Education is one of the most complex and challenging fields of research and practice. Changes in student perceptions, skills, and knowledge, as well as the revolutionary shifts in learning, social, and technological environments challenge previously established beliefs about learning and education. The goal of this paper is to answer the most important questions, pertaining to the field of education. The concept and implications of multicultural education are discussed. Differences between operant and classical conditioning are identified and applied in real-life classroom environments. Informal and formal social processes, their effects on behavioral outcomes and group learning are evaluated. The importance and features of standardization in education are discussed.
Multicultural Education and Dealing with the Challenge of Classroom Diversity
Multicultural education is one of the most popular concepts in present day education. Despite the growing body of literature, the meaning and implications of multicultural education are poorly understood. Approaches to multicultural education differ considerably (Banks, 1993). Nonetheless, it is possible to assume that multicultural education is that which “relates to education and instruction, designed for the cultures of several different races in an educational system” (Wilson, 1995). The major goal of multicultural education is to reform all educational institutions and schools, so that students of diverse ethnic, racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds have equal educational and learning opportunities (Banks, 1993). Another goal of multicultural education is to enhance the quality and educational mobility among male and female students (Banks, 1993). In other words, equality, irrespective of student backgrounds, is the main building block of the multicultural education philosophy. This is the philosophy that can reduce the existing ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic disparities among students and their impacts on their behavioral outcomes.
The diversity greatly affects learning outcomes that has been abundantly established. Depending on the quality of school curriculums, diversity can either benefit or damage the learning process. From the positive side, diversity in education and curriculum planning prepares students for operating in global environments, enables brainstorming of new ideas and prevents groupthink (Taras & Rowney, 2007). Apparently, diversity can contribute to the quality of classroom discussions and teamwork, but in most cases diversity is still a serious challenge, faced by educators. If managed inappropriately, diversity of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds among students results in serious difficulties in group and teamwork, leading to communication difficulties and stereotypes (Taras & Rowney, 2007). The lack of cohesiveness is one of the main issues in heterogeneous teams (Taras & Rowney, 2007). Therefore, diversity management is crucial to the success of learning and education.
The main question is how to manage diversity properly and ensure smooth implementation of multicultural education frameworks. Certainly, not everyone is optimistic about student-centered learning: Haggis (2006) asserts that meeting learner’s needs is absolutely impossible, since the current extent of diversity makes this task virtually unachievable. Yet, learner-centered education in diverse classrooms is possible. As a future educator, I will begin by evaluating my own beliefs and stereotypes. According to Davis (1993), each student must be treated individually and equally; simultaneously, educators must learn how exactly diverse students perceive the classroom climate. This being said, I will question students and encourage them to express their concerns and recommendations, to improve the diversity climate in the classroom. Simultaneously, we will incorporate the concept of diversity into our curriculum and classroom discussions, to help students learn the value of difference and respect it.
Operant and Classical Conditioning – Behaviorism in Classroom Learning
Classical and operational conditioning is the basic element of the behavioral theory and its application in learning. Classical conditioning presupposes that individuals respond to various stimuli automatically, involuntarily. This type of conditioning is often associated with the name of Dr. Pavlov, a Russian scientist who performed a series of famous experiments on dogs and proved that animals would elicit one and the same response to the same stimulus/ action. Classical conditioning builds on the logic and associations among various phenomena and things. By contrast, operant conditioning is about the consequences to which various actions may lead. In other words, individuals and animals learn from the consequences that result from their decisions and acts. For example, students learn not to plagiarize in their papers, since it always leads to grade failure.
It is noteworthy, that the popularity of behaviorist approaches in education has slowly waned, giving place to other models of instructional design and learning, namely, constructivism. Nevertheless, behaviorism and conditioning remain rather popular in various learning settings. In the classroom, operant and classical conditioning is usually implemented by means of explicit, direct instruction (Steele, 2005). These approaches are of particular value for students with special learning needs (Steele, 2005). For example, behaviorist approaches come into play, when teachers divide the content into smaller segments that facilitate learning process (Steele, 2005). Here, the process of learning, by itself, is the basic product of classical conditioning: with the major task, broken into smaller segments, productive learning occurs automatically and involuntarily. Simultaneously, teachers may use the principles of operant conditioning to reward students for their contribution in brainstorming. Take a look at elementary grade students who are learning to write. From the behavioral perspective, explaining and demonstrating every stage of the writing process may not be enough to help elementary grade students to successfully cope with their classroom tasks (Steele, 2005). In this situation, teachers can develop a system of learning aids and graphic organizers, teaching students to use these aids on a daily basis. Later, and through the prism of operant conditioning, students learn that aids and graphic organizers facilitate learning and memorizing. As a result, they will be more willing to use these models in other learning situations.
