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Critical Analysis

Critical Analysis Of some Theories And Concepts Of Learning. By Moustapha, Y., Mneimneh A Paper Presented in Partial Fulfillment Of the Requirements of ED7700 September, 2003

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Critical Analysis Abstract This paper presents a critical analysis of some theories and concepts of learning presented in ED 7700, Theory and the Educational Process, offered as part of the ma s t e r ’ sdegree in education at Capella University. The analysis covers learning theories, behaviorism and cognitivism, and the factors affecting learning as motivation, learning styles, and the effectiveness of the teacher.


Critical Analysis


Critical Analysis Of some Theories And Concepts Of Learning. As teachers, we aim to teach and transfer our knowledge to others. Students learn as we teach; this operation is not a one sided process; it involves two ends. In order to teach well it is important to know how students learn. Many psychologists and researchers in the educational field proposed several theories that explain the learning process. They also specified what factors affect this process. It is important for practicing teachers to know and understand these theories and their applications. Learning is a process where behavior or mental association are permanently changed due to experience (Ormrod, 1999). Some theorists define learning as a change in behavior and others as a change in mental association. I perceive learning as a change in both, behavior and mental association. Any gained information, regardless of its value or size, affects our behavior whether we feel it or not. Learning may be attributed to many sources: teachers, friends, parents, and even the television. Humans are beings characterized by their intelligence and their use of their brains. Whenever they change a behavior, they change they way they perceive and think about that behavior. For example, to learn to cook is a change in behavior but it is also accompanied with a mental association represented by the linkage between the ingredients and the time and temperature of cooking. A steak could be prepared as well done, medium, or rare. The outcome is defined by the time the steak is cooked and the power of the source of heat; a simple association is constructed between how the stake is prepared and the time of cooking. I perceive learning as a change in behavior and mental association due to experience. Many researchers in the domain of education proposed different theories to explain the learning process. Learning theories offer diverse perspectives on how we are changed by our

Critical Analysis


experiences. In general, these theories are grouped under two major streams: cognitivism and behaviorism (Ormrod, 1999). Cognitive theories define learning as a change in mental association, while behaviorist theories are those defining learning as a change in behavior. Behaviorism focuses on the behavioral outcome of learning without going into the mental process that accompanies this change. Cognitivism, on the other hand, is concerned with the mental relationships that happen during learning and the ones that result from it. Many theorists worked on the development of behaviorism. Ivan Pavlov was the first to introduce the stimulus-response connection in learning (Ormrod, 1999). The theorists that followed him endorsed this connection. This theory may be considered the keystone of behaviorism. For Pavlov, learning starts with a stimulus that provokes a certain and specific response (Ormrod, 1999). Thorndike presented connectionism that reveals the role of experience in strengthening and weakening of the stimulus-response relation. This relation seems to be logical and it has the capability to explain many learning situations where learning tends to be a simple process. For example, if you give your two-years old son a bar of chocolate each time he washes his hands after a meal, he will always do that expecting the reward. Behaviorism not only denies the importance of mental phenomena, but also denies the existence of the mind. Watson and Skinner were two of the scientists who did that, they believe that studies cannot rely on mental activities because they cannot be directly measured (Ormrod, 1999). Ski nne r ’ stheory of operant conditioning is based on the idea that we behave the way we do because this kind of behavior has had certain consequences in the past. For example, if your girlfriend gives you a kiss when you give her flowers , you will be likely to give her flowers when you want a kiss. You will be acting in expectation of a certain reward.

