Establishing Theories of Learning

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Will Swaithes

Will trained as a secondary school Physical Education teacher in 2001. Since then he has enjoyed a number of roles at a variety of schools in Nottinghamshire to include Advanced Skills Teacher, Lead Practitioner and Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning. Most recently, he spent...
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How do we apply theories of learning to our practice?

For schools to thrive, it is essential teachers ensure students are motivated and inspired to learn. When was the last time you reflected on what we mean by learning, or considered how various learning theorists’ work can be successfully applied in today’s classroom?


Having followed a sports science degree and then a PGCE route into teaching, I really only skimmed over the foundations of pedagogy. I have really enjoyed digging deeper into my understanding of learning. Including the work of theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky and Bandura. These theorists have formed a part of my masters study in educational leadership and here, I wanted to capture the highlights.

Schunk: Learning is an enduring change …

‘Learning’ is a broad concept.

According to Schunk (2015), it ‘involves acquiring and modifying knowledge, skills, strategies, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours. People learn cognitive, linguistic, motor, and social skills’.

Learning requires an enduring change, takes place in a wide range of settings, serves many purposes and is essential to survive and thrive as a species throughout the course of life. Whilst primarily concerned with learning within the formal education setting, it is important to also consider that learning also takes place outside of school. This could be via informal settings such as the home or the community environment.

Increasingly, technology is playing a bigger part. In fact, I think most young people believe that if something can’t be found on YouTube or Netflix, then it doesn’t exist!

It is beneficial to examine and, in some cases, attempt to replicate the conditions of more informal learning in terms of motivation, curiosity, freedom etc. This would maximise learning gains in schools.

Pritchard: Definitions of learning

The following points from Pritchard (2013), contain a helpful sample of definitions of learning:

  1. A change in behaviour as a result of experience or practice.
  2. The acquisition of knowledge.
  3. To gain knowledge of, or skill in, something through study, teaching, instruction or experience.
  4. The process of gaining knowledge: a process by which behaviour is changed, shaped or controlled.
  5. The individual process of constructing understanding is based on experience from various sources.

Technology and its part in the future

As explored in this Skills Development Scotland video, technology and now the onset of artificial intelligence looks set to change the future jobs market beyond recognition. It is clear we are living in ‘exponential’ times and must prepare the next generation.

As such, the current knowledge-based curricula that dominate much of the education system need to evolve to better prepare individuals. Knowledge is essential, but it should also include, for example, fostering creativity, wellbeing, and collaboration.

It is important we consider this context as we remind ourselves of the theoretical perspectives of learning.

What does that mean in practice?

Teachers are increasingly required to hold the subject knowledge and interpersonal skills necessary to inspire and impart knowledge to their students. Subject knowledge is important, but pedagogical knowledge has a greater impact.

On top of this, teachers are also expected to understand and apply the skills of behavioural and cognitive psychologists. Furthermore, teachers also need to adapt to socio-cultural preferences. This includes providing empathetic pastoral support whilst juggling a myriad of interests, motivations, and attitudes whilst meeting individuals’ preferences.

Every individual is expected to make progress and achieve …

It is imperative that teachers understand the mechanics of the learning process.

This enables classroom practice to maximise learning gains and utilise tools or strategies that have been proven effective at promoting learning. The Education Endowment Foundation provides a very accessible and evidence-based teaching and learning toolkit that helps identify interventions and pedagogical approaches that have maximum impact.

They state that ‘reading comprehension strategies’, ‘metacognition and self-regulation and ‘feedback’ are shown as having the biggest value-added whilst at a relatively low cost.

The significant challenge of individualised teaching, can be better accomplished if we truly understand the most effective tools for learning.


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