How People Learn: Part 3 – Developmental and Social Learning Theory
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How People Learn: Part 3 – Developmental and Social Learning Theory

How People Learn: Part 3 – Developmental and Social Learning Theory

In the previous two installments I discussed the myth of learning “styles” and how constructivist learning theory (CLT) can inform teaching.  This part expands on constructivist learning theory and introduces two offspring of CLT: developmental and social learning theories (DLT and SLT).  Developmental learning theory focuses on how prior experience and age affect the ability of students to hand abstraction.  Social learning theory rounds out our understanding of learning by noting that knowledge is constructed via social interaction. Below I attempt to illustrate how the theories on learning, when used in conjunction, can provide a powerful tool for informing teaching and explaining student struggles.

If any method of teaching is to be effective, teachers must realize that students make meaning based on their own previous understanding; therefore, two things must happen. First, the previous knowledge or schema needs to be identified and second, the learner needs to be actively engage in the learning in order to replace old ideas with new. In order for a learner to be actively engaged they need to recognize when they understand and when they do not yet understand. Learners need to be able to identify what kinds of evidence would be needed to convince them of new ideas, and learners should be able to devise ways to test their own schemas for accurate understanding (NRC, 2000). Notice, the traits of an active learner has similarities to the traits of a scientifically literate person according to the National Research Council!

When confronting students’ prior knowledge or misconceptions, it is important to consider the learners developmental stage (DLT). The reasoning demands of the learning environment need to be properly matched to learners’ level of mental development (Champagne and Hornig). Secondary students are typically in between the levels of concrete and formal thought; meaning they are beginning to understand abstract ideas that can explain things they can see (Karplus, 1977). This position in development of thought implies that teachers need to start with concrete experiences and ideas so that students have a foot hold on new ideas. Once the concept has been learned concretely, applications of the concepts in a more abstract way can be explored using formal thought. If the concrete idea is never introduced, many if not most, students will not be able to make meaning of the abstractions. Consideration of the learners’ zone of proximal development also needs to be considered when introducing new material or tasks (Dixon-Krauss, 1996). Tasks should not be too easy or too difficult. Tasks that are too easy can be seen as boring, and those that are too difficult can cause unnecessary frustrations.

Lastly, social learning theory (SLT) states that learning occurs as a result of social interactions that take place in both formal and informal settings. Both settings will contribute to the student’s prior experiences and attitudes toward content will be shaped in both settings (Champagne and Hornig). The implications of student ideas from other social interactions are that these informal interactions may work for or against what a teacher is trying to accomplish in the classroom. Therefore, a teacher needs to find out what preconceptions about science students may have based on previous informal and formal social interactions.

To put it all together, let me provide an example.  Imagine a student that is struggling to understand the concept of density.  This student has likely heard the word density before (SLT) and has some ideas regarding what density means (CLT).  The student may even have learned the formula, but may not have the math reasoning yet to understand what “mass divided by volume” really means (DLT).  When students struggle with concepts, using more concrete or familiar representation often helps (DLT) and relating new ideas to students’ past learning or experiences usually helps the student remember/understand (CLT).  Finally, the language a teacher uses and the environment they set up for instruction affects the students attitude and goals for learning (SLT).  Of course, classroom management and expectations are usually stimulus response enforcements, so behavioral learning theory (BLT) has its place in the classroom as well!  The four learning theories – powerful weapons of mass education!

Excerpt from Teaching as a Dynamic Activity. Follow jerrid on Twitter: @jerridkruse

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