An Individualistic Approach to Education: A Personal Theory of Learning

02Apr06

Lifespan Development and Learning

In comparing different learning theories in detail, one ultimately gets to the point that they realize that no one theory is right or wrong, but that each theory has something to offer. Learning theories are valuable because they are often revised and reanalyzed or tested in different contexts to see how well they stand up, effectively minimizing the need for teachers to spend too much time developing research projects and testing them for accuracy. Instead, teachers are given the opportunity to test the results of theories they find interesting or solidly designed and see how well each theory works as a predictor of outcomes. This testing of theories is important for at least two main reasons: (1) theories are often developed in a very controlled environment where the limited variables used do not always accurately reflect the “real world” and (2) depending on how old the theory is, it may be out of date and not applicable to many of the problems we encounter in schools today. Thus, even if we do not fully agree with the implications of a particular theory, it may be helpful to periodically review them and carefully consider their messages about human learning and behavior.

Unlike the theorists responsible for many of the popular learning theories, the only true laboratory I have available is my life experiences. Thus, trying to develop my personal learning is a challenging task. However, after careful consideration of the major learning theories, I have been able to “extract” concepts which I feel have accurately reflected my experience both as a developing child, a student, and an educator. Since my personal learning theory is a combination of ideas from other learning theories, it is helpful to first have an overview of the major learning theories: behaviorism, social cognitive theory, and cognitive psychology.

Behaviorists see learning as a continuous process which is based on a series of stimulus-response behaviors. The development of different responses to different stimuli is generally referred to as either classical conditioning or operant conditioning. The classic example of classical conditioning was the experimentation and research done by Ivan Pavlov in his study of the reactions of dogs to different stimuli such as scents or sounds. What Pavlov found was that some responses could be taught and some were unconditioned inborn reactions. Another follower of classical conditioning was John Watson who continued experiments of conditioning on humans and came to the conclusion that all behavior was a result of conditioning by what we have learned from our experiences and the environment. B. F. Skinner was a behaviorist who proposed a theory of operant conditioning. Skinner believed that the likelihood that something would occur was based in the nature of the consequences. Put simply, if behavior resulted in something positive, the behavior would be “reinforced” and was likely to occur again. Similarly, if behavior resulted in something negative, the likelihood that it would occur again decreases (Ormrod & Rice, 2003).

Social cognitive theorists accept some of the concepts of behaviorism. In particular, they accept that behavior is essentially learned and that the environment does influence our learning and development. They do not, however, accept that all behavior is simply mechanically organized as a series of stimulus-response actions. Social cognitive theorists believe that the mind is powerful and that we use our cognitive abilities combined with our environmental inputs and experiences to alter our responses to new situations. These theorists also believe that a lot of what we learn is based on what has been modeled to us, including observations of rewards or punishments for various behaviors. Social cognitive theorists also note that we do not always adjust our behavior based on our observations or that there may be a time lag between learning a behavior and imitating it. Contemporary social cognitive theorists believe that the relationship between our cognitive abilities, our environmental inputs, and our behavior is an interdependent one. From this view of interdependence, one can recognize that just as the environment influences our behavior, so too can our behavior change the environment (Ormrod & Rice, 2003).

Cognitive psychology is a more recently developed learning theory and is different from the above mentioned theories in the lack of significance it places on the role of the environment in learning and the emphasis it places on mental processes themselves. This is in stark contrast to behaviorists who specifically avoid considering mental processes with the justification that mental processes are not measurable. Cognitive psychologists are concerned with how the brain works. Their interests include looking at the process of remembering and retrieval of information and the development of problem solving skills. Many cognitive psychologists such as Jean Piaget also identify specific stages of development that each individual sequentially goes through. Cognitive psychology is very good at explaining how individuals at different stages of development will have different perceptions of or different reactions to the same reality (Ormrod & Rice, 2003).

Of these three broad groupings of theories, the one I have the most criticisms of is behaviorism; ultimately, behaviorism reduces us to beings with no free will. I believe, on the other hand, that we make decisions based on things that we value and values are different for each individual. If strict behaviorism were true, why can’t we simply exert stronger control on individuals we would like to see changed? Is our ability to engage in strong conditioning limited by our moral or ethical ideas about human treatment? If this were true, couldn’t we theoretically be conditioned to not care about ethics or justify our actions by saying that conditioning and uniformity is in their best interest? Additionally, when looking at human behavior, we see that people act irrationally very often, as illustrated in the following few examples. Some people gamble and keep thinking that they are going to “beat the system” despite the negative consequences of losing their hard-earned money. Many people smoke cigarettes or eat fattening foods despite the negative long-term health effects of such consumption. People may drive above the speed-limit despite the threat to their safety and the safety of others, and despite the possibility of a hefty ticket and increased insurance costs. Are these actions all simply products of conditioning, or is there an element of free will which should be factored in?