Unfortunately, behaviorist approaches to learning and instruction are characterized by predictability and structured routine (Steele, 2005). Therefore, using operant and classical conditioning in learning may not be enough to bring learners to the desired learning outcome. In this situation, using a blend of two or more theoretical models of learning could better suit the needs and talents of diverse students in the classroom.
Formal and Informal Social Processes and Group Learning
School environments incorporate a whole range of systems and processes that range from highly formal to extremely informal (Chance & Chance, 2007). In other words, schools exemplify a complex interplay between the formal, informal, and individual needs of learners (Chance & Chance, 2007). “A school classroom is a subsystem of the school site’s social system” (Chance & Chance, 2007, p.62). In this sense, formal social processes are those, which revolve around the organizational structure of school and the classroom and build on the hierarchical and status differences between teachers and students and between teachers and school principals. More often than not, teachers seek to retain the formal nature of their relationships with students and believe that formalization is one of the main prerequisites of effective learning. Informal relations and social processes emerge formal structures, mainly through insider and outsider groups, formed by students (Chance & Chance, 2007). For example, some students develop complex relationships with their peers and establish themselves as informal leaders, whereas other students, because of their personal or social characteristics, represent the so-called “outsider” group. These students rarely interact with other students and spend most of their time learning and studying.
Needless to say, formal and informal social processes are equally important and produce huge influences on student behavioral outcomes. Formal social processes are focused on the academic community and are designed to promote intellectual excellence (Hargreaves, 2001). Informal social processes are no less important, since students learn the principles and values of moral excellence (Hargreaves, 2001). Simply stated, in their informal relations with peers, students learn the values of friendship, courage, and self-control (Hargreaves, 2001). Both formal and informal social processes result in the emergence of collective meanings, shared values, beliefs, and principles among students and define the boundaries of appropriate behaviors within and beyond school environments.
Both formal and informal social processes are inseparable from the concept of interdependence. Therefore, group work is extremely important for the quality of formal and informal relations in the classroom. However, not all activities are inherently appropriate for group learning. The most appropriate are those tasks, which rely and encourage collaboration and cooperation (Coelho, 2001). In these activities, students work in a small group toward a common goal, and their successes are evaluated, based on the contribution they have made to the common task. Here, peer assessments can be used to evaluate student progress (Coelho, 2001). The least appropriate for group learning tasks are those which are competitive and individualized (Coelho, 2001).
Standardization and Teacher-Made Tests
Standardization vs. individualization is one of the most common debates in the present day educational system. In the world of learner-centered educational philosophies, standardized tests are often blamed for failure to account for individual skills and unique student abilities. As a result, teacher-made tests gradually displace standardized assessments, although the latter have considerable benefits and can serve the assessment needs of broad student populations. Teacher-made tests are instruments, created and used by teachers, to assess student performance (Asia University, n.d.). Teacher tends to rely on rating scales and checklists, which communicate the main criteria of learning achievement and rate students, according to these criteria (Asia University, n.d.). Teacher-made tests are believed to be a relevant instrument of learner-centered curriculum and instructional design. However, teachers easily forget that they are not psychometricians and their tests cannot be formally validated (Asia University, n.d.). The utility of teacher-made tests is rather limited: they can be used only in classroom and learning situations, for which they have been designed. By contrast, standardized tests are intended to be used across all groups of students, no matter where and when they are assessed (Asia University, n.d.). Standardized are created and approved officially, with the goal of measuring how students attain to measurable curriculum-based objectives (Asia University, n.d.). The mere fact that these tests are “standardized” subjects them to a considerable amount of criticism. However, standardization is extremely important in the educational process.
The fact is that standardized tests can be compared to railroads: in the system of railway connections, tracks are standard, of the same size, and all trains can run on any track (Bjerede, 2010). In a similar fashion, standardization in education and assessment creates a solid platform, which ensures consistency of knowledge evaluation across all disciplines and grades and minimizes variations in teacher expectations (Bjerede, 2010). Standardization has nothing to do without uniformity, and standardized tests do not deny the relevance of individualization and learner-centered approaches in education. The most important question is what should be done to sustain a reasonable balance of standardization and individualization in learning.
Standardized tests must serve the basis of all knowledge assessment systems in schools. The amount and boundaries of knowledge, which all students must possess, need to be defined. Students that enter colleges and universities must possess the amount of knowledge and skills, required to successfully advance their future careers. Hearing from college and university professors that “this is something you should have learned at school” is not uncommon, and standardization will guarantee the consistency of knowledge across all disciplines. Like all students are expected to have reading and writing proficiency, they are also expected to have the basic understanding of other disciplines. Creative teacher-made tests must become a relevant supplement to standardized tests. Also, teachers must be allowed to replace concepts in standardized tests, as long as they do not distort the meaning of the task. For example, if the majority of students live in trailers, they may find it difficult to resolve mathematics and physics tasks that speak about walls, ceilings, and their insulation capacities. If that is the case, all changes must be approved by the local public education office. This is how students can successfully meet their learning objectives.