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.
From the moment we’re born, and even before , we are learning. Why then do so many of our kids learn to hate school? As an educator, I do not believe it has to be this way. I do believe that approaching instruction with a “Theory Y” approach , trusting that students have existing motivations to learn, can make learning environments more effective by making them:
Engaging, Challenging, Personal, Available, and Continuing.
Learning Should be Engaging
I use the term “engaging” hesitantly because I fear it is too often associated with gimmicks or strategies to trick the learner into learning. At best, this approach will yield only short-term results.
Many parents have seen the limitations of this approach when feeding a young child. If the child spits out or refuses to eat their peas, what is a parent to do but attempt to hide the pea in the child’s applesauce? If this works, it is easy to think the problem is solved–the child is eating their peas! But what has the child actually learned? For some, just repackaging the pea in with something they like may be enough to get past the initial resistance to change and help them to like–or at least tolerate–peas. However, for others, what the pea-in-applesauce approach teaches is that peas are so gross they need to be hidden. Then, as more vegetables are hidden, the child may learn that in fact all vegetables are gross. Or perhaps the child will learn that applesauce can no longer be trusted. Do we not often see the same with, for instance, math?
Just like all children are motivated to eat–if only what they view as the “good stuff”–so all students are motivated to learn. They’re motivated to learn Minecraft, to ride a bike, to build a go-kart, to bake a cake. Armed with this knowledge, a teacher can use the pea-in-applesauce method and swap in a Minecraft example into a math story problem. For a few, this might help them make the connection between something they love and something they don’t understand. However, for others, it can just further reinforce the perception that math is hard or something they just cannot understand even if it is adapted to them.
I believe it is more effective to look for–or guide the student look for–connections to build on to what they already know . While it can look similar at first glance, finding authentic connections–for example,
- pointing out to a student playing Minecraft that they are using a graph,
- explaining that how center of gravity makes it possible to ride a bike,
- taking measurements and drawing up plans for a go-kart, or
- scaling recipe measurements to make twice as much cake–
will build on the student’s existing knowledge to help them gain understanding of the topic. This of course does not replace pedagogy, but it can certainly enhance pedagogy and make it more effective.
Learning Should be Challenging
Just as believing students are motivated to learn leads to making learning engaging, so believing students are capable of learning leads to challenging them. Dweck calls this the growth vs. the fixed mindset . If we know that students are able to learn, we can and should teach so that students are being stretched enough that authentic learning is happening but not so much that it is demoralizing.
Caution must be exercised here, though; challenging the student continually