational competencies.    

Select bibliography

Bates, B. (2015) Learning theories simplified ... and how to apply them to teaching. 1st ed. London: SAGE Publications.

Cremin, T. and Arthur, J. (2014) Learning to teach in the primary school. 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gagné, R., Golas, K., Keller, J. and Wager, W. (2011) Principles of instructional design. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Hattie, J. and Yates, G. (2014) Visible learning and the science of how we learn. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

HM Government (2010) United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): how legislation underpins implementation in England, Gov.uk. Available at: http://www.gov.uk/government/publications/united-nations-convention-on-the-rights-of-the-child-uncrc-how-legislation-underpins-implementation-in-England (Accessed: 26 June 2017).

Moore, A. (2012) Teaching and learning. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pollard, A. and Black-Hawkins, K. (2014) Reflective teaching. 4th ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Schunk, D. (2013) Learning theories: an educational perspective. 6th ed. London: Pearson Education.

Waring, M. and Evans, C. (2015) Understanding pedagogy. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge.


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