Theories of Learning and their Roles in Teaching

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“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Maimonides

If you walk into any school in the country, you will most likely encounter testing of some sort. Whether it is fill-in-the-blank, matching, or short answer, the assessments all require one thing from the students: memorization of information for a short period without maximum retention. It is time for educators and those in charge of implementing testing to realize that the theories of learning in place are hindering the true learning potential that resided within all classroom.

Developmentally appropriate practice for classrooms involves several aspects, such as teacher clarity, discussion, feedback, formative assessments, and metacognitive strategies. If educators expect maximum results out of their students, it is up to the educators to ensure clarity of purpose and learning goals while providing explicit criteria on how students can be successful along with modeling work that the students will create. By ensuring that teachers are striving to reach their highest potential as an educator, their continued growth will only benefit the students whom they strive to serve.

Educational practices have been influenced over the years by various theories of learning. As the decades have worn on, theories such as Operant Conditioning by B.F. Skinner have shifted to Constructivist Theory by Jerome Butler to Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner and the list continues.  While these are only three of the many learning theories, it is essential to understand how different learning theories can affect educational practices. For example, if an educator is using Operant Conditioning Theory because structure and order are desired, the students would suffer the effects of not receiving a holistic education as they are merely seen as a means to an end (paycheck). If another educator utilized the Multiple Intelligences Theory, they would be acknowledging that their classroom is composed of many diverse learners who have different strengths and weaknesses. While this would be highly helpful when designing lessons, it could also cause certain students’ intelligences to be ignored if their group consists of 1-2 students in a class of 30.

If teachers wish to ensure that they are teaching their students for life and not simply to pass a test, educators need to apply their learning theories to “best practices”. This goes back to teacher clarity, discussion, feedback, formative assessments, and metacognitive strategies. By ensuring that the student is growing and developing on multiple fronts in a supportive and encouraging environment, teachers can better engage and motivate learners. By finding the learning theories that best serve this goal is the ultimate objective since our students’ success is what we are all working towards.

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