Compare, contrast and critically evaluate two theories of the learner and/or learning

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Psychology & Learning Communities
Assignment details
2. Compare, contrast and critically evaluate two
theories of the learner and/or learning (2000 words, 50% of overall
This assignment gives you the opportunity to take further your understanding and
application of social and educational theories explored during the course. In your
answer you might want to take two specific theories of learning or you might want to
consider the different perspectives we have explored in relation to how the learner can
be understood. Questions you might want to ask of the two perspectives could
include: how is the individual learner conceptualised? What weight is given to
individual capacity versus collective endeavour? What is the relationship between an
individual learner and their environment? What kinds of pedagogy would teachers
and schools draw upon were they to adopt one/both of these perspectives?
Assignment 2: 2000 word essay comparing and contrasting two theories of learning.
In your answer you might want to take two specific theories of learning or you might want to
consider the different perspectives we have explored in relation to how the learner can be
Questions you might want to ask of the two perspectives or theories could
• How is the individual learner/ human subject/ developing person
• What approach does each theory adopt in relation to epistemology or
• What weight is given to individual capacity versus collective endeavour?
• What is the relationship between an individual and their environment?
• How are learning/ development & the role of learner conceptualised – active,
• How is the teacher/ educator/ youth-worker/ media educator conceptualised?
How would each perspective conceptualise a good teacher/ educator/ youthworker/ media educator?
• What kinds of pedagogy would teachers, schools, youth organisations or
educational media draw upon were they to adopt one/both of these
• Where is the place and significance of society, culture, media and politics in
each specific theory of learning?
You will notice that the assignment title suggests you can look at various
approaches to learning/ development/ childhood. We would like to encourage
you to think about the kind of human subject that particular social, psychological
and educational theories/ approaches have in mind. So, the ‘cognitive information
processor’ will differ markedly from the ‘communities of practice learner’. And if
each is understanding the human being differently then you can be sure they will
have a different conceptualisation of the learner/ learning/ development.
The hope is that you are encouraged to take a theory, account for it, develop it, apply it (to
learning and/or the learner) and then provide some critical evaluation. As you are asked to look
at two theories then comparing and contrasting these can help in your task of providing a critical
stance in relation to the theories in question.
When writing it is useful to keep in mind three key ideas:
1. Clarify your terms
You can begin by defining the key terms, concepts and theories/ approaches in
your assignment question, or you can define key terms as you go along. Just
remember, there could be more than one understanding of each term that you use.
You will have to explain why you have chosen your particular definitions. Here
you should refer to researchers and writers and how they have defined concepts
and terms in their work.
2. Define your focus
Try to choose a focus for your essay. Early on in the essay signpost for the reader
the main arguments of the essay: give them a sense of the journey ahead.
3. Develop and structure your argument
Decide what your ‘argument’ will be. Tell the reader at the beginning what you will
argue, then make your case, and summarise in your conclusion what your
argument was and how you have supported it. Always ask yourself when writing:
‘what does this sentence/paragraph contribute to my argument?’ Feel free to have
sections to your essay. Consider the essay in terms of introduction, main body and
4. Coherence of the essay
It might sound odd but read aloud what you have written. If you find you are
running out of breath then chances are your sentence is too long! If the argument
you have written makes little sense when you are speaking it loud, then you
probably need to rewrite.
So, to summarise:
There is no set text that you must read (though the session outlines recommend a
number of useful places to start) and there is no existing text that will provide you
with a ready-made answer to the essay question. It is up to you to choose your
focus and select the texts that are relevant to the approach you take.
There is no right or wrong answer. You are being assessed on the quality of your
engagement with the question, which means, the level of critical thinking that you
can bring to bear within a focused and well-reasoned 2000 word argument.
Week 1 – Learning in Times of Global Crisis: Introduction
Essential/ pre-session readings:
Kontopodis, M. (2012). Neoliberalism, Pedagogy and Human Development: Exploring Time,
Mediation and Collectivity in Contemporary Schools. London and New York:
Routledge/ Taylor & Francis. Pages: 12-28 & 50-57.
