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Education Theories

The way one conceives of education is rooted in theoretical principles. An inclination towards a certain method or practice is derived from ideas or theories about that practice. In the field of the education, there exists some firmly-rooted, long-standing theories, and many other theories are derivatives of these cornerstone ideas. Understanding theories of education requires an appreciation of their origins and subsequent elaboration or distortion. This literature review explores some of these foundational theories and the minds behind them as well as to discuss some of the more prominent offshoots that have developed from these ideas.

Prior to presentation of various educational theories, this chapter reviews challenges to the different philosophies that dominated thinking about learning and education. Overview Jean Piaget, the French developmental psychologist and genetic epistemologist, described how intelligence is shaped by experience. Piaget’s research, conducted in the 1920s, did not receive wide recognition in America until the 1960s through the work of Jerome Bruner, a prominent American cognitive psychologist.

A movement of curriculum development and teaching focused on the design of experience-based educational programs using the principles of cognitive-development theory. Like Piaget, Vygotsky was preoccupied with examining the nature and evolution of human development, but unlike Piaget, he used a wider sociocultural lens for his inquiry. Vygotsky paid particular attention to the key, vital role of language as a mediating tool in human development and to the role of adults and more capable peers in creating a zone of proximal development (ZPD) for the child within the context of a goal-oriented motivating problem-solving task.

Then, the area of brain research (Caine and Caine, 1993) attempts to identify relationships between brain functioning and consciousness, particularly with regard to the differences associated with left and right hemispheres of the brain. Other educational theories reviewed following. First, Social learning theory provides insight into understanding human thought and behavior (Bandura, 1977). Second, Transformative learning and Deliberative Curriculum Theory, respond to the “technicist” approach to a linear type of learning (Mezirow, 1978; Schwab, 1978).

Third, radical educators (Freire, 1998) are “the revolutionary extension of the liberal, humanistic perspective characteristic of the Deweyan progressive educators and laboratory-training practitioners” (p. 16) to the educational system seen as an agency of social control, oppressive and conservative. Finally, the literature review provides an overview of educational theories related to minority education, in particular, African Americans. Theories like Social Capital Theory, Status Attainment Theory, Critical Race Theory, Cultural Ecological Theory are presented.

Constructivist Learning Theories While constructivism is often considered to be an epistemological position concerning the nature of reality, there is also concern with its use as an educational learning theory. The definition below captures the understanding of this term: Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own “rules” and “mental models,” which we use to make sense of our experiences.

Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences. The basic distinction in constructivism is that while behaviorists view knowledge as something that happens in response to external factors, and cognitivists view knowledge as abstract symbolic representations inside the learner’s head, constructivists view knowledge as constructed internally by each individual. That is, no knowledge can be transferred intact from one individual to another. Each individual colors and shapes the knowledge to fit within their frame of reference.

(Buell, 2008) It is important to realize that defining constructivism can be challenging because people often confuse ideas about reality (the ontological view) with methods for instantiating constructivist ideas in the classroom (the pedagogical view) (Buell, 2008). Constructivist learning theory is often divided into two types: 1) individual cognitive constructivism developed from Piaget’s research into knowledge construction in children as well as research in cognitive psychology, and, 2) social constructivism based on Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of mind.

Piaget (1955, 1976) talked of the child as an active constructor of knowledge and discussed accommodation and assimilation as the mechanisms we use to constantly structure and update this knowledge. Vygotsky (1930/1978) discussed the role of culture and language as mediators of thought. He also suggested that social interaction is the process that forms and develops the mind as we know it.

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