Critical Analysis


For behaviorism, the material world is the ultimate reality, and everything can be explained in terms of natural laws. Man is a machine with no brain that responds to external stimuli. From Ski nne r ’ stheories, we can deduce that our behavior is a product of our conditioning and that we are not responsible for our action; we cannot choose or change what we do. Behaviorism seems to be a science that seeks to control and predict human actions. Skinner developed the idea of shaping; by controlling rewards and punishments you can shape the behavior of another person. In other words, Skinner wants behaviorism to be the basis for manipulating patients, students, and whole societies to get desirable and socially accepted behaviors. If the situation is so, the question that must be answered is: who is qualified and has the right to determine and define the desired behavior. This perspective is contradicting to concepts of education. It kills creativity and makes students indifferent and lacking in self-motivation; they will stop thinking for them selves. Behaviorism causes the fail of students to use what they have learned in one circumstance to solve problems in another; they often can not function independently in the real world. Although the moral costs of behaviorism are great, some of the behaviorists’t houg ht sc a nbei mpl e me nt e di n education; for example, drill and practice, breaking habits, and rewards to reinforce desirable behaviors (Ormrod, 1999). What enables someone to recognize a familiar face? Why are people able to recall the general idea of lengthy, even complicated sentences but not the exact words? If I heard the music of the ice-cream man's truck and I came downstairs with my wallet in my hand. What enables the perceiver to infer that I want to buy some ice cream? In general, cognitive theory wants to understand such human mental activities as recognition, comprehension, inference making, interpretation, judgment, memory, and imagination. Researchers proposed theories of how such processes work; they analyzed and tested these theories according to principles of scientific

Critical Analysis


inquiry. More specifically, the cognitive framework of reference posits the level of mental activity as an irreducible one in explaining human social action. Cognitive theory rejects a behavioristic account of human actions. Classic behaviorism insists that human activity can be understood without appeal to any "private" mental events. By contrast, cognitive theories hold that in order to understand human actions, we must postulate entities such as perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, desires, intentions, plans, skills, and feelings. Contemporary cognitivism presents three approaches to understanding of human learning: information process theory, constructivism, and contextual views to learning (Ormrod, 1999). Situated learning, or contextual views, focuses on some phenomena in cognitive psychology and ignores many others. Although cognition is partly context-dependent, it is also partly contextindependent; while there are dramatic failures of transfer, but there are also dramatic successes. While concrete instruction helps, abstract instruction also helps; while some performances benefit from training in a social context, others do not. What is needed to improve learning and teaching is to continue to deepen our research into the circumstances that determine when narrower or broader contexts are required and when attention to narrower or broader skills are optimal for effective and efficient learning. Information processing theory suggests that the way people mentally think about and process received information differs from one person to another depending on the conditions surrounding that person (Ormrod, 1999). Constructivism proposes that human construct knowledge from the received information rather than receive it directly (Ormrod, 1999). Both, constructivism and information processing theories, require the student to be actively engaged in the learning process. Everyone who has gone to school knows that some classes are better, more interesting, or just livelier than others. We have all sat through classes where we learned little and accepted the fact to

Critical Analysis


be quiet. Those classes seem to be the ones that drag on forever. We also have been part of classes where we actively learned by being challenged by teachers as well as the subject itself. Although classes often seem outwardly alike in having a teacher and students and in producing some results, the differences between passive and active classes are enormous. The passive kind of classes usually has a teacher who lectures, put an outline or a few key terms on the chalkboard, and unloads information to the students. Most teachers in a passive classroom simply dictate information and answers. They tell the student how to think and what to think about the subject, no more no less. They pour facts into student's minds like water coming out of a glass pitcher. Students are then forced by the authority of the teacher to sit , listen, take notes, and absorb all pertinent information. The results in such classes are measured by the quickness with which students forget the facts they had poured into them. The other kind of classes, the active kind, usually has a teacher who stimulates students to learn for themselves by asking questions and by posing problems, and most of all by being a student too. The teacher stimulates students by receiving information as well as giving it out. Such a teacher might plan the outline of a course without forcing the class in only one direction; he or she would let the students search for answers and discuss the findings. Students in active classes become more involved in their learning; they ask questions about why and how. Learning becomes fun; although students may forget the facts just as quickly, their attitudes toward learning and their excitement in developing answers don't end with the last class. There is a difference between knowing a fact and understanding it. Despite their outward similarities, the passive kind of class is clearly inferior to the active one in helping students understand the world around them. Motivation is a complex human characteristic and the degree of its presence affects almost everything we do. Our main concern as educators is how we can influence motivation in the

