Investigating Learning Theories
I came into teaching through a non-traditional path and thus I had not spent a lot of time exploring the established learning theories. Often when I heard about Plato, Locke, Skinner, Pavlov, Brunner, Piaget, Papert, I would ponder their relevancy. Realistically, how could these learning theories be cogent when they had no idea of a world that includes the internet? How could learning theories from a century ago explain a learning environment that has the power of Google or YouTube? Then I remembered C.S. Lewis believed that “good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered.” So I ventured to explore the thoughts about learning outlined in my I Believe video in relation to these philosophers.
As with my video this investigates my thoughts on learning not teaching. There is a difference between thinking about the pedagogical tools that make a successful learning environment and thinking about how learners acquire or construct knowledge. Without a belief in how we should learn, we don’t understand how we should teach. Often times we get this in the wrong order and think about a teaching philosophy without understanding our thoughts on learning.
The Building Blocks Haven’t Changed
The first belief I outlined in my video is that the building blocks of communication, creativity, critical thinking and the like haven’t changed in their educational need. However, what has changed is what those things mean. As I started look at the learning theory that dominated the beginning of educational theory, I came to a similar conclusion. I will not argue that Behaviorism isn’t a viable learning technique. As I learned in my college psychology classes Pavlov’s theories on stimulus and response are well established. Sure you can condition a dog to salivate when they hear a bell and that might even translate to low level learning in humans. I even see discussions related to Behaviorism in the work of Dan Pink. Pink argues however that it’s not as simple as rewarding the behaviors you want and punishing the behaviors you do not. He argues that mechanical tasks respond to basic incentives; however, once a task require even rudimentary cognitive skill these incentives no longer worked.
I began to think about my experiences. As I reflected I realized that Behaviorism was the main way I was taught in high school. I was taught to perform a task to receive the proper incentive. They treated me like a blank slate and filled me with knowledge using positive and negative reinforcement as the incentive to “succeed.” And as my last post revealed, I don’t believe this is the way we should be learning today especially in middle and upper school.
So Behaviorism seems to reinforce my theory that maybe these learning philosophies are not relevant today. Let’s not stop there though. Let’s continue to explore.
Learn, Unlearn and Relearn
My next belief is one that is core to everything I try to do. As Alvin Toffler says, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” The leaders of the next generation will face new challenges, many of which we can’t even imagine at this time. The skills and experiences our students have today will prepare them to lead with honor, creativity, and confidence tomorrow. It is incumbent on us to inspire students while providing a foundation of learning. This foundation must develop design strategies, critical thinking, synthesizing capacities, and the ability to apply knowledge while learning to express it with real world relevancy. Additionally, students need to develop a respect for diverse cultures, demonstrate digital literacy, and embrace civic responsibility. As Thomas and Brown put forth in their book a New Culture of Learning, “Generally people don’t take a class or read books or manuals to learn how to use a web browser or e-mail program. They just start doing it, learning by absorption and making tacit connections. And the more they do it, the more they learn.They make connections between and amongst things that are familiar. They experience with what they already know how to do and modify it to meet new challenges or contexts” (2011, p. 76). So I explored to see if one of these theories even talked about doing. And lo and behold I discovered (actually re-discovered) Constructivism. “Constructivism as a paradigm or worldview posits that learning is an active, constructive process. The learner is an information constructor.” So now we are getting somewhere…I wanted to venture on an see if this theory held water with my other beliefs.
Authentic and Relevant Learning
The next belief I outline is the need for student learning to be authentic and relevant. “Acquisition learning is seen as going on all the time. It is ‘concrete, immediate and confined to a specific activity; it is not concerned with general principles’ (Rogers 2003, p.18).” I have always referred to what I was talking about as “just-in-time” as opposed to “just-in-case” learning. Rogers refers to this as acquisition learning while Thomas and Brown refer to it as tacit learning. While we all call it different things we agree that it is a more informal type of learning. Often the learner isn’t conscious of the actual learning as they are more focused on accomplishing the task or solving the problem in front of them.
As we delve further into Constructivist theorists we encounter Piaget. Piaget really starts to nail how I believe learning occurs when the correct environments are constructed. As Ackerman notes, “To Piaget, knowledge is not information to be delivered at one end, and encoded, memorized, retrieved, and applied at the other end. Instead, knowledge is experience that is acquired through interaction with the world, people and things” (Ackerman, n.d.). This interaction is the essence of authentic and relevant learning.
