When my son Michael was old enough to talk, and being an eager but naïve dad, I decided to bring Michael to my educational psychology class to demonstrate to my students “how children learn.” In one task I poured water from a tall drinking glass to a wide glass pie plate, which according to Michael changed the “amount” of water—there was less now than it was in the pie plate. I told him that, on the contrary, the amount of water had stayed the same whether it was in the glass or the pie plate. He looked at me a bit strangely, but complied with my point of view—agreeing at first that, yes, the amount had stayed the same. But by the end of the class session he had reverted to his original position: there was less water, he said, when it was poured into the pie plate compared to being poured into the drinking glass. So much for demonstrating “learning”!
Learning is generally defined as relatively permanent changes in behavior, skills, knowledge, or attitudes resulting from identifiable psychological or social experiences. A key feature is permanence: changes do not count as learning if they are temporary—like Michael’s beliefs about “amount” described above. You do not learn a phone number if you forget it the minute after you dial the number; you do not “learn” to like vegetables if you only eat them when forced. The change has to last. Notice, though, that learning can be physical, social, or emotional as well as cognitive. You do not “learn” to sneeze by catching cold, but you do learn many skills and behaviors that are physically based, such as riding a bicycle or throwing a ball. You can also learn to like (or dislike) a person, even though this change may not happen deliberately.
Each year after that first visit to my students, while Michael was still a preschooler, I returned with him to my ed-psych class to do the same “learning demonstrations.” And each year Michael came along happily, but would again fail the task about the drinking glass and the pie plate. He would comply briefly if I “suggested” that the amount of water stayed the same no matter which way it was poured, but in the end he would still assert that the amount had changed. He was not learning this bit of conventional knowledge, in spite of my repeated efforts.
But the year he turned six, things changed. When I told him it was time to visit my ed-psych class again, he readily agreed and asked: “Are you going to ask me about the water in the drinking glass and pie plate again?” I said yes, I was indeed planning to do that task again. “That’s good,” he responded, “because I know that the amount stays the same even after you pour it. But do you want me to fake it this time? For your students’ sake?”
So eventually Michael learned an adult concept of “amount,” but apparently he did it on his own, without much direct teaching from anyone. Learning, it seemed, was not the same as teaching! The distinction between learning and teaching is especially important for teachers to remember; an occupational hazard of what we do is to confuse our efforts (i.e. our teaching) with what students get from our efforts (i.e. their learning).
This chapter helps to clarify this distinction by explaining several major theories of learning. We begin by explaining how the very circumstances of teaching can influence teachers’ perceptions of learning, and therefore also influence how they teach. Then we describe operant conditioning, a theory of learning based in a philosophical point of view called behaviorism, a perspective that emphasizes the links that can often be observed among overt behaviors and the circumstances of the behaviors. The variety of behaviorism called operant conditioning has been used by a number of educators to explain and organize management strategies for certain students, especially those with behavior problems. After discussing operant conditioning we discuss learning theories that emphasize that “inner” thoughts of learners, a viewpoint often called constructivism. As we point out, there are varieties of constructivism. We describe two: one (called cognitive constructivism) that emphasizes the independence of learners’ thinking and another (called social constructivism) that emphasizes learners’ need for social connections while learning.