Conservative Viewpoints

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The Process of Learning

Posted by Stephen on March 7, 2007

The learning process is a dynamic engagement between students and teachers. Theory over how learning develops is ongoing, far reaching, and wide in scope. What theory a teacher supports will have a tremendous impact on how children learn in their classroom. How a child learns is deeply ingrained in who they will become. Conversely, who people are today is largely due to the relationship between how they were taught and how they learned.

Three popular theories to consider are the Learning Theory, Cognitive-Developmental Theory, and Psychoanalytic Theory.

Learning Theory

Learning Theory states that the ability for a child to learn is highly dependant on a controlled environment and that, according to Child and Adolescent Development, by Sandra Bee, their behavior is, “enormously plastic; shaped by predictable processes of learning.” In the past the tools used to shape the learning environment were described as classical conditioning, and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is based on the development of conditional stimuli that result from the addition of new stimulus for existing actions. Operant, or instrumental, conditioning is quite the opposite and hinges on new actions resulting from old stimuli achieved by the application of appropriate principles of reinforcement.

Today Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (BSCT), developed by Albert Bandura, is recognized as the leading learning theory. Unlike classical or operant conditioning, BSCT does not always require direct reinforcement, and is called observational learning or modeling. Bandura contends that children learn from observed actions that may be reinforced by internal feelings of satisfactions called intrinsic reinforcements, which include feelings of pride, or a sense of satisfaction connected to individual accomplishments. The most important aspect of Bandura’s work has been his ability to bring together two major philosophies, learning theory and cognitive-developmental theory, by stressing the cognitive (mental) elements in observational learning.


Cognitive-Developmental Therapy (CDT) concentrates on the relationship between a child and those closest to them. It is the nature and result of this relationship that is key to CDT. Ground breaking in the field of CDT is attributed to the work of Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Piaget felt the learning’s, and therefore the development, of children was consistent from one child to another. Piaget felt the nature of the human organism is to adapt to its environment. As a result he did not feel children were affected by their environment as much as they were an active participant in it. He felt that each child learns as each explores, manipulates, and examines the objects and the people in his world. It is this exploration that is the basis of learning for children.

Like Piaget, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) supported CDT. However Vygotsky stressed social interaction. Vygotsky felt that complex forms of thinking have their origins in social interactions rather then private explorations as Piaget proposed. He established the idea of a mentorship where adults or siblings that for all intent and purposes lead by example, influence the child. The more a child witnesses the more they learn, and as the tasks they witness become more complex, so does their learning.

The importance of Freud

The third prominent theory is Psychoanalytic Theory (PT). Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) has long been seen as the creator of psychoanalytic theory. The roots of PT exist in Freud’s assertion that, “…children seldom are aware of motives or reasons for their behavior,” and stressed the, “…unconscious mind…,” while emphasizing the, “sexual instincts and proclivities that were once reserved to adults.” In Systems of Psychotherapy, James Prochaska and John Norcross point out that Freud was convinced that the basis of neurosis was sexual conflict, which results in a child’s struggle with their belief system.

Within their struggle a child develops irrational beliefs that lead them to translate, as Prochaska and Norcross wrote, “desires into needs…a want to a must, a wish into a command,” and though “preferences can be denied…needs demand gratification.”

The central theme of PT is the active interaction between children and the people closest to them. The child must pass through various stages of development. Success is based on the completion of these stages to the satisfaction of the child.  If the child has not been gratified and does not feel they have completed a stage it is imperative that they continue their development without continuing to the next stage. Premature interruption of a stage can lead to developmental problems in the future.

Each theory discussed stresses the point that learning and development is highly influenced by a child’s existing environment. The key to supporting a theory is deciding whether the child controls the environment or does the environment control the child. 

The ladder is centered in Learning Theory and requires the staging of the learning environment. In this the creativity of the child is suppressed and those around them control their learning, and the tools they use. It is limiting, and the question remains whether the child reaches their full potential in such a strictly controlled environment.

However, when a child is allowed to control and manipulate their environment by utilizing there natural senses, such as touch, sight, and hearing, then the learning environment is energized. Their independent insurgence supported by those closest to them will lead to secure learning experiences while allowing their creativity and early decision making skills to be effectively tested.

The learning curve is much greater. The human mind is naturally creative and it is only when it is suppressed that problems of restricted development occur. An internal struggle between natural abilities and desires clash with the controlling features of outside forces.

The struggles are minimized when the child is allowed to roam throughout the learning environment. As I stated at the beginning, what theory a teacher supports will have a tremendous impact on how children learn in their classroom. A highly qualified teacher tends to be a person that seeks out theories that lend support to their personal approach to teaching.

What bothers me the most is that many of today’s teachers will walk into their new classroom armed with a masters degree from an accredited university and yet they will not have invested any time in psychology and/or child psychology during their pursuits.

If NCLB was a serious attempt at addressing issues in class it would start in professional development programs, which would include a psychology component, in an effort to retain current teachers instead of trying to find ways to replace them.

Stephen Winslow is the executive editor of Conservative Viewpoints and holds a MAEDS.

Copyright 2007 by Stephen Winslow. All rights reserved.


2 Responses to “The Process of Learning”

  1. JohnChroniger said

    Interesting thoughts. However I feel that you are oversimplifying several aspects of what you call the process of learning.
    Within just one theory you find a wide diversity of thought on how and why people behave and act in certain modes.

    Freud looks at the individual as acquiring their personality in a piece-by-piece manner. Jung feels that the person is born with the whole and through circumstances erosion of the whole occurs.

    You are implying that a teacher can handle these different theories and understand how to apply the different theories to the individual child. How can this be done, while teaching up to 120 different personalities during the course of their day?

    Blaming the No Child Left Behind legislation for what it is not, does not add anything to the discussion.

    Let us start at the University level where in Education courses it is stressed that each child has a different learning modality, however, this is not practiced within the Universities own structure. It is a one style fits all. Yet the education student is expected to master the materials regardless of their learning modality.

    The next level is at the local system where class size is set by pocketbook watching school boards. Salaries are not even part of the equation for the teacher. I say this because if it were, my wife with multiple Masters would have left the profession long ago. Class size and the ability to teach to the student’s ability instead of to the Standards of Learning required by the State of Virginia (long before NCLB came along) are what teachers desire.

    Dedicated teachers have the ability to recognize the needs of the individual student. The system, however is not concerned with the individual, only the aggregate.

  2. What I am implying, as often as I can mind you, is that degrees in education fail perspective teachers by not requiring an element of psychology within their curriculum. I feel that is a mistake. Just as you stated, teachers face up to 120 different personalities during the course of the day. We team teach in the school I’m working with and I am a big fan of that approach. Among the many positive aspects of team teaching is the fact that two teachers have a better chance of devising a plan to confront all kinds of different learning styles and personalities.

    You state that mentioning NCLB adds nothing to the discussion and then spend substantial space criticizing standardized testing including suggesting that “the ability to teach to the student’s ability instead of to the Standards of Learning required by the State of Virginia (long before NCLB came along) are what teachers desire.” I find that interesting.

    Thanks for the comments.

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