What Problems Do Students Want To Solve
As I delve further into Constructivism, I am struck by my belief that we shouldn’t ask students what they want to be when they grow up but what problems do they want to solve. As Ackerman continues to compare the Constructivist theorists Piaget and Papert she notes, “The cycle of self-directed learning is an iterative process by which learners invent for themselves the tools and mediations that best support the exploration of what they most care about” (Ackerman, n.d.). If we ask students to solve problems they will expand their learning in an iterative manner that far surpasses the amount of knowledge we would have transferred to them. If we support their projects and guide their learning we will develop self-directed learners who understand the value of learning instead of the value of a grade.
“High School Shouldn’t Be Preparation For Real Life. It Should Be Real Life”
I believe Chris Lehman when he says the above quote. I believe we should construct learning environments that create a sense of ownership in students. How we build that ownership is not the same in every student. David Perkins addresses this when he invites us to look at Constructivism as a toolbox. We need to employ the tools as we see fit. Sometimes that results in more structure, sometimes less, sometimes more discovery oriented, sometimes less, whatever works that day in your learning environment. As he declares, “In keeping with this flexibility, active, social, and creative learning can play out in different ways, depending on the circumstances. Active learning is the common denominator” (Perkins, 1999). We should use our active learning strategies like a swiss army knife, deploying the proper tool at the appropriate time. This is how people succeed in learning in the “real world.” Why shouldn’t it be that way in school? This is one of the reasons I am so excited about the possibility of the Entrepreneurial Track. This program would allow for supreme flexibility and authenticity in learning.
Online collaborative learning
So yes, I absolutely think theorists from a century ago can lend us ideas to guide our learning today. I was also excited when I came across Linda Harasim’s Online Collaborative Learning theory while reading Tony Bates’ Learning Theories and Online Learning. She carries these ideas into the 21st century. “OCL theory provides a model of learning in which students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer. While OCL theory does encourage the learner to be active and engaged, this is not considered to be sufficient for learning or knowledge construction……In the OCL theory, the teacher plays a key role not as a fellow-learner, but as the link to the knowledge community, or state of the art in that discipline. Learning is defined as conceptual change and is key to building knowledge. Learning activity needs to be informed and guided by the norms of the discipline and a discourse process that emphasises conceptual learning and builds knowledge” (Harasim, 2012, p.90). Through this theory she marries Constructivism and the benefits of technology and it’s ability to bring about a collective of people to help solve problems.
As my personal learning continues to evolve so does my thoughts on the learning environments we should create for our students. One thing that has not wavered in my research of these theories is my firm belief in an active learning environment that leverages the tools of today to allow students to ask great questions.
Ackermann, E. (n.d.). Piaget’s constructivism, Papert’s constructionism: What’s the difference? Retrieved from http://learning.media.mit.edu/content/publications/EA.Piaget%20_%20Papert.pdf
This paper addresses two of the leaders of Constructivist learning. It discusses the many similarities but also points out the differences. Piaget leans more towards the “step back” approach while Papert leans into “dwelling”.
Bates, T. (2014, July 29). Learning theories and online learning. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/07/29/learning-theories-and-online-learning/
Bates discusses how different theories of learning relate to how knowledge is acquired. He points out that there is research to back up almost all theories of learning. He challenges teachers to devise how they will convert these theories into practice. In this post he also highlights the work of Linda Harasim and her theory of Online Collaborative Learning. Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge
Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace?
The book focuses on the theory that a new culture of learning surrounds the synergy of the unlimited amount of resources in the world today and a bounded learning environment that creates the necessity for imagination. And where we have imagination, play and creativity, learning happens.
Perkins, D. (1999, November). The many faces of constructivism. Educational Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.wou.edu/~girodm/library/Perkins.pdf
This article centers around the variety of Constructivist tools and how they can be deployed in a pragmatic way inside a learning environment. It also discusses why behind this learning philosophy and whether it should be used all the time.
Smith, M. K. (2015). Learning theory: Models, product and process. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://infed.org/mobi/learning-theory-models-product-and-process/
Smith emphasizing he wants to discuss the insatiable need for knowledge that is learning. He discusses the fact that while many people value education they often don’t understand the theories behind it. He compares learning as a product vs. a process and highlights further reading opportunities. One of the critiques he discusses is Alan Rogers thoughts on the difference between acquisitional and formalized learning. Rogers, A. (2003) What is the Difference? A new critique of adult learning and teaching, Leicester: NIACE.
Social Cognitive Learning Theory and other Theories and Models. (2005-2016). Retrieved November 27, 2016, from https://www.learning-theories.com/
This is a great resource for investigating the various learning theories. It offers overviews, leading theorists as well as sub-theories. It is a great introduction to learning theories for the novice.