A guide to the different learning theories

Educational theorists, from philosophers like Socrates and Rousseau, to researchers like Howard Gardner today, have addressed the theories of learning. Many of their ideas continue to influence home schoolers, as well as traditional educators, therefore a little familiarity with some of the ideas most popular among home schoolers, will help you make sense of the wealth of available materials when you begin to make choices for your family.

Jean Piaget: Cognitive development

Piaget proposed that children go through several distinct stages of cognitive growth. First comes the sensorimotor stage (birth to two years), during which the child learns primarily through sensation and movement. Then is the pre-operational stage (ages two to seven), when children begin to master symbols such as language and start to be able to form hypotheses based on past experiences. After this the concrete operational stage follows (ages seven to eleven), when children learn to generalize from one situation to similar ones, although such reasoning is usually limited to their own concrete experience. Finally, at the formal operational stage (eleven years older), children can deal with abstractions, discuss, form hypothesis and engage freely in mental speculation. The rate at which children progress through the stages can vary considerably, as the sequence of stages is consistent for all children. In this sense, to be appropriate and effective, you should create the learning activities following the cognitive level of the child.

Rudolf Steiner: Waldorf Schools

Steiner divided children’s development into three stages:

–       to age 7, children learn primarily by imitation;

–       from 7 to 14 , feelings and emotions predominate;

–       after age 14, the development of independent reasoning skills becomes important.

Waldorf education tends to emphasize arts, crafts, music and movement, especially at younger ages. Textbooks are eschewed in favor of books the students make for themselves. Waldorf theories also maintain that the emphasis should be on developing the individual’s self-awareness and judgment, sheltered from political and economic aspects of society until well into adolescence.  

Maria Montessori: Prepared environment

Italian physician’s work emphasized the idea of the prepared environment. She explains that providing the proper surroundings and tools, so that children can develop their full potential is a pre-condition to be fulfilled in whole. Montessori’s materials are carefully selected, designed to help children learn to function in their cultures and to become independent and competent. In them the emphasis is on beauty and quality, that which confuses or clutters is avoided. Manipulative are made of wood rather than plastic, tools are simple and functional, and television and computers are discouraged.

Charlotte Mason: Guiding natural curiosity

Mason was a nineteenth-century educator advocated informal learning during the child’s early year contrast with the Prussian system of regimented learning then in vogue. She recommended nature study to develop both observational skill and an appreciation for the beauty of creation. That approach was extended to teaching history and geography through travel and study of the environment, rather than as collections of data to master. She felt children learn best when instruction takes into account their individual abilities and temperaments. She emphasized the importance of developing good habits to govern one’s temperament and laying a solid foundation of good moral values.

John Holt: Un-schooling The educator John Holt wrote extensively about school reform in the 1960’s. He originally proposed the word “un-schooling” simply as a more satisfactory alternative to “homeschooling” . Un-schooling now generally refers to a style of homeschooling, in which learning is not separated from living, and children learn mainly by following their interests. Children learn best, not by being taught, but by being a part of the world, free to most interests them, by having their questions answered as they ask them, and by being treated with respect rather than condescension.

Howard Gardner: Multiple intelligences

Psychologist Howard Gardner argues that intelligence is not a single unitary property and proposes the existence of “multiple intelligences”. He identified seven types of intelligence: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Because each person has a different mix of these intelligences, learning is best tailored to each individual’s strengths, rather than emphasizing the linguistic and logical-mathematical approaches traditionally used in schools. A bodily kinesthetic learner, might grasp geometric concepts presented with hands-on manipulative far more easily than she would, if they were presented in a more traditionally logical, narrative fashion. A teaching approach that recognizes a variety of learning styles might encourage many individuals now lost by conventional methods.

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