Critical Analysis


learner. When motivation is encouraged by the instructor through the use of various media, methods and materials that create an amiable environment, it gives the student the desire to learn and partake in classroom activities that lead to meeting or furthering academic aspirations. An intrinsically motivated student undertakes a learning activity for its own sake, for the enjoyment it provides, the learning it permits, or the feelings of accomplishment it evokes. Humans who have the desire to succeed will seek out intrinsic ways to motivate themselves to reach the goals they set out for themselves no matter how interested they are or are not in the task at hand. These people are often called high achievers and want to do their best at all times. Their motivation may be linked to how they appear to others; they may be trying to please their parents or teachers. Unfortunately, all students are not always motivated to learn and the challenge will always be there to use external motivators in the classroom, such as reward and punishment. It is always important to increase intrinsic motivation in these students. Some ways to this are: encouraging selfexpression, cooperation and collaboration, a ndf i na l l ybyva l ui ngt hei ndi vi dua l ’ sa swe l la st he g r oup’ sa c c ompl i s hme nt s , the teacher can support the learner throughout these stages. Related more to the cognitivism than to the behaviorism, humanism is founded upon a belief in the natural goodness of humankind. Humanists see a natural "unfolding" of positive, innate human qualities. Humanism sees children as actively involved in determining what they will become. Humanism requires the teacher to get out of the way, to allow the student to become what he or she is already destined to become. Humanism focuses on individuality and freedom. Not all aspects of humanism are appropriate as an educational philosophy; some aspects hold that individuals develop and learn quite naturally and that all truly important aspects of life are beyond direct teaching.

Critical Analysis


Cooperative learning is one of the acceptable aspects of humanism. Cooperative learning occurs when students work together as a team to achieve a certain goal. Through the interaction, students get to value learning. Through cooperative learning Students pay closer attention to lectures, reading assignments, and library research times because they know they will need the information. Students like working together to solve problems. Different roles for different students help them use more than one form of intelligence, and it gives students a chance to show what they are good at. It develops higher-level thinking skills because students are engaged. It promotes student-faculty interaction because teachers address each group. It builds self esteem in students and creates a positive attitude towards subject matter. It develops oral communication and social interaction skills. It encourages student responsibility for learning. Cooperative learning may have some drawback. It may become hard for the teacher to get every group pointed in the right direction, especially if the group shares a misconception. Teachers need lots of time to prepare and need to be ready to take new directions and ideas students may present. Cooperative learning may be frustrating for students who like memorization and are not as good at creative thinking. Parents may not understand the methods because it is not how they were taught. Assessment needs to be carefully planned out because it is often hard to assess students individually when they are working in a group. A third aspect of humanism is experiential (active) learning. Different people learn in different forms. When the student is involved in process of his learning, he will learn more and construct his knowledge. Transfer of learning is the application of skills and knowledge learned in one context being applied in another context. Transfer of learning is very important for the learning process. It is not a single event: it is a complex process that increases the speed of learning. It is more

Critical Analysis 10 successful when it is founded on an open, reflexive, and supportive climate of learning. Encouraging the transfer process inside the classroom provides the skill and knowledge for its implementation outside the class. Education that does not achieve considerable transfer is not worth much. This is why it is so imperative that instructors introduce activities to the students in relation to the subject that are interesting and encouraging, so students can learn by and apply over their lifetime. The most important two kinds of transfer are near and far transfer. Near-transfer skills and knowledge are applied the same way every time the skills and knowledge are used . Near transfer usually involves procedural tasks; they can be used in training. The advantages of this type of transfer are that the skills and knowledge are easier to train and transfer of learning is usually a success. The disadvantage is that if the circumstances change, learners are unlikely to be able to adapt their skills and knowledge to that change. Far transfer involves skills and knowledge being applied in situations that are different from the learning situation. One of the benefits of far transfer is that once the skills and knowledge are acquired, the learner is able to make judgments and adapt to different situations. The disadvantage of far transfer is that far transfer skills and knowledge are more difficult to master and apply; therefore transfer of learning becomes less likely. For the teacher to reach as many students as he can in his classroom, he must try and apply teaching techniques to address all learning styles. The following are some of these techniques: 

Motivate Learning, and relate learning to the previous knowledge and the student's personal experience (inductive/global) (The Center for Teaching and Learning, 1998, chap. 1).

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Provide a balance of concrete information (facts, data) (sensing) and abstract concepts (principles, theories, models) (intuitive) (The Center for Teaching and Learning, 1998, chap. 1).


Balance material that emphasizes practical problem-solving methods (sensing/active) with material that emphasizes fundamental understanding (intuitive/reflective) (The Center for Teaching and Learning, 1998, chap. 1).


