Sunday, 17 April 2011

Chris Port Blog #206. KS3 Drama Action Research Project: Literature Review

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 2000

2.0   Literature review

The main focus of my literature review was on 3 models of teaching and learning:

  1. Behaviourism
  2. Constructivism
  3. Social Constructivism

In addition, I also conducted a review on their comparative beneficial and problematic aspects.

2.1   Behaviourism

The Behaviourist model of teaching and learning has been influenced by the theories of American psychologists: Edward Thorndike, John Watson and Burrhus Skinner (cf. Child 1993; Hummel 1997). The best known proponent of Behaviourism is Skinner (1953) who, through his work with animals (reminiscent of the eponymous Pavlovian response) developed a theoretical model of learning in terms of stimulus, response and consequence.

An exposition of the Behaviourist model

In essence, the Behaviourist model of teaching and learning aims to increase or decrease identifiable forms of behaviour (learning) through the addition or removal of positive (pleasant) or negative (aversive) stimuli. Hummel (1997) suggests the following simplification of Skinner’s model:

Outcome of conditioning
Increase Behaviour
Decrease Behaviour


(add stimulus)

(remove stimulus)


(remove stimulus)


(add stimulus)

(Hummel 1997:2).

Pollard and Triggs (1997) note that the Behaviourist model of teaching and learning has been hugely influential in education, leading to ‘traditional’ whole-class didactic approaches through which knowledge and skills are transmitted. Thorndike’s ‘law of exercise’ (cf. Child 1993:94) is reflected in school systems of reward and punishment and an emphasis on practice and repetition.

Pollard and Triggs (1997) characterize the Behaviourist model of roles in the teaching and learning process as follows:



Decides on
skills, etc.
(Pollard and Triggs 1997:210).

A critique of the Behaviourist model

Pollard and Triggs (1997) observe that the Behaviourist model of teaching and learning is characterized by a high degree of teacher-control in the choice of learning area, lesson pace and assessment of pupil responses. Their critiques of this model can be summarized as follows:

Beneficial aspects of the Behaviourist model

  1. Lends itself to logical, coherent, linear and progressive teaching.
  2. Lends itself to teaching of large groups or whole classes.

Problematic aspects of the Behaviourist model

  1. Does teaching connect with learner’s existing understanding?
  2. Is learning superficial and fragmented?
  3. With large groups, at what level should the teacher ‘pitch’ the lesson (differentiation).

Elsewhere, Child (1993) questions ‘whether it is possible to evaluate total human or animal response by teasing out, observing and analyzing bits and pieces of behaviour’ (Child 1993:99).

Capel, Leask and Turner (1999) favour an application of Behaviourist learning theories in the teacher’s consistent approach to discipline (cf. Capel, Leask and Turner 1999:84) in that a certain negative action by a pupil should always get a certain negative response from the teacher.

Conversely, Jean McNiff (1993) observes (with disapproving concern) that, in Action Research, ‘...there is a predominant view in the literature that education is to do with behaviour, and that educational enquiries are to do with the control of behaviour’ (McNiff 1993:5). By implication, McNiff would therefore seem to be against a Behaviourist model of teaching which, by its very nature, characterizes learning as the control and change of behaviour.

By way of contrast yet again, Hummel (1997) observes that teachers are, by definition, behaviour modifiers:

‘...if a child is behaviourally the same at the end of the academic year, you will not have done your job as a teacher; children are supposed to learn (i.e., produce relatively permanent change in behaviour or behaviour potential) as a result of experiences they have in the school/classroom setting.’ (Hummel 1997:8).

This view of the Behaviourist model also seems well-suited to the teaching competencies set out in Standards for the Award of Qualified Teacher Status (DfEE 1998).

A literature review of the Behaviourist model of teaching and learning thus reveals that there is no clear consensus on Behaviourism in general but, as Pollard and Triggs (1997) suggest, different applications of the theory may be questioned as to whether they are ‘fit for their purpose’ (Pollard and Triggs 1997:211).