As mentioned before, social cognitive theories also consider the environment to be important to our learning, but in contrast to behaviorism, social cognitive theories also include observations of how our interpretation or analysis of the environment factors into the decisions we make on how we behave. Cognitive psychology will, similarly, introduce our thought process in illustrating what we have learned. In the three examples above, there may be explanations about why people behave irrationally which may, ultimately, help to explain the behavior as rationally chosen behavior. We may be missing the point of gambling if the act of gambling brings the individual a greater sense of value than the monetary value being lost. The person living the decadent life with smoking and consumption of unhealthy foods may also engage in healthy activities like regular exercise that makes it easier for him to justify his actions. Furthermore, his health check-ups may show no significant reason for him to modify his behavior. Finally, the person driving quickly may have observed that traffic is not heavily regulated in a particular area and believes the risks of getting caught breaking the law are negligible compared to the thrill of the ride or the value of getting to her destination earlier. All of these explanations factor in cognitive processes as the basis of our decisions and illustrate that we may not simply be puppets of determinism.

Social cognitive theories and behaviorist theories do share some similar ideas. One similar idea is the impact of punishments or rewards on an individual’s decision-making process. Behaviorists believe that reinforcers or rewards which follow a behavior will increase the likelihood of the behavior repeated, and the opposite is true of punishing a behavior. This is based on personal experience the reward or punishment, thus reducing the behavior to something that is essentially based on a stimulus-response model; the individual strives to engage in behaviors that bring them some form of satisfaction. According to social cognitive theorists, simply observing the punishment or reward of certain behaviors can influence an individual to act a certain way. However, learning does not always lead to a change in behavior, and this is where the individual’s cognitive abilities based on values, past experiences, and vision of future expectations come into play (Ormrod & Rice, 2003).

Although I mentioned earlier that I have the most criticisms of behaviorism, there are elements of conditioning that I feel are valuable. Repetition can lead to improved learning, especially in things like memorizing the alphabet or learning the multiplication tables. Additionally, as difficult as it can sometimes be, habits can be broken. In the same way that conditioning can lead to the development of habits, so too can conditioning be used to break bad habits. Finally, and most significantly, behaviorism is ultimately looking at behavior, and behavior means some sort of action has taken place (Ormrod & Rice, 2003). I do believe that taking an active role in learning does lead to an improved learning experience providing that the action can be channeled in a positive manner.

Theories aside, there have been many personal experiences that have contributed to my beliefs about learning. As you will see below, much of the behavior illustrated here can be grounded in the modeling of desired behavior by people who are strong role-models for me. Additionally, you will see how my family experience and my education in the United States helped build my self-efficacy. Self-efficacy can briefly be summarized as being the idea that people behave more based on their perceived belief in their own ability rather than their knowledge or skill (Ormrod & Rice, 2003).

In my personal home experience, I was given a lot of flexibility in my education. My parents provided me with the necessary structure and modeled behaviors that they hoped to see me engage in. From my earliest memories, I remember both my parents reading bedtime stories to my brothers and me. Both my parents also read the newspaper each morning. My brothers and I each had a dedicated space for us to do our own work as well as (somewhat financially limited) supplies-pencils, paper, and so on-to do our work with. We could mimic our parents’ behavior by sitting at our own desks while they worked at theirs in the next room. My whole immediate family sat down together for dinner every night and we also spent a considerable amount of time together with our uncles, cousins, and other relatives. My paternal grandmother lived next-door to us while I was growing up and I observed firsthand the level of care shown to her by my gather and her other children.

Growing up, my family encouraged my interests to the best of its abilities. I learned how to cook from observing my father cooking, and I learned how to draw and engage in other artistic activities from observing my mother doing embroidery and quilting. When I moved to the United States towards the end of my elementary school years, my mother and my maternal grandfather encouraged me to develop my musical abilities by buying me a cassette recorder and a microphone. One of my uncles gave me one of his acoustic guitars from when he was a teenager, and another uncle introduced me to some graphic design software to help me extend my artistic abilities to my growing interest in computers.

My family also tried to stress the importance of self-ownership of physical items. While they were willing to support me when they could, many of my material possessions-for example my first car, the majority of my musical instruments, and all of my computer hardware-were bought with my own money saved either from allowances when younger, or from my work earnings past the age of 15. This led me to appreciate things better because I knew how much time and work had gone into each item. Because I was responsible for these things, I also learned how to best “research” the items before I purchased them. This in itself is a very valuable skill to me.

