Learning About Learning To Learn, Sarah Pavey

In the UK, few school librarians are also qualified teachers unlike many of our overseas colleagues. We may feel that “teaching” is not part of our remit since we are not formally employed to deliver lessons and neither do most of us receive appropriate remuneration to justify a deeper involvement. Yet we still need to liaise, and ideally collaborate, with our teaching colleagues and so it is helpful to understand a little of their language so that we can communicate effectively with them. We are not just talking information literacy here – differences might be made within reading lessons too. 

A common goal of all schools is to educate their students through instruction and learning. Teaching qualifications involve learning how to deliver lessons in a way that students will gain knowledge, and this is known as pedagogy. Many educational psychologists, since the advent of modern schooling, have debated the most effective methodologies for positive outcomes in this respect. The arguments about pedagogical approach and development rage on – just consider the constant changes to the inspection focus or the endorsement, withdrawal and re-endorsement of schemes such as phonics for learning to read, or the still popular but now generally discredited “learning styles” agenda. It is a bit of a minefield. 

Two fundamental theories are behaviourism and cognitivism. Let’s see how these might relate to our library objectives. 

Behaviourism 

This type of learning is based on the principle that we react and respond to our environment or external stimuli. The best-known examples of this are experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov. He discovered that dogs could be trained to salivate if they thought they were about to be fed simply by ringing a bell after conditioning them to this response through reward and stimulus (McLeod, 2018). The theory of behaviourism was further developed by Burrhus Skinner, who showed the benefits of re-enforcement in retaining correct knowledge in the education process in a way that could be measured. In schools, Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour (1957) is exemplified by the teacher being very much in charge of the classroom and giving students information that they learn by rote and repetition. Behaviourists believe that by rewarding a ‘correct’ response the student will learn and be motivated to learn more. The danger with this approach is that some students may experience a negative response if they fail to reach the required score or feel overwhelmed by the task and these students may just ‘give up’ and opt out of the exercise. Within a behaviourist approach there is little scope for creativity or innovation – it is simply achieving targets usually set by the educator. Another argument against this approach is that the response effect may not be permanent – an analogy being cramming for a test. However, behaviourism has its place and it can be effective if used strategically, for example in a points-based reading scheme targeted at selected students.

Cognitivism

Cognitive constructivist theory considers that humans do more than just react to an environmental stimulus. This learning approach aligns the human brain to a computer and suggests it is a process of acquiring, storing and retrieving information. Tasks are broken down into smaller subsets and at each stage compared with what is already known and then built on. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development published in 1939 (Piaget, 1976) considered that in the classroom learning should be student centred and opportunities made for active discovery. He believed the role of the teacher was to facilitate learning, rather than to give direct tuition. Jerome Bruner (1960) developed this basic theory arguing that any child can be taught anything at any stage of development if it is presented properly. However, he noted that if the task was too hard then a student might become bored. He introduced the idea of scaffolding tasks by providing a limited structured framework between the student and educator and so allowing some freedom to explore within safe boundaries. Cognitivism is based on students using their short-term memory and working memory to embed what has been learnt into their long-term memory and to use their cognitive brain functions to pay attention, Cognitive brain functions include sensation, perception, attention, encoding and memory. A cognitive approach to learning embraces all these areas and is essentially what an exploratory project-based approach within a library or the self-selection of reading for pleasure material promotes. 

However, social constructivists, while endorsing cognitivism, say we cannot treat the way humans learn in the same way as programming a computer, there has to be a social interactive element too, even if it is just the presence of a more knowledgeable facilitator. In school libraries, enquiry-based information literacy models exemplify a social constructivist methodology because this encourages group learning by investigation under the guidance of the educator. The leading figure of this type of constructivism is Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1978). His theories have influenced a trend in ‘reciprocal teaching’, which is used to improve students’ ability to learn from text. In this method, educators and students collaborate in learning and practising four key skills: summarising, questioning, clarifying and predicting. Over time the educator involvement becomes reduced. 

The differences between cognitive constructivism (favoured by Piaget) and social constructivism (Vygotsky) are simply explained by Taylor (2019). 

There are some issues voiced about cognitivism. Some critics feel it is ‘too unstructured’ and that it allows unbalanced interpretations of knowledge. Educators have felt it is a less rigorous way of teaching with uncertainty in what has been covered and understood (Liu and Matthews, 2005).

So now we have the dichotomy thrown up by the National Curriculum in England and the examination syllabi. Aside from primary/junior school year groups, Key Stage 3 and Extended Project options, most approaches to achieve good academic outcomes necessitate a behaviourist approach. However, a library is there to be explored and helps students discover for themselves, raising their self-esteem and lends itself to a more cognitive and constructivist pedagogy. There is a further dilemma in that the behaviourist points-based reading scheme endorsed by many schools, commercial or otherwise, is largely directed at Key Stage 3 which holds the main year groups still embracing constructivist project- based learning. This causes confusion for the teacher and the learner and much frustration for the librarian! 

Perhaps we need to be mindful of these approaches to learning when we collaborate with teaching staff and design our lessons accordingly. Maybe the active teaching in which our overseas colleagues indulge is not just about qualifications but also the pedagogical approach adopted by the curriculum in their countries. The English education system has been panned by PISA for being too focussed on rote learning (Schleicher, 2019) and now interestingly the COVID pandemic has pushed Scotland into considering a more cognitive and constructivist curriculum (OECD, 2021). We will await outcomes but meanwhile do not be too disheartened if liaising with all departments in your school seems hard work! Contemplate the pedagogical approach. 

References

Bruner, J. S. (1960) The Process of Education, Vintage Books.

Liu, C. H. and Matthews, R. (2005) Vygotsky’s Philosophy: Constructivism and its Criticisms Examined, International Education Journal, 6 (3), 386–99.

McLeod, S. A. (2018) Pavlov’s Dogs, www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html

OECD (2021) Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/bf624417-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/bf624417-en

Piaget, J. (1976) Piaget’s Theory. In Inhelder, B., Chipman, H. H. and Zwingmann, C. (eds), Piaget and His School, Springer, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-46323-5_2.

Schleicher, A. (2019) PISA 2018: Insights and Interpretations,https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA%202018%20Insights%20and%20Interpretations%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf

Skinner, B. F. (1957) Verbal Behavior, Appleton-Century-Crofts

Taylor, T. (2019) Piaget vs Vygotsky, https://educationlearningtoys.com/knowledge-base/piaget-vs-vygotsky  Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Harvard University Press

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