Psychological Theories of Learning and the Lesson Plan

Today it seems that lesson plans must be based on objectives and have measurable assessment methods to show that those objectives are being met instantly. This is a narrow approach to educational psychology, which is the what and why of learning, motivation, memory and forgetting, and relegates other claims and arguments about what constitutes successful learning. Other approaches were developed precisely to counter pseudo-scientific approaches to education.

Behaviourism is about measuring information in and information out. We may as well be a machine and in any case it does not matter really what actually happens in the brain. Consciousness does not come into it. Either there is a mind but we cannot know it, or it is a fiction: the result and method is the same anyway. It is about stimulation and response, repetition, reinforcement and conditioning. It is about a systematic conveyor belt of application of successful strategies of learning according to repeated outcomes like a scientific experiment produces repeated outcomes. Each learning is as a single event: one thing in, one thing out, each at a time. Purposive and neo-behaviourism allows that humans respond to a purpose, or act as if they have a purpose, and so the input output strategies also manipulate the purpose that individuals have or think they have. In a teaching situation it means getting the right new information in as successfully as possible, measured by outcomes and maintaining these outputs. Reinforcement should be immediate. Associated with Pavlov, Guthrie, Hull, Skinner and Medawar.

Criticism is that both reduce the human individual to inputs and outputs. Neo-behaviourism is only a slight modification of Pavlov's slavering dogs and humans are associated too closely with mechanistic views of animals. They are about conditioning via stimulus for the correct ouput and have a place for punishment. This is highly authoritarian. Teaching thinking is itself reduced to teaching another subject.

Gestalt psychology is more holisitic. It is not about doing, the mechanics of behaviourism and neo-behaviourism, but perception of a situation. How do parts become wholes? In a teaching situation it seeks a unity in the whole information area, particularly in the minds of students; and it is environmental and focusses on the personalities of students. Facts are related to one another. Thinking itself has to be organised to relate facts together. Thinking happens when a problem and a goal cannot be matched (compare with behaviourists) and so organsiation of thinking needs to be adapted and developed to reach the goal. The flash of insight is also important, though it may follow a lot of step by step rethinking bringing together all kinds of mosaic like considerations (not simply linear fashion). So knowledge can involve leaps. Motivation is important in creating success. Once new patterns of thinking are established, knowledge can be retained (eg "I am a social scientist, it is how I think"). Associated with Koffka, Köhler and Wertheimer (the whole has proprties beyond the sum of its parts).

Cognitive pyschology is about understanding the internal processes of learning, understanding, motivation and retention. The mind is broad and complex into which event-responses are absorbed. The brain and mind is the centre of an organism changing and being changed by the environment in a reciprocal manner. It's one's own experinces which leads to crucial changes. The individual is certainly purposeful, but interacting and reacting. Readjusting means growth and we adjust best in adolescence when minds are plastic and attitudes flexible. For teaching, it is where fresh insights and new meanings modify previous important insights in a democratic setting. Having an existing understanding is crucial to receive new understanding. All the insights develop the individual as a whole and there are layers of knowledge - knowing about and knowing to do ("cognitive", "psychomotor"). Students create meaning from what the teaching means to them. This can happen in leaps and starts and developing language is crucial. The culture of society is taught as meaningful to the student, and the student adopts culture through which the whole human being develops. Associated with Dewey, Bruner (functionalism) and Ausubel, also Vygotsky.

Criticism is regarding how measurement can take place of what is happening - the inputs should still lead to teacher intended outputs. Also it can enlarge the students' contributions in learning from life and reduce the adaptive role of the teacher.

Humanistic psychology is where students make conscious choices. Learning and teaching focusses on relationships and values. Experience is already valid. Intrinsic learning (Maslow) rejects drilling and repetition of what are to the student arbitrary meanings and responses. Learning is instead about wisdom and broad life skills. Humans have needs, from the simplest through to the most fulfilling. For teaching, it means facilitating because education relates to counselling, guiding and helping to develop potential and insight. Education should be experiential in order to be successful and fulfilling. The inner being becomes harmonious with the external world. Education is spiritual and people are essentially good (and eager to learn). Knowledge can be beautiful (and people respond to beauty). So the teacher should build a learning atmosphere, clarify the purposes of learning, rely on students' motivations, provide resources, accept content and feelings of students, learn along with the students, share feelings and accept their limitations.

Criticism is that motivation isn't so forthcoming (people are not so intrinsically good) and learning can end up being very limited. It is also anti-objective regarding knowledge.

Reflections on teaching today

In a current situation of government determined funding, league tables, particular educational priorities (tied to meeting the needs of the economy) and the influence of the schools' National Curriculum throughout the rest of education, the whole thrust of teaching has become ever more behaviourist. As a logical chain is pursued right down to the lesson plan and assessments (often instant repeats in student output of the inputted teaching), education is being reduced to targets achieved. It is an authoritarian system, implying a highly objective philosophy of knowledge. The insights of other theories of learning become also rans for environmental and comfort inducing purposes (removing blockages to communication). The City and Guilds 730 course simply reflects this bias and fails to criticise itself (and so I am doing this here). It is probably inappropriate to a great deal of reflective adult education. Learning is not simply what the student repeats back or hands in, but develops over time, and makes sense in the light of experience before and later, even if there is an importance in transmitting culture to students (in a way that preserves their freedom to dissent and remake culture). I like to pursue the relationship between education and liberal views of religion, and human development, whilst accepting that knowledge is the principal tool of self-liberation.



Curzon, L. B. (1997), Teaching in Further Education: an outline of principles and practice, fifth edition, Cassell.