Applying learning theory in the classroom

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

Blooms Taxonomy

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.

Try This!

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

Knowledge Comprehension Application Analysis Evaluation

Further Reading

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


How to ‘Flip’ your classroom

Flipped Classroom – Anthony Steed

Are educational paradigms beginning to shift? The digital age has meant the way in which we access information has changed immeasurably. The answer to pretty much any question is now at our fingertips or at the end of a mouse or the tap of a tablet screen. This seemingly limitless access of information has irrevocably changed the way in which students approach their learning and will continue to so in the future – we teachers must simply endeavour to keep up!

With this in mind perhaps it is time for us to re-evaluate the role of the classroom in the learning dynamic? Schools continue to employ an instruction based model of education which involves the teacher delivering information to their students. “Today we are going to learn about oligopolistic market structures” routinely translates as… “Today I am going to spend the limited time we have together as teacher and student telling you about the features of an oligopoly market – I expect you to process and make sense of this information in your own time, although I will make some time towards the end of the lesson to support you with this”. Sound familiar?

Teachers will endeavour to support students in their learning and, for the most part, do a pretty fine job working within the limitations of time and students numbers. It seems unlikely that class numbers or the amount of time we get with our students will change in the near future so the question is …. Is there a better way?

Fig. 1 – the ‘Traditional’ model  vs. the ‘Flipped’ classroom model

American college’s have begun to adopt the flipped classroom approach and a way of circumventing these restrictions. The flipped classroom model involves the teacher delivering the ‘taught’ element outside of the classroom. Students complete this element of their learning prior to attending the lesson. This allows the teacher to spend more 1:1 time with students in lessons consolidating their learning and allowing them to progress to more challenging tasks quicker. Doubtless many of you who are reading this will ask what is so new about this idea? Indeed many of us have been employing a ‘flipped classroom’ model for years, setting reading or research homework’s prior to the delivery of a topic (although without the snazzy Americanised name).

It is the variety and accessibility of modern technology that has made ‘flipping’ the classroom a more exciting experience for both teachers and students alike. Video clips, podcasts and blogging are just three tools that can be effectively used to deliver a flipped classroom. Students will often be more enthusiastic about learning through these technologies than through reading a traditional textbook and taking notes (although I believe these methods still maintain significant value). Moreover, these technologies can often be effectively delivered via those annoying little gadgets that seem permanently attached to the students palms and have little white wires that snake up from the uniform towards the ear, meaning that these learning resource can be stored more conveniently and accessed at will.

Where to begin?

My advice is to start small. Select one lesson from your scheme of work to try out before even thinking about delivering an entire topic. Next select a method of delivery. There is no ‘best method’ of delivery – only what’s best for you. Some will be familiar with recording their own voice or themselves teaching on video. Many of us will have written blogs for students. However, the good news is that there is a wealth of resource material available through sites such as YouTube (the excellent pajholden is highly recommended for economics). Textbook pages can be easily scanned and made available to students as PDF’s, as can lesson notes. Powerpoint still works perfectly well despite the programme being increasingly viewed as the perfect cure for insomnia. If you really want to push the boundaries programmes such as Go Animate!, Storify, Camstudio and Jing allow you to create video that can be used to the lesson content. The point is to use whatever works best for you and your students. The most important thing is that whatever resource you provide allows them to learn independently.

Now for the delivery…..

Now that you’ve created your resource it’s time to give it to your students. This should be done before you attempt to cover the topic in a lesson – in other words the information should be new. Make it clear that they are expected to watch/listen/read the resource and make sense of the information themselves. Now to plan the lesson itself. Ideally all students will have engaged with the materials, processed what they can and arrive at your lesson with questions. You may want to ease them into this at first by providing a 5-10 minute recap at the beginning of the lesson. The important thing is not to teach them the topic over again. This defeats the purpose of flipping the classroom in the first place. I would recommend some scaffold questions that will support their progress and act as an effective AFL tool for you to see how much they have understood. You should find yourself presented with a highly differentiated classroom (fingers crossed). Those that either didn’t access the materials or didn’t fully understand the content can get additional support from the teacher, whilst those that fully understood the content can quickly make progress in term of accessing higher level questions from pretty much the beginning of the lesson and don’t have to spend the first 15 or 20 minutes of precious lesson time listening to the teacher explain a topic which they already fully understand. I could dredge up that ominous phrase ‘outstanding progress’ at this point but I’ll leave that to the reader!

The beauty of the flipped classroom is that it allows the teacher to move away from the traditional role of instructor and become more of a ‘coach’ moving from student to student providing support or guidance where it is needed. This can happen for pretty much the entire lesson – not just the last 20-30 minutes, maximising the time we get to spend working with our students directly. The other great thing about flipping your classroom is that students have permanent access to these resources and so can go back to review them after the lesson or as part of their revision.