Learning theories are the models that try to explain how people learn. These theories are at the foundation of educational psychology and have a profound influence on how people teach as well.
Since TESOL is focused on teaching language specifically it should not be surprising that learning theories influence TESOL as well. In this post, we will look at several common learning theories and how they influence TESOL.
Behaviorism & Skill Learning
Behaviorism states that learning is a process of developing specific actions in response to specific stimuli. Through repetition, habits were developed. In many methods of TESOL, such as the audiolingual method, you can see a focus on a great deal of repetition. This style of teaching is due in part to behaviorism.
Skill learning is really another variety of Behaviorism. Skill learning focuses on the development of integrated abilities through practice. The skill is considered mastered when it becomes automatic. Most methods have some element of skills learning.
Cognitive learning is focused on how individuals store, encode and use knowledge. Through clear carefully planned instruction, students will be able to achieve lesson objectives. Teaching happens inductively and deductively with students using their knowledge to practice what they have learned. Situational language teaching has been influenced by this theory as it focuses on the students acquiring an understanding of the knowledge to use in various settings.
Interactional Theory & Constructivism
Interactional theory believes that people learn through working together. However, the experience of working together involves an advanced student with a weaker student. The advance student teaches and guides the weaker student.
Through this experience, both students build or construct knowledge. This development of knowledge through interaction is know constructivism. Constructivism is the internal development of meaning for an individual based on their interaction with those around them. When this interaction happens with a teacher it is called scaffolding.
Methods that focus on collaboration and lots of interaction are derived from interactional and constructivism, Examples include cooperative language learning, community language learning, and task-based language.
Language Theory and Learning Theory
In a previous post, we looked at language theory. If you have been reading all these posts together you might be confused over what language theory is and what learning theory is. Language theory focuses specifically on how people learn a language. On the other a hand, learning theory focuses on how people learn in general.
Both language theories (how people learn languages) and learning theories (how people learn) influences approaches in TESOL. An approach is a set of beliefs in how to teach a language and how students learn a language. In other words, an approach is just a combination of language theories and learning theories. Below is a visual.
Language Theory + Learning Theory = Approach