Things were not always so easy. In my elementary school experience, I had considerably less flexibility. The learning environment was highly structured, very competitive, and very clearly designed in terms of grade specific requirements. There was little deviation or individual choice in many school matters. For example, all students wore a uniform and teachers assigned permanent seats which were organized in straight rows facing the front of the class. Corporeal punishment was commonly used and in many cases was an effective source of diminishing negative student behavior. This could be seen both as an example of behaviorism and of social cognitivism. From the behaviorist perspective, the individual student misbehavior is decreased because the experience is unpleasant and non-reinforcing. However, from the social cognitive theorist’s perspective, group misbehavior also decreased because the class was able to observe the punishment that went along with certain behavior patterns. Students were able to decide how to act based on what they saw as punishment. For some students this was a big deterrent-they would not only be punished in school, but some would also get in trouble at home because of their actions at school.

My education in the United States was more varied. I had good access to high-quality public-school education. I had a good network of friends who were considerate, smart, conscientious, and responsible, and they served as great peer-aged role models. I also attended summer programs at the local university to explore the options of at least getting a bachelor’s degree. The program was designed for students whose parents had not completed a college degree, and since both my parents had attended a nursing school and then went straight into the workforce, I qualified. Although my school educators did impart a great deal of knowledge to me, in retrospect, I would have to say that my positive peer interactions and the alternative perspective I gained from the summer programs I attended have played a stronger role in influencing who I am today. The summer programs exposed me to a wider range of opportunities than were ever mentioned in school. My peers were quite non-judgmental and accepted the range of interests that we each held as individuals. One could say that our common-ground was that there was little common ground, and it would explain why we are all scattered around the world now engaged in a great variety of work ranging from poverty research to software development to custom-designed furniture to law-enforcement. As was the case while we were classmates, there is still a lot of support and interest in what we are each doing.

A lot of what I have read about the different learning theories combined with my personal experience leads me to believe more strongly in the social cognitive theories. I have learned a lot from my observations, and as a result, have made strong conscious decisions about my behavior. For example, as a child, I observed the behavior of drunken adults since we lived next door to a bar. As a large portion of the men in my family also drink quite heavily and I decided early on that drunken behavior is undesirable to me, I have still never had a drink nor felt the pressure to do so. This is not something that I had to be conditioned to do, and as is acknowledged by social cognitivism, learning a behavior does not necessarily mean that one will exhibit that behavior.

For me as an educator, social cognitivism also matches well with many of the goals I have for my students. I want my students to be self-motivated, socially conscious, resourceful, and resilient to setbacks. To teach my students these skills, I need to be able to model them well and to be able to point to others in the community who may do the same. As such, I do not fully support the use of punishments or rewards in the classroom, but rather, I try to create an environment in which the students are engaged and have some ownership of their education. Much like the added value I felt with the material items I purchased with my early paychecks, I believe that students get added value from an education they are truly allowed to partake in. Additionally, as an educator, I have little control over the environment my students go to once they leave my classroom. As such, it is even more important for me to make my classroom one where they feel comfortable and safe. Giving students the opportunity to develop in a safe, flexible-yet structured for learning-environment will help give them the confidence or self-efficacy they need to succeed outside of the classroom too.

As can be inferred from the brief description of cognitive psychology, the stages of development are also important in education. I find this to be true in my classrooms as well. One cannot expect to teach children at a level far beyond their abilities to comprehend the material being presented. From the perspective of a cognitive psychologist and from the perspective of social cognitive theory, it is important to ensure that lessons are teaching age-appropriate skills and concepts. It is equally important that lessons are not under-stimulating since that ultimately reduces a child’s motivation to learn. Giving children a voice in the classroom as mentioned earlier can help reduce the likelihood of this happening. If students recognize your sincere concern about the lessons you are presenting them, they are more likely to respond favorably.

Finally, while I do not believe that we are simply mechanical beings, I do believe that there are times where theories of behaviorism are quite applicable to my classroom. This generally holds true in cases of classroom management goals, but is equally true in cases where rote memorization may be helpful. Multiplication facts, for example, can be learned by rote memorization first, following which the teacher can focus on the actual mathematical principles behind the work without the distraction of having students doing multiplication via addition or using some similar method. Additionally, this becomes a skill that stays with you for a long time. In my personal experience, while we were allowed to use calculators in high school, I had only one college mathematics class and no university mathematics classes where I was allowed to use a calculator. I know this is not the case for every university, but I was thankful that my basic math skills had become somewhat second-nature through-admittedly tedious-repetitious work.

As you can see, my personal learning theory is not exactly a theory, but rather a fusion of selected ideas from several theories. As my life as an educator progresses, I am likely to modify that theory. The same can be said if I am put in a position where I can conduct more comprehensive quality research; as I mentioned earlier, the only laboratory I have had available has been my life. As much as I can empathize with the different backgrounds of different individuals, I have not lived their lives, so flexibility in my teaching methods is also quite important. I have also recognized that my students will not all come to me with the same level of self-efficacy, and for those with lower self-efficacy it is important to find ways to help them develop this. As such, I cannot expect to simply teach to the class, but rather, I need to find more efficient ways to teach to the individuals.

References

  • Ormrod, J. E. & Rice, F. P. (2003). Lifespan development and learning. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.
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