Applying learning theories in the classroom
How many of us are aware of the multitude of learning theories that have been written and published over the last fifty years? Furthermore, how many of us actively attempt to apply these theories on a day-today basis in our teaching? With the possible exception of the enduringly popular Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can hazard a guess at very few. However, theories of learning should not be treated as some vague piece of academic reading that you undertook whilst completing your teaching qualification. Moreover, they should certainly not be treated as the sole domain of university academics sat in comfy offices and not having to contend with 9C on a wet Wednesday afternoon. Learning theories can be an excellent resource for developing ideas, resources and strategies that can improve the outcomes of our students and make our own experiences as teacher more interesting and rewarding.
The first thing to note is that the most popular learning theories are not some flash-in-the-pan hypothesis from an academic that has never been anywhere near a modern secondary school. The most well-known theories will have undergone the scrutiny of rigorous tests in schools up and down their country of origin. They will have been picked apart by other academics, eager to point out the flaws in a competitor’s idea. Put simply, we can make the assumption that the ideas put forward are pretty reliable. The second thing to note is there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all-circumstances learning theory. The authors themselves are often very clear about this. Think of learning theories as a Schmorgas board of ideas which can be selected or rejected at will and you will be on the right lines. Thirdly, once you get past the highbrow language, the theories themselves are often remarkably simplistic and easy to apply to your day-to-day teaching – indeed it’s highly likely that you are already using many of them!
I will focus on two of the most well known theories – Bloom’s Taxonomy and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory
Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning is on theory that many of us will be familiar with – not least because our subjects models of assessment closely follows the ideas set out by it author Benjamin Bloom in 1956. Bloom’s idea – which was remarkably novel at the time – was to classify different types of thinking and then to place them into some kind of hierarchy, with the most simple at the bottom and the most difficult at the top. Rote learning of knowledge (are you listening Mr Gove) was viewed as being the most simplistic, so was placed at the bottom with more challenging skills, such as evaluation, placed at the top. Bloom’s model has a number of useful applications in the classroom. It provides a set of ready-made objectives that can be easily adapted to just about any topic that you might find yourself teaching (see Fig.1).
Bloom’s is also particularly powerful when thinking about how we can ask better questions and how those questions can be differentiated for different ability ranges (See Fig.2)
Fig.2 – Examples of low and high order questions using Bloom’s Taxonomy
Following on from the last point, it provides a very effective model for differentiating worksheets, exam questions or group work. By asking weaker students to focus on learning the names of different methods of pay motivation, asking more able students to explain (analyse) how and why each method will improve motivation and asking the most able to focus on evaluating the relative merits of each method and making judgements about which are the most suitable it is possible students to make excellent (I hate the word ‘outstanding’ so we’ll use excellent instead) progress against their own prior attainment.
Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences
Gardner’s was interested in how people learn. He argued that all hold seven different types of intelligence; Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Visual-Spatial, Body-Kinaesthetic, Musical-Rhythmic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal. They key to Gardner’s idea was his argument that each of us holds these seven intelligences in varying amounts – some of use will be good with numbers but have poor spatial awareness, some of use will be musical but have poor verbal skills. Many of us will instantly recognise these different groups of students within our classrooms. The child that cannot sit still (Body-Kinaesthetic) who is sat next to the child that will sit diligently and take notes. Whilst one of these students will excel in our classroom (no prizes for guessing which) the other will struggle to fulfil their potential. However, get the same two students out on the football pitch and the roles are reversed.
Where Gardner’s is often used best by teachers is as a way of enfranchising those students who do not possess the linguistic or logical-mathematical intelligences in a great abundance. These two types of intelligences are well catered for in classrooms up and down the country. However, other types of intelligences are often overlooked by teachers when planning lessons. Of course, this is partly due to the methods of assessments in our subject’s areas – the AQA Economics exam makes no provision for students being able to sing about cross-elasticity of demand! However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to make our classroom more interesting places for all groups of students. Gardner’s ideas can be easily adapted to provide a variety of classroom activities that will address the different needs of students. Role plays, news reports, making up a song or rap, the use of mind maps and group debates are all excellent ways that teachers can provide students with a varied and enriched curriculum in Business and Economics.
When planning a new scheme of work, try using the grid below to ensure that Bloom’s and Gardner’s idea are being addressed in your classroom. The results should be lessons with more depth, challenge and variety
Some other theories have been included below
|Learning Theory||Explanation||Classroom application|
|Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Mayer)||A cognitive theory of multimedia learning based on the assumption that there are two separate channels (auditory and visual) for processing information and that learning is an active process of filtering, selecting, organizing, and integrating information.||Get students to match images to terms or key theory“What does this image represent?”|
|Problem Based Learning||Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional method of hands-on, active learning centred on the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems.||Set students an open-ended question such as ‘How do we get the UK economy moving again?’ Students and teacher investigate how this could be solved – teaching of concepts such as demand side policies takes place through the investigation|
|Experiential Learning (Kolb)||A four-stage cyclical theory of learning, Kolb’s experiential learning theory is a holistic perspective that combines experience, perception, cognition, and behaviour.||Using an on-line simulation of an economy, ask students to simulate a cut in income tax. Students then record the impact of this on key economic variables. Next ask students to predict what will happen if interest rates are cut. Get them to run the experiment again to see if their prediction was correct|
|Discovery Learning (Bruner)||Discovery Learning is a method of inquiry-based instruction; discovery learning believes that it is best for learners to discover facts and relationships for themselves.||Before teaching a students a topic ask them to research. For instance, before teaching them motivational theory, set them the task of research key motivational theories (don’t tell them which ones!). Students feedback their findings at the end of the lesson|
|Multiple Intelligences Theory (Gardner)||Multiple Intelligence Theory posits that there are seven ways people understand in the world, described by Gardner as seven intelligences. Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Visual-Spatial, Body-Kinaesthetic, Musical-Rhythmic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal||Students learn about production methods by forming a real production line, perhaps making paper aeroplanes (Kinaesthetic)Students write a song/rap outlining the external influences that a business will encounter