Learning Philosophy

Learning is unavoidable. From the moment we are born, we humans take in information and experiences, synthesizing them into our own body of knowledge. The question is not whether we learn but rather what and how we learn. This is the role of teaching–to shape the what and how of learning. Whether the parent teaching a life skill or the formal instruction of a school system, the act of teaching tells the learner, “This is something that I think is important for you to know.” Generally speaking there is consensus as to what should be taught, especially at the elementary level; most people agree that children should be taught to read, write, and do arithmetic.

How to best facilitate learning is the subject of much more debate. The sheer number of learning theories is a strong indication that there is no one-size-fits-all theory. That does not mean that all theories are equally valid, but that it is quite possible for multiple theories to be valid to some extent. For example, the behaviorist learning theories of Skinner and Thorndike are perhaps the most widely criticized, and rightly so. As an explanation for all learning they fall way short as they reduce the human mind to a simplistic stimulus-and-response machine. However, even the methods prescribed by the behaviorist theories have some application; some types of learning are served well by drills and memorization. In mathematics, once the concepts are understood, practice and repetition are excellent ways to reinforce concepts and help the student become faster at solving problems, preparing them for more complex problems. Once a student has learned that 7 x 6 is seven groups of six items, it is beneficial to learn to look at 7 x 6 and know that it is 42 without needing to conceptualize it every time. Even as the cognitive theories were recognizing the shortcomings of behaviorism, they acknowledged that some learning is more concrete and better suited to those measures. While Siemens’ connectivism argues that technology is rewiring our brains to make this type of learning obsolete, it will always be faster an more convenient to have commonly-used facts committed to memory than to pull out our smartphone to look them up.

Many theories help us to better understand learning by applying different perspectives and divisions. Rogers’ experiential learning divides learning into “cognitive” learning that is important to someone else and “experiential” learning that is important to the learner. Gardner’s multiple intelligences look at the learner’s propensity in seven different areas. The humanist theories look at motivation and other human elements of learning. These theories help the teacher understand learning and learners better, giving them more “tools in the toolbox” to help students learn.

If I had to choose just one theory that I think is most complete and helpful though, I would choose Bruner’s constructivism. Bruner asserts that learning builds on prior knowledge and experiences and that curriculum can be arranged in a spiral pattern where topics are studied recursively in more complexity. This also provides an opportunity to involve a variety of different approaches.

With all that in mind, what does the teacher do? It is often said that the modern teacher’s role is not to teach but to facilitate learning. While I understand and generally agree, the statement connotes passivity. I prefer to think of the role of a teacher in learning as that of a curator. In the context of a museum, the curator’s responsibility is to select artifacts that accurately reflect the subject matter and arranges them so they are most effective for the intended audiences. An effective curator will present artifacts using several different media and methods, selecting those most appropriate to the subject matter and most effective to the audiences. A teacher similarly selects the learning artifacts and methods most appropriate to achieve the desired objectives from the learner.

The move from teacher as a lecturer to a curator makes the role of a teacher as important and challenging as ever, perhaps more so. Teachers must be ever adapting to new technologies, environments, and learners.

Annotated Bibliography

Play for Learning Environments

In The New Culture of Learning, Thomas and Brown make the case that we have entered a new paradigm in learning. I differ with the authors that the “new culture” is really all that new. For example, comparing Encyclopaedia Brittanica to Wikipedia, they opine that “making knowledge stable in a changing world is an unwinnable game”  and that encyclopedias are “a good example of the ongoing effort to preserve knowledge in a fixed form,”  as though encyclopedias are published once and not updated regularly. What has changed, however, is the speed, democratization, and transparency afforded by the medium and metadata .

What is Old is New Again

Similarly, the promise of the late-aughts that blogs would usher in a golden age of collaboration and break the publisher-consumer model  has, at best, migrated over to social media . Some new media empires have been created, some old media empires have adapted, but the blog as it was has all but disappeared. Years of blogging even caused Andrew Sullivan of “The Daily Dish” to “yearn for other, older forms.” 

All this is not to discredit the book’s main points about learning but rather to show that King Solomon was correct, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, English Standard Version). What the World Wide Web has done is less about something new and more about undoing, albeit in a different form, some of the effects of industrialization. So too, what is old is new again in learning methods.

Thomas and Brown reference play as an essential part of the “new” culture, but watching a young child learning the world will demonstrate that nothing is as natural as learning through play. In fact, Stuart Brown notes that the propensity to play well in adulthood sets us apart from animals .

Incorporating Play in Developmental Education

How, then, can I incorporate meaningful play into developmental education? Math, being so concrete, seemed particularly challenging. Sure, plenty of math games have been written, but the vast majority amount to flash cards dressed up with fun graphics. How can the play be more meaningful? Thomas and Brown’s definition of play, “the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules” , provides the framework. To create a meaningful play environment, then, one needs to create the structure in a way that allows freedom for the learner to explore within.

In discussing developmental math with one of the professors here at Sauk, he noted that many math students have learned a foundational principal foundation incorrectly which causes them to struggle in math for years. He suggested that what many students need is “math therapy,” where an instructor could find the source(s) of the error and then work on correcting that root problem.

One possibility might be to have different types of math problems, give the student the answer, and then have work toward that answer. Once the student has a solution, they can then be shown other similar problems and answers to test their solution (of course, demonstrations of the “right” way to solve the problem could be provided as well). By presenting it as a challenge in this way, I think it could help the student understand there could be other ways to get to an answer and open them up to learning a better way than what they may have learned earlier.

This is, of course, just one possible example. This way of thinking about play, though, provides a for how to develop learning environments that provide enough structure and “rules” to challenge the student, but enough flexibility to make the learning environment meaningful for the student.


Scratch-ing the Itch to Program

scratch programming blocks photo
Photo by andresmh

I’m late to the party, I realize. I’ve seen the user- and kid-friendly programming blocks before. In fact, I’ve even used a version of them when learning to develop mobile apps. But what spurred me to introduce my kids to the Scratch platform was when I learned about the user community and that all projects are open-source and remixable.

My kids have–like most kids–been developing in Minecraft, so I was looking for a next step for them to extend those skills. Scratch is the perfect fit. They have complete creative freedom. My oldest’s first project is a lab building game, my younger son’s has growing and shrinking dragons and robots, and my daughter’s is a “beautiful ballerina.”

As I begin a class on significant learning environments, it’s helpful to see such a great example of one in action. It’s also a perfect encapsulation of the COVA model. Since they have complete creative control, they eagerly take ownership of learning the platform, use and develop their own voice, and create projects that are authentic to them.