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Learning Theories and their relevance to Forest School Practice

There are a number of learning theories that have been proposed to explain our ability to learn.

Broadly speaking these can be broken down into a number of different categories. These include;

  • Behaviourism,
  • Cognitivism,
  • Constructivism,
  • Motivational and Humanist Theories, and
  • Modern and Design Theories

A quick preview of these theories and proponents shows that many of them have relevance to how we act and teach in Forest School.

Behaviourism has its origins with Watson, Skinner and Pavlov and looks at how we learn through reward or pain avoidance. Ever used rewards to improve the behaviour of your learners?

Constructivism has its origins with proponents like Piaget, Dewey, Montessori and Kolb. It states that learners construct their own schema or knowledge of the world and that to learn something new involves a disruption of this original world view. “The teacher, therefore, acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working answering open-ended questions and solving real-world problems. To do this, a teacher should encourage curiosity and discussion among his/her students as well as promoting their autonomy.” These theories of learning are always popular with Forest School Leaders.

Motivational and Humanist theories of learning include proponents such as Maslow, Goleman, Csikszentmihalyi and Dweck. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs requires no explanations but theories such as Multiple Intelligences, Flow and Mindsets are becoming popular with Forest School Leaders across the globe.

Design Theories, systems thinking, Gamification ┬áin Education and the like all have their proponents and their place in the Forest School Leader’s toolbox of pedagogies.

Ken Bain suggests the best teachers;

have generally cobbled together from their own experiences working with students conceptions of human learning that are remarkably similar to some ideas that have emerged in the research and theoretical literature on cognition, motivation, and human development”

As a Forest School Leader we are used to utilising whatever the natural environment provides, for tools, activities and learning. Learning theories allow you to take a similar approach. Utilise what is available and what works given your learners and the environment.

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