Children are active in constructing their own learning. To what extent do the four grand theories of development support this statement?

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Children are active in constructing their own learning.

To what extent do the four grand theories of development support this statement?


To say that children are active in constructing their own learning, is to propose that they choose information and have the ability to form their own ideas about the world and the environment. This essay aims to clarify the key features of the four grand theories (behaviourism. social learning theory, constructivism and social constructivism) and their relationship with regards to children's learning. The four theories will then be compared and contrasted to see to what extent they support the statement that children learn in an active way. It should be noted however that the theories focus on different (such as behavioural, social, cognitive, emotional and socio-cultural) aspects of a child's learning, making a cross-comparison most challenging. It is also important to note that these theories are predominantly Euro-centric which shaped the research itself, even though it has become globally accepted. Finally, the position of the four main theories will be summarised.

Behaviourism as a term was introduced by John B.Watson in his publication “Psychology as the behaviourist views it” (1913). He said that psychology should be an objective science and therefore concentrate on what can be observed. Child development and learning was seen as any relatively permanent change in behaviour due to the effect of the environment. These changes, or learning, take place through a process called conditioning. Watson, along with Rayner, demonstrated this with an experiment with an 11-month-old infant named Albert B., more widely known as “Little Albert” (Watson, 1924). During the experiment they re-trained his reflex behaviour of the fear of a loud sound to a new environmental stimulus: the presence of a rat. This is known as classical conditioning and was developed from the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) who developed it through his studies in the physiology of digestion. He, on the other hand, conditioned dogs to produce saliva every time a bell rung.  

Behaviourists however, felt that the fundamental principles of learning is the same for all species and therefor animal learning could be applied to human learning. During the learning process, behaviourists found that behaviour is very much influenced by its consequences. This process is called operant conditioning whereby reinforcement and punishment is used to increase or decrease a specific behaviour. An example of operant conditioning is the work of B. F. Skinner (1905-1990) with rats. He showed how rats could learn to press a lever in a “Skinner box” more frequently as a result of receiving a food pellet (reinforcement). When the lever pressing were paired with an electric shock (punishment), the lever pressing behaviour decreased.

Contemporary behavioural techniques focus more on teaching the child alternative, appropriate behaviours, which are then reinforced to increase their occurrence. Applied behavioural analysis (ABA) would be an example of this. Evidence shows that ABA can help children with Autism succeed more easily in mainstream schools (Keenan et al., 2000). One of the shortcomings of  “classic” behaviourism is that it did not take into account the fact that children can learn without the consequences of their behaviour. Social learning theory developed this concept of the child being able to learn through observation alone.

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In addition to the effect of the consequences of behaviour, social learning theory developed by Albert Bandura (1924- ), emphasised the fact that children learn through watching and imitating the behaviour of people around them. “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do ... from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action” (Bandura, 1977, p. 22). Guatemalan girls learn to weave ...

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