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.