2.2   Constructivism

The Constructivist model of teaching and learning has been influenced by the theories of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1950) who stressed a holistic approach in the fields of both psychology and education.

An exposition of the Constructivist model

In essence, the Constructivist model suggests that ‘people learn through an interaction between thought and experience, and through the sequential development of more complex cognitive structures’ (Pollard and Triggs 1997:211). While the Behaviourist model tends to characterize learners as an amorphous mass who learn through response to positive and negative stimuli, Piaget characterized children by different levels of cognitive development at different ages. In Piaget’s account, learners ‘construct’ understanding by a simultaneous process of accommodation and assimilation (cf. Pollard and Triggs 1997:211); they accommodate new knowledge by making room in their existing understanding; at the same time, they assimilate the new knowledge by fitting it alongside what they already know. The learner thus restructures their thoughts and constructs a new understanding.

An unnamed commentator on the Internet has posted an article entitled ‘Piagetian Principals [sic] in the Classroom‘ (www.coe 2000) [cf.] and observes that possibly the most important role for the teacher is to provide an environment in which the child can experience ‘spontaneous research’.

Pollard and Triggs (1997) characterize the Constructivist model of roles in the teaching and learning process as follows:


Makes sense

Area of
work and



Pollard and Triggs 1997:214).

A critique of the Constructivist model

Child (1993) observes that some American psychologists have been sceptical of the clinical methods Piaget used in his research, suggesting that they depended too much on ‘the verbal introspections of immature minds’ (Child 1993:168). He notes that Behaviourists prefer evidence to be independent of attitudes and self-reports.

Pollard and Triggs (1997) observe that a child-centred Constructivist approach has been more influential in primary school education than secondary school. They summarize the following critiques:

Beneficial aspects of the Constructivist model

  1. The development of a ‘pastoral curriculum’ through personal and social education (cf. Kohlberg and Lickona 1986).
  2. The provision of a varied, stimulating environment in creative arts.
  3. Negotiation of learning area creates pupil motivation and engagement.

Problematic aspects of the Constructivist model

  1. Piaget’s cognitive stages become a means by which teachers classify, compare and then control children (cf. Walkderdine 1988).
  2. Over-emphasizes the individual and ignores the social context (cf. Social Constructivism).
  3. Research shows that teachers tend to become drawn into managing a complex environment rather than teaching itself (Pollard and Triggs 1997:214).

In addition, ‘classical’ Constructivism does not allow for the theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner 1985) whereby learners differ not simply by cognitive levels of development but also by different forms of intelligence (e.g. musical; bodily-kinesthetic; logical-mathematical; linguistic; spatial; interpersonal; intrapersonal and naturalist).  The obvious problem here is that, in a classroom situation, such complex models of differentiation may simply be too unwieldy and impractical given class-sizes, pressures of work and time-constraints.

2.3   Social Constructivism

The Social Constructivist  model of teaching and learning has been influenced by the theories of the Russian psychologist and philosopher Lev Vygotsky (cf.  Vygotsky 1978; Daniels 1996; Bruner 1986). Vygotsky emphasizes the influences of cultural and social contexts and supports a discovery model of learning.

An exposition of the Social Constructivist model

In essence, the Social Constructivist model suggests that learning takes place within what Vygotsky terms the ‘zone of proximal development’ [ZPD]. Vygostsky defines the ZPD as:

‘The distance between the actual development level (of the learner) as determined through problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.’ (Vygotsky 1978:86).

Pollard and Triggs (1997) summarise the ZPD as each learner’s ability to ‘make sense’ given appropriate assistance by ‘more capable others’. Learning is ‘scaffolded’ [constructed] in much the same way as in the Constructivist model. The main difference between the Constructivist and Social Constructivist models is that the former is contextualized almost entirely by the psychological/cognitive level of the learner while the latter places at least equal emphasis on the social context and interaction with others.