Provide explicit illustrations of intuitive patterns (logical inference, pattern recognition, generalization) and sensing patterns (observation of surroundings, empirical experimentation, attention to detail) (The Center for Teaching and Learning, 1998, chap. 1).

Many other techniques exist. It is not expected from the teacher to apply all of these strategies at once. He or she has to choose the appropriate ones depending on the students and the given material. There are some undesirable side effects that may rise from the use of learning styles. A teacher must be aware of not making these styles fixed, unchangeable, and a cause for the limitation of students' ability to learn in ways that do not fit their styles. Thus, some teachers draw the implication that they must match their teaching to the student's particular style. Teachers may become so committed to a particular set of learning style categories that they miss individual differences and changes over time. Classifying students into categories of learning styles may make them believe that they have a particular style that cannot be changed; they are likely to give up when taught by a teacher whose method does not match their style. A teacher must always keep in mind that student's prior knowledge, intelligence, and motivation are the important things in the learning process. After thinking carefully about self-concept, it can be divided into several components; for example, academic self-concept, physical self-concept, and social self-concept. The physical

Critical Analysis 12 aspect of self-concept relates to that what is concrete: what we look like, our sex, height, weight, etc. As for the academic achievement, students, who do as well as or better than they expected to, display increased academic self-concept, and raise their expectations for themselves. Students who do not meet their (own) criteria for success, show no changes in academic self-concept but adjust their criteria for success, they bring it to a lower level, nevertheless, over the long term, these students will lower their self-concept. The social self-concept describes how we relate to other people. It seems that we built and maintain our self-concept by taking action then by evaluating this action and reflecting on it. In some cases, self-concept may become harmful. If a person holds a high self-concept for himself, more than his true capabilities, this person will be highly disappointed when he or she encounters failure. For example, a fat girl that has a high physical self-concept and sees herself as a very beautiful person surely will be ruined when she is banned from the participation in a beauty pageant. To be an effective teacher, one must possess characteristics showing professional behavior. Two of these characteristics are tolerance and organization. In a classroom, a teacher must be tolerant of the students. The teacher has to allow unforeseen things to happen without losing control. The classroom can vary from day to day, depending on e ve r y one ’ smood. If a classroom gets very noisy, right before a long vacation, the teacher should be able to tolerate the excitement. The teacher must also be tolerant of the students and their words, actions, and feelings. A teacher must be able to tolerate a s t ude nt ’ sque s t i ons , and offer answers. Organization and management skills are also important characteristics of an effective teacher. Thet e a c he ri st he“ bos s ”oft he classroom. A student is going to be more serious about school if the teacher is organized. An effective teacher has good organization and management skills to keep the class under control.

Critical Analysis 13 An effective teacher is a person involved in continuous learning. This learning is important for his professional development; it helps him integrate into the realm of technology. Technology is becoming a powerful tool to be used in many fields; one of these fields is education. Students become motivated when they hear exiting music and see colorful pictures and animations in their classes. Observation reveals that students of the 21st century prefer to learn from a CD rather than from a book. They find it easier to search for information using the internet instead of traditional encyclopedias.

The use of technology in the classroom is becoming compulsory. Technology offers a variety of techniques to present one idea so it can reach as many students as possible, if not all the students. For example, the same idea can be presented using an overhead projector with colorful transparencies or by the use of special software that helps students built concept maps in order to learn new and different terms. Technology, if appropriately used, will motivate the students and enhance their understanding and the learning process. Teachers using educational technology must watch out not to fall in the pits of this use. Many teachers or users become immersed in the production of attractive and appealing contexts and at the same time forget or overlook the core of this whole vocation, the learning process. Understanding learning theories and concepts is very important for the teaching process. It builds a solid foundation for the teachers to teach effectively; this foundation is fortified by the proper integration of the proposed theories each at its appropriate time and place. This effective teaching results in effective learning; effective learning is the ultimate goal of the educational process.

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References Diversity in the College Classroom (1998).University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The Center for Teaching and Learning. Ebeling, D. (2001). Teaching to all learning styles. The Education Digest, 66, 41. Journal of Geoscience Education, Vol. 49, No. 6, Nov 2001, pp. 423-434. McManus, A. (2001). The Two Paradigms of Education and the Peer Review of Teaching. NAGT