Guiding principles for education

In order to pinpoint the guiding principles of education, it is first key to define exactly what education is. Can education merely be defined as the period of schooling so many of us have been lucky to receive? If this is the definition chosen, the implication is of course that people who do not attend a school, be it through choice or not, are therefore entirely uneducated. Surely education takes place not just in the classroom, but throughout life. Winch and Gingell (1999) state that education is "essentially a contested concept", with the idea that education is linked to formal schooling being to specific. However, there are three major learning theories which are applied to education in all manner of ways; behaviourism, cognitive and constructivism and it is from these that the guiding principles of education are to be taken.

Behaviourism is the idea of learning being based upon the stimulus provided by the surrounding environment. The most common example of learning in conjunction with the behaviourist theory is from the psychologist Pavlov (1927) as cited by Wright and Burden[lecture notes] who managed to train a dog to "salivate through the association of external stimuli". This is known as classical conditioning. A typical example of this being used in education is when a teacher wants a class to be quiet and face the front of the room, raising their arm whilst giving the instructions. This eventually will lead to the teacher being able just to raise an arm and for the class to relate this to past conditioning and perform the task without any verbal instruction. More specifically suitable in schools are the ideas of Skinner (1938: 13) who looked at operant conditioning as people begin to involve their own voluntary behaviours into the response to stimuli. For example, teachers giving praise in the classroom, which is the reinforcement of positive behaviour. If this is combined with ignoring negative behaviour the idea is that by only paying attention to the positive actions, children who are acting in a negative style will connect attention with good behaviour which is based upon the research of Wheldall and Merrett (1985) as cited by Bartlett and Burton (2007: 100). The way it is judged if a child has developed is by if the behaviour changes and is sustained. Whilst education based upon behaviourist theories is an effective way of teaching it is very simple approach that leaves little room for creative thinking from the learner. If they act in a different way to that expected or do not respond to stimuli, punishment usually follows, which inhibits the possibilities of thought.

Cognitive learning came about as an alternative to behaviourism as it was seen as to simplistic. The idea of cognition (knowing) was developed into a theory based upon understanding how learning can be explained by the processes of the mind. The brain is compared to a computer with the concept of stimuli acting as an input, creating a reaction, seen as the output. Between the input and output is the 'processing' which represents the working of the brain to intake the information and attempt to fit it into a pre-existing schema. The psychologist Bruner carried out research into cognitive development and believed that the outcome of learning should not just be based upon concepts and problem solving procedures, but also for an individual to have the ability to mould the knowledge into their own hypothesis. Bruner developed 'Three modes of representation' (Wright and Burden 2009) which focused on the way information is stored in the brain- enactive, iconic and symbolic - depending on the way the knowledge was learnt. For example if a student learnt something through doing then Bruner claimed that would be stored in the brain as "enactive". This is incredibly useful to education as if teachers can determine which style of learning best suits a student, then work can be catered towards enhancing their ability to store information through that particular method, for example visual aids for students who learnt strongly with iconic representation. However this may cause teachers to pigeon-hole students into just one style of learning when Bruner explains that the three modes co-exist.

Piaget's (1932; 1952; 1954) as cited by Bartlett and Burton (2007: 113) cognitive development theory outlines a stage based development of learning for children. The stages were based around ages. The idea behind the cognitive development theory is that as the child experiences more of the world he/she has to adapt their ideas when they are faced with "[encounters] which will not fit the schemata" (Bartlett and Burton 2007: 113) and once they have developed, they move onto the next stage. Piaget's work has been used in education, for example the 11-plus exams is at the third stage of development when logic is supposed to be developing strongly. There are however major problems with the application of such a strict timeframe to a child's learning as it limits teachers paying attention to individual differences and needs, for example both children who are behind and ahead of their supposed ability there are problems. Those who have advanced faster may now be held back as a result of the teaching being centred around the cognitive development theory and those who are developing at a slower pace will be struggling with being taught material ahead of their skill. This raises the debate of whether schools should be grouped by ability or age, and in this case ability overrules.

It is important to look at the different types of knowledge available, and the purpose education is delivered with. It is morally important for education to be based upon a thirst for knowledge rather than it being a necessity, often fuelled by economic need, although that too is a critical part of education. The positives of all the major learning theories can be seen, as well as many negatives. Perhaps, Skinners operant conditioning leaves too little room for a personal desire for knowledge, and replaces it with the need to be praised. Piaget's theory, whilst useful as a general guide, limits the attention paid to individual differences and can easily cause distress when a child is not at the expected level of development. Overall, it is key to strike a balance between the leading theories of education, as that will provide a stable, well thought out set of guidelines for education.

  • Bartlett, S and Burton, D (2007) Introduction to Education Studies (2nd edition), London: SAGE Publications Ltd. page 113
  • Pavlov (1927) as cited by Wright, N and Burden, K (2009) unpublished lecture notes from Introduction to Education 10th November
  • Piaget's (1932; 1952; 1954) as cited by Bartlett, S and Burton, D (2007) Introduction to Education Studies (2nd edition), London: SAGE Publications Ltd. page 113
  • Skinner (1938) as cited by Long, M (2000) The Psychology of Education Oxon: RoutledgeFalmer page 13
  • Wheldall and Merrett (1985) as cited by Bartlett, S and Burton, D (2007) Introduction to Education Studies (2nd edition), London: SAGE Publications Ltd. page 100
  • Winch and Gingell (1999) as cited by Wright, N and Burden, K (2009) unpublished lecture notes from Introduction to Education 12th October
  • Wright, N and Burden, K (2009) unpublished lecture notes from Introduction to Education 10th November

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