Pollard and Triggs (1997) characterise the Social Constructivist model of roles in the teaching and learning process as follows:

(ZPD: Zone of Proximal Development)



Area of work
and activity
Reflective agent
(support and
Reflective agent
(support and
(Pollard and Triggs 1997:217).

A critique of the Social Constructivist model

Pollard and Triggs (1997) observe that although teaching in many secondary schools has been influenced by the Social Constructivist model since the 1980s, it has rarely become the dominant teaching and learning model. They note that it is primarily associated with various processes or group work [which would seem to indicate a distinct compatibility with Drama as an inherently social activity].

Beneficial aspects of the Social Constructivist model

Sheeran and Barnes (1991) point out that school subject disciplines often require pupils to indulge in hypothetical thinking while many pupils are more attuned to activities which have obvious practical relevance to their everyday lives. This seems to concur with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of ‘cultural competence’ and ‘cultural capital’ (whereby pupils from middle-class backgrounds tend to succeed more than pupils from less advantaged social backgrounds due to inherent middle-class bias and reproduction of values in the educational system (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). It is also reminiscent of the British sociologist Paul Willis’ theories on the tendency for pupils from less advantaged social backgrounds to fail in the educational system (Willis 1977) and also the notion of a ‘grounded aesthetic’ in common (everyday) culture (Willis 1990). Pollard and Triggs (1997) observe that a Social Constructivist focus on the use of language in the classroom acts ‘...both as a means for taking part in communities, including the community of the classroom, and as a means of actively ‘making meaning’ within those communities’ (Pollard and Triggs 1997:217).

Problematic aspects of the Social Constructivist model

Pollard and Triggs (1997) also observe that, although Social Constructivism seems to embody the most valuable aspects of both Behaviourism (teacher as interventionist) and Constructivism (teacher as social facilitator) ‘ provides little relief from the pressures of class size or from the wide range of curricular objectives...’ (Pollard and Triggs 1997:219). Again, as with the Constructivist model, the problem may lie not with the veracity of the model but with problems of its incorporation into classroom management given  neo-positivist pressures of standardisation of curriculum and assessment together with class-sizes, pressures of work and time-constraints.

2.4   A Comparison of Behaviourist, Constructivist and Social Constructivist Models of Learning

Each of the above models of teaching and learning may be characterized by different images of both the teacher and the learner. Pollard and Triggs (1997) neatly compare and contrast these images in the table reproduced below:

Some features of Behaviourist, Constructivist and Social Constructivist models of learning applied to secondary schools.

in classrooms
in classrooms
Social constructivism
in classrooms
Image of learner 



Images of teaching & learning 
Teacher transmits knowledge and skills.

 Learning depends on teaching.
Teacher gives pupil opportunity to construct knowledge and skills gradually through experience.

Learning can be independent of teaching.
Knowledge and skills are constructed gradually through experience, interaction and adult support.

Learning comes through the interdependence of teacher and learner.
Characteristic pupil activities
Class listening to an adult.

Class working on an exercise.
Individuals making, experimenting, or otherwise doing something.
Discussing an issue with an adult or other pupil(s).

Problem-solving with a group.
Some characteristics
Draws directly on existing subject knowledge in a logical, linear manner.

When matched to existing understanding, can be a fast and effective way to learn.
Uses direct experience and allows pupils to explore in their own way at their own pace.

Can build confidence and practical understanding which clarifies thinking and produces insight.
By structuring challenges can clarify thinking and produce meaningful understanding.

Encourages collaboration and language development.
Some issues
May not connect with existing understanding and may thus lead to superficiality.

Difficult to motivate all pupils in class.

Difficult to adapt structure of subject matter to varied pupil needs.
Has major resource and organizational implications.

Management of the class and resources often dominates actual teaching.

Assumes high level of motivation and autonomy from learners.
Has major resource and organizational implications.

Requires a very high level of adult judgment and skill.

Assumes high level of social and linguistic maturity from learners.
(Pollard and Triggs 1997:220).

This comparison and contrast of the respective images of the teacher and the learner concludes my literature review.

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