July 4, 2005
Reflections on Learning
The most important knowledge and skills I have gained through my participation
in this course pertain to learning and understanding theoretical perspectives on learning.
Namely, I found I gained the most knowledge from our class text, Perspectives on
Learning, by D.C. Phillips and Jonas Soltis. In this text, the authors clearly described
historical theories and the founders of these theories. Prior to this course, none of my
classes offered the foundation of basic learning theories as presented in this text.
Certainly, I had been exposed through conversation with friends and colleagues the
works of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, but I never had read information on them in detail.
Neither had I been exposed to classical theories of learning, such as through Plato and
This knowledge of learning theories provides a foundation for me to scaffold
further studies of learning theories. Additionally, the skills I learned from the theories
presented in this course are in the ideas on how to apply these learning theories to best
teaching practices of my elementary school students. These skills will enable me to
design better curricula to best meet the individual needs of my students. A good example
of skills learned can be seen in my reaction to follow, on Jerome D. Ulman’s article,
Applying Behaviorological Principles in the Classroom: Creating Responsive Learning
Participation in this course forced me to reflect on learning, what learning is, and
how learning occurs. Beginning with Plato, for the first time, I thought about how is it
that a learner is able to understand something new? What is it that causes learning to
occur? For Plato, learning was a process from which the soul had already been exposed.
To him, teaching was simply part of the remembering process of what had been learned
by the soul.
Although I do not accept Plato’s way of perceiving learning, I appreciate his
view, as it is a connection to the next classical learning theorist, John Locke. Locke, we
meet two thousand years later. Locke believes that every child is born like a “clean
slate”. Every person was born with certain capabilities, and it is experience through the
environment that opens up these capabilities. One of the last contributing thoughts
toward learning from Locke resulted in this question, which I find to be the one I am
consistently thinking about since being in this course. “What experiences or simple ideas
must a child have had in order to be able to go ahead and learn some new material?”
(Phillips and Soltis, page 15). According to Phillips and Soltis, educators in helping
children learn do not think about this question as often as they should (page 15).
The description of learning theory by Plato and Locke are just some examples of
the great learning theory gained in this course. I mention them in my reflection, however,
as they have become the building block from which I learned subsequent theories in this
course. I frequently reverted back to Plato and Locke theory when addressing a module
in the course. I would ask myself did this new idea in learning, such as through the work
of Jean Piaget, find its connections from John Locke? A learning theory that well
describes my acquisition of knowledge of the theories presented in this course would be
that described by John Dewey. Unlike Plato and Locke, who felt that experience was
something that happened to a learner, Dewey believed that experience is something in
which a learner engages.
John Dewey, two hundred years after the work of John Locke, believed there was
a strong link between learning and doing. In the classroom setting, he believed that
students learned best being actively engaged in the learning process. According to
Phillips and Soltis, “Dewey vigorously advocated activity methods, and he argued that
problems that were meaningful to the pupils must emerge from situations that fell within
their interests and experiences” (page 39).
In this course, I learned about the theories of learning from engaging in the
variety of activities provided in each module, as described by Dewey. For instance, in
learning about Plato and Locke, I had the opportunity to first read about the theorists in
the class text. Next, I interacted with other members in the class by posting and
responding to the questions designed for module one. This type of engagement, with
other students in the course, allows for social discourse, albeit through use of technology.
It remains, however, an activity method in which I was actively engaged with other
learners. Being enrolled in this course, also lends itself to Dewey’s philosophy that
education should be designed around the interests of the learner. In this case, I am
participating in this class, because I had a desire to learn more about theories of
education. I was therefore, a much more involved learner in the education process.
In addition to the learning theories presented in this course, I learned skills that
will assist me in creating a responsive learning environment in my classroom. Creating
this responsive environment stems from applying themes from behaviorism as found in
module two. In module two of this course, I was introduced to the article by
Jerome Ulman, Applying Behaviorological Principles in the Classroom: Creating
Responsive Learning Environments. Ulman describes a responsive learning environment
as “a systematically designed instructional situation based upon scientifically established
principles of learning” (page 145). In this responsive learning environment lies its chief
component, which is the responsiveness of the teacher to the changes in performance of
the learner. In a responsive learning environment, the learner advances only after
mastering prerequisite tasks. Ulman says,
To create an effective learning environment, it is essential to measure and
monitor the continuing performance of the learner. The first step in doing so is to
specify instructional goals in objective and measurable terms. In addition, we
must specify what materials or levels of assistance may be needed to minimize
errors and insure success. Finally, we must define success: How much of the
task is to be completed…at what level of proficiency…under what conditions?
Ulman’s study on responsive learning reminded me of a process which was
already implemented in my school district. A few years ago, my school district adopted a
philosophy in education that was hoped to promote communication and increase
performance, particularly as they pertained to standardized test scores. The adopted
program, founded on the principles of businessman Malcolm Baldrige, relies on a system
called “Plan-Do-Study-Act”. It is a four-step process that each teacher is required to use
in aligning his/her curriculum to state benchmarks.
In PDSA, or Plan-Do-Study-Act, teachers post state benchmarks for each subject
area. These are posted on poster paper divided into four quadrants. The first quadrant is
the plan, such as the benchmark. The second quadrant is the “do” or the “how will be
reach our specified goal? The third quadrant is the “study” or the observation of data to
see if the class met its goal. The fourth quadrant is the “act” or the changes that need to
be made to reach the class goal. Each step of PDSA is discussed and shared with the
students. Students also keep individual data folders of their progress toward specified
In PDSA, one of the objectives is that students also develop an internal locus of
control, or are rewarded by their own progress. This ties in well with Ulman’s
description of responsive learning environments. In these environments, “success
generates more success” and “accomplishment itself functions as effective
reinforcement” (page 149). The skills I learned from Ulman’s article included
reinforcing a teaching practice I was already utilizing, but did not know the philosophy or
thinking behind the teaching practice. Ulman taught me that this kind of practice is based
on sound scientific educational principles. Additionally, Ulman provided educational
terminology to the practice I was utilizing that helped put a name or label on each step of
the acquisition process.
The knowledge and skills I gained from studying Jerome Ulman’s article on
creating a responsive learning environment were gained through the process of problem
solving. My problem was that I was using a teaching method (PDSA) in my classroom,
but did not know why I was using it. I did not understand what principles it was based
upon, but utilized it as it was the district mandate. Through reading Ulman’s article, I
was provided a “different way of seeing”. When viewed from the scientific perspective
provided by Ulman, I better understood the usage of PDSA and was more engaged in its
application in the classroom. I am looking forward to applying PDSA in the upcoming
school year, rather than dreading the work involved in implementing its use each year.
I now completely see it as being a tool to being responsive to my students’ learning.
A second learning theory used to help me better understand responsive learning
and its application in the classroom was again, the work of John Dewey. In the module
on behaviorism where the Ulman article was discussed, my learning was benefited by the
social arrangement of online discussion with other classmates. Online learning allows
activity and engagement to occur where it may not in a regular classroom. In an online
environment, everyone’s voice is heard through individual postings. No one is allowed
be a part of the class without some kind of participation. Students benefit from viewing
other student perspectives and discussions.
In my professional work as an upper elementary school teacher I will be able to
use the knowledge and skills I learned from this course. The theories and history of those
that developed the theories helps me realize that there has been an evolution to learning.
Although Plato’s theory learning is no longer widely accepted, it was the beginning of
thinking about learning. Through John Locke and John Dewey, theories of learning have
evolved further. The present global belief in learning is that it must be an active form of
engagement to best meet the needs of the students.
The study of these theories will better help me understand my students and their
learning styles. For instance, the work of Jean Piaget discusses learning in
developmental stages. The Piagetan child is depicted as actively learning through
experiencing his environment. “Through handling, dismantling, and generally
transforming its surroundings, the child gradually derives a set of concepts that were
fruitful” (Phillips and Soltis, page 42). Meaning, these were operations were purposeful
activities and formed a network or cognitive structure. At the ages of seven through
eleven, the age group of which I teach, the child begins to conceptualize things through
this great deal of physical experience. Phillips and Soltis say, “At this stage, addition,
subtraction, multiplication, and division can be done with numbers and not just with
things” (page 43). However, Piaget taught me that if a child has not reached a specified
developmental milestone, he would not be able to move onto the next one. I now realize
this it is acceptable if some of my fourth grade students require manipulatives to visualize
multiplication and division. They may not have reached the concrete operation stage yet,
and are handling and transforming their surroundings in an effort to understand it.
In order to apply the approaches of behaviorism, specifically, responsive learning
in my classroom, I will need to continue to use the Plan-Do-Study-Act program for each
subject area benchmark as described earlier. However, now that I understand that the
program is founded on principles of behaviorology, I will be more engaged in its
implementation. This will assist me in being a responsive teacher to my students’
learning. Additionally, I can apply the principles of responsive learning through
discussing them with my fourth grade students. Using the language with them, and
coaching them through the basic philosophy of responsive learning will create an
environment that is highly responsive to the performance of my students. I need to
discuss and model what satisfaction with one’s learning might feel like. I should create a
class motto that incorporates the idea that success generates more success.
The fundamental question that has guided learning theory seems to be “How is it
that a learner understands something new?” From classical theorists, Plato and Locke, to
more present-day cognitive scientists, this is a question that is still pondered, but is
explored with new ideas. Studying the history of our past theorists, new ideas come to
light and are used, such as responsive learning environments. This kind of environment
leads us to the teacher’s role, which is to conceptualize pathways to guide students to
greater competence (Niemi, page 44). I am hopeful that more teachers have the
opportunity to learn the psychology and theory behind education. As our last module
focusing on teacher learning mentioned in the article, Pitfalls of Experience in Teacher
Education, “The more serious problem is getting into pitfalls or learning things that are
inappropriate in any teaching situation and that will be reinforced by further unanalyzed
experience on the job” (Nemser and Buchman, page 63). Perhaps the study of learning
theory will prevent the occurrence.
Feiman-Nemser, Sharon and Buchman, Margret. Pitfalls of Experience in
Teacher Preparation. Teachers College Record. v87, no1, fall 1985.
Niemi, David. Cognitive Science, Expert-Novice Research, and Performance
Assessment. Theory into Practice, v36, p 239-46, Autumn 1997.
Phillips, D.C. and Soltis, Jonas F. Perspectives on Learning. Teachers College
Press. New York. 2004.
Ulman, Jerome D. Applying Behaviorological Principles in the Classroom: Creating
Responsive Learning Environments. The Teacher Educator. V34, no2, 144-56,