Behavioural learning theory refers to the relationship of behaviour and the environment. Theorists detail, that as behaviour is a learned concept, any changes that occur to the environment influences changes to an individual’s behaviour (O’Donnell, et al., 2016, p. 235). These changes result in desirable and undesirable behaviours. Desirable behaviours are reinforced with reward and are more likely to be repeated, while undesirable have negative consequences (Westwood, 2004, p.17).
Cognitive theory focuses on the learning processes of students and how they organise and store knowledge in response to the environment, and the learning a teacher provides (O’Donnell, et al., 2016). It is different to behavioural learning theory, as it is focused on how they acquire knowledge, rather than what they do and how they behave (Hazel & Monfries, 2005, p. 3).
Social constructivist theory involves learners constructing knowledge in a social context (O’Donnell, et al., 2016, p. 381). It suggests that rather than knowledge being passed on to a learner, it must be constructed by the individual based on their own experiences and reflections (Westwood 2004 p.22). Different types of constructivism include exogenous (representations of what exist), endogenous (using prior knowledge to make sense) and dialectical (mutually influential relationships) (O’Donnell, et al., 2016, p. 382).
The environment and learner are crucial elements to the learning process. In both Behaviourist and Cognitive theory, the environment and stimuli play a crucial role in facilitating learning so that knowledge can be acquired. Whereas Behavioural theory only encompasses a learner’s response to stimuli and the environment, Cognitive theory also explores the ideas and thought processes of the learner prior to their interaction with the environment (Minkang & Sankey, 2010, p.81). Social Constructivist theory also emphasises the importance of the learner and the environment, as it is through the interaction and influence of these two, that learning occurs (O’Donnell, et al., 2016, p. 381).
In Behavioural theory, emphasis is placed on manipulating the environment to pass on knowledge, while cognitive theory focuses on manipulating/changing the learner to use effective learning strategies. In cognitive theory, the learner is considered an active participant and their prior knowledge and skills are recognised. Social constructivist theory differs from both Cognitive and Behavioural theories in that the learner creates/constructs meaning instead of acquiring it. This learning is based on their social interactions within environments in specific contexts (Webster & Tickner, 2017, p. 97).
Being able to transfer knowledge is essential to the learning process. In Behavioural theory, transfer occurs based on generalisations, or through similar or identical circumstances. In Cognitive theory, transfer occurs through memory and application of prior knowledge to different contexts, while in Social Constructivist theory, knowledge is contextual and applied through making connections, imitating and broader social experience.
When considering which theory is most useful to classroom learning, it is important to note that aspects of each can help support learning at different stages, however, I believe, that a Social constructivist approach is the most beneficial to children in an early childhood setting. This approach to learning involves planning authentic learning contexts where students can construct meaning in guided interactions (Dinham, 2016). The learning is connected to their prior knowledge and interests, and allows students to gain knowledge through interacting with their surroundings in hands on, problem solving and logical reasoning experiences. The teacher in this environment acts as a facilitator of communication, rather than passing on knowledge. A Social constructivist approach not only considers the prior knowledge, skills and experiences of its students, but allows them to build understanding in planned learning environments.