*Kontopodis, M., Magalhaes, M. C., & Coracini, M. J. (Eds.). (2016). Facing poverty and
marginalization: 50 years of critical research in Brazil. Bern, Oxford and New York:
Peter Lang. Pages: 127-145.
Week 2 – Learning in socio-cultural-historical perspective (i)
Essential/ pre-session reading:
*Lave, J. (1991). Situated learning in communities of practice. In L. Resnick, J. Levine, and
S. Teasley (eds.) Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. Washington, DC: American
Psychological Association.
Week 3 – Learning in socio-cultural-historical perspective (ii)
Essential/ pre-session reading:
Blunden, A. (2008). Vygotsky’s unfinished theory of child development. Online publication
– see MOLE.
Week 4 – Learning, development & capabilities
Essential/ pre-session reading:
Hart, C.F. (2016) How Do Aspirations Matter? Journal of Human Development and
Capabilities, 17(3), 324-341.
Week 5 – Deconstructing cognitivism, behaviourism & biopedagogies
Essential/ pre-session reading:
Kontopodis, M. (2013). Biomedicine, Psychology and the Kindergarten: Children at Risk and
Emerging Knowledge Practices. Sport, Education and Society, 18(4), 475-493.
Week 6 – Learning, critical pedagogy & countryside education
Essential/ pre-session reading:
Giroux, H. A. (2003) Public pedagogy and the politics of resistance: notes on a critical theory
of educational struggle. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 35(1), 5–16.
Kontopodis, M. (2012). Neoliberalism, pedagogy and human development: Exploring time,
mediation and collectivity in contemporary schools. London and New York: Routledge/
Taylor & Francis (pages: 71-87).
Week 7: Learning, distributed cognition and post-humanism
Essential/ pre-session reading:
Kontopodis, M., & Ferrin, N. (2017). Playing sports with Nintendo Wii in Berlin:
Technography, interactivity and imagination. In M. Kontopodis, C. Varvantakis, & C. Wulf
(Eds.), Global youth in digital trajectories (pp. 39-52). London: Routledge.
Week 8 – Learning to become gendered sexual subjects: The role of education
Essential/ pre-session reading:
DePalma, R., & Atkinson, E. (2009) ‘No Outsiders’ Moving beyond a discourse of tolerance
to challenge heteronormativity in primary schools’, British Educational Research Journal,
35(6(, 837-855.
Slater, J., Jones, C. & Procter, L. (2017) Troubling school toilets: resisting discourses of
‘development’ through a critical disability studies and critical psychology lens. Discourse:
Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1-12.
Week 9: Synthesis: Learning and community in a hyper-connected world
Essential/ pre-session reading:
Introduction of: Kontopodis, M.; Varvantakis, C. & Wulf, C. (Eds) (2017). Global Youth in
Digital Trajectories. London: Routledge (pp. 1-11)
Week 10: Contextualising learning in the British educational system
Essential/ pre-session reading:
Check MOLE for the essential reading on this session.
Epistemology, ontology and methodology
• The ontological question: “What is the nature
of reality and therefore, what is there that can
be known about it?”;
Epistemology, ontology and methodology
• the epistemological question: “What is the
relationship between the knower (or wouldbe knower) and what can be known?”;
Epistemology, ontology and methodology
• the methodological question: “How can the
inquirer go about finding out whatever he or
she believes can be known about?” (Guba &
Lincoln, 1994),
Key questions …
• Epistemology – how do we know what we
know about learning?
• Ontology – what do learners experience?
• Methodology – How do we research learning?
How we see, experience and research the world
will have huge implications on how we approach
teaching, learning, pedagogy ….
© The University of Sheffield
A comparison of two theories of the learner and learning
Theories about the learner and the learning experience are central to the fields of education
and psychology. In this essay, I will discuss both these concepts in relation to neoliberalism
and critical pedagogy. I will explore how the individual learner and their role is
conceptualised, the relationship between the individual learner and their environment, and in
addition, the weight that each theory gives to individual capacity and collective endeavour. I
will also discuss the approach of each theory to epistemology, ontology and methodology
and I will explore how each theory conceptualises a good teacher. I will also outline the
significance of society, culture and politics to both the selected perspectives.
How the individual learner is conceptualised in both the selected theories
With neoliberalism, the learner is seen as a consumer rather than as a producer of
knowledge (Marginson, 1997, p.5). Neoliberalism emphasises marketization and views
education as providing a service to its attendants, and the knowledge needed to succeed in
a competitive capitalist corporate working environment. Students and parents are
increasingly being given choice regarding the educational institution they attend, and
therefore are not viewed as active thinkers in the learning process. They are clientele who
are receptors of the academic knowledge needed to pass exams and, in the long term,
obtain good jobs (Slaughter and Rhodes, 2004). I strongly disagree with the increasing
marketization of educational institutions because it devalues the original thought and
initiative that are crucial to life after formal study. Formal learning should not be overridden
with objectives and bureaucratic aims but instead it should take place in an environment
open to lateral thinking. Initiative is needed in everyday unforeseen events.
Critical pedagogy views the learner as an active constructer and producer of knowledge and
original thought (Jarvis, 2005, p.99). Paulo Freire (1970), a key critical pedagogue, argued
that education should cultivate students’ skills regarding self-realisation and also nurture the
ability to challenge common-sense beliefs rather than just accept the status quo. Academics
such as Kellner (2000, p.197), argue that critical pedagogy should aim to create educational
institutions which exist with the sole purpose of making a social rather than economic
contribution to society.
The approach each theory adopts in relation to epistemology, ontology and methodology
A functionalist perspective is central in terms of the epistemological, ontological and
methodological approaches of neo-liberalism. Functionalism views all aspects of society as
predominantly harmonious and as having a crucial contribution to its survival (Oxford English
Dictionary, 2014). As neo-liberalism sees no major flaws in the structure of a capitalist
society, without major state intervention (Danzelot, 1984) both ontologically and
epistemologically the ideology views there being no need to seek an alternative notion of the
truth than what appears on face value. As neo-liberalism is not concerned with the
subjectivities of society’s citizens (Hall, 1988, p.152), students in a neo-liberalist education
system are prescribed hard facts that fail to take into account any consideration of individual
differences and needs. Neo-liberalist education fails to challenge common discourses and
thus never sets out to seek alternative views on the way in which society could alternatively
operate. Neoliberalism takes a positivist stance and believes that there is truth in scientific
psychological research regarding the way in which people learn.
Critical pedagogy takes both a radical humanist and radical structuralist approach with
regard to epistemology, ontology and methodology. It is concerned with changing and
challenging common societal discourses and its larger, overriding structures. Unlike neoliberalism, it sets out to pose questions regarding those of truth and aims to discover
alternatives to everyday norms that it views as expressive and exploitive (Gore, 1994,
p.111). A critical pedagogical approach is taken by Reynolds and Martusewicz (1994, p.224)
when they state that freedom is an active process whereby we have to change both our own
thoughts and those of others. Critical pedagogical education takes a strong interpretivist
stance and fosters the idea that there is no universal foundation for truth and objectivity. It
values research however is conscious that any research undertaken is determined by
“inherently subjective perspectives” (Leistyna and Woodrum, 1996, p.4).
The weight given to individual capacity and collective endeavour
With regard to the weight given to individual capacity and collective endeavour, neoliberalism and critical pedagogy vary considerably. Neoliberalism places great emphasis on
the individual whereas critical pedagogy favours collectivism.
Neoliberalist discourse is a strong example of Sampson’s (1988, p.1288) notion of selfcontained individualism which is “the belief that each of us is an entity separate from every
other and the group.” It promotes the idea that the individuals’ main focus is the self and that
people should be self-sufficient regarding their finances and their achievements. This
neoliberal belief is reflected in both Conservative and New Labour government initiatives
such as Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme (Colclough, 1991, p.203) as well as the
Conservative’s continuous roll-back of the state. Dardot and Laval (2009, p.164), for
example, argue that throughout time Conservative governments have dismantled solidarity
by withdrawing financial support for those in need.
A fundamental principle of critical pedagogy, on the other hand, is collective endeavour and
“the need to include all voices in the learning process” (Leistya and Woodrum, 1996, p.5).
Critical pedagogues argue that positive change can only come about through unity and the
engagement and sharing of different individuals’ ideas and opinions. This philosophy
respects individualism but sees major advantages in cohesive activities and the learning
experience. I believe that the promotion of cohesive actions in society is extremely positive
and will lead to more efficient ways of dealing with societal issues.
The relationship between the individual learner and their environment
Regarding the relationship between the individual learner and their environment, there is a
significant difference between neoliberalism and critical pedagogy. When discussing
environment, this essay is referring to both the immediate educational environment and the
wider societal and community environment. Neoliberalism views the individual as submissive
to their environment, not encouraged in an educational context to reflect and critique their
surroundings. Instead of promoting curiosity, neoliberal education emphasises the principal
focus of learning to be preparation for the job market (Harris, 2007, p.19).
Contrastingly, with critical pedagogical education, the individual is an active participant in
relation to their environment, encouraged to critique educational practices and urged to
reflect upon the neoliberal principles shaping current educational institutions (Kascák and
Pupala, 2011, p.147). I believe that the critical pedagogical teaching method is superior to
that of the neoliberal philosophy, because change that puts people before economics is only
likely to occur if the current status quo is reflected upon.
How the role of the learner is conceptualised
The role of the learner also differs greatly between neoliberalism and critical pedagogy.
Neoliberalism views the learner as a market asset to the educational context of which they
are part (Giroux and Giroux, 2006, p.24). As a result of neo-liberal influenced governmental
policy, schools have been increasingly forced to compete in an educational market in which
quality is assessed in the form of exam result league tables (Barry et al, 1996, p.28). The
more academically successful the pupil, the greater benefit they are to the school. Although
neoliberalism is currently the dominating societal ideology, its principles are heavily criticised
by some critics. Portelli and Konechy (2013, p.89), for example, state that neo-liberal culture
is oppressive and “has a detrimental influence on any and all commitments to democratic
ideals in educational settings.”
Critical pedagogy views the learner as being an active and reflective thinker who poses
questions regarding common societal discourses. Critical pedagogues want learners to
eventually make a difference to society as a result of the education they receive. This could
be attempting to tackle discrimination for example (Berlak, 1994, p.38). Ellsworth (1994,
p.102) argues how education is a means to promoting an antiracist society and states that
because topics such as inequality and discrimination will be actively discussed in critical
pedagogically rooted learning environments, learners will grow to eventually create
institutions that “embody justice, respect, and the absence of oppression.”
How each perspective conceptualises a good teacher
Each perspective presents a contrasting view of a good teacher. Neoliberalism requires the
instillation of society’s prerequisites to learners through an authoritative pedagogy (Hayek,
1949, p.6), with the teacher as a transmitter of ED Hirsch’s (1993) concept of “core
knowledge”. Supporters of core knowledge strongly oppose democratic teaching techniques,
such as individualisation, and place great value on whole class instruction, prescribed
knowledge and rigorous objective tests. This can be seen as the banking teaching method
(Bridges and Jonathan, 2002) in which “the teacher assumes the students to be empty of
knowledge and void of life experiences” and thus simply offloads pre-decided facts and
ideas. I think that this method has a detrimental impact on the ability to think critically for
both students and teachers. This negative view is also taken by Portelli and Konechy (2013,
p.92) who note that school systems organized according to the “results-based logic of
neoliberalism instrumentalise teachers and dehumanize students.” Both Lyotard (1984, p.4)
and Smyth (2001, p.39) also note that within education, there is an ever increasing lack of
imaginative space. From my experience working in a mainstream school, I certainly agree
with this statement.
Critical pedagogy requires the teacher to engage pupils in an active learning experience in
which they are given the chance to engage with societal issues and reflect upon the
environments in which they are situated (Bruckerhoff, 1994, p.87). Teachers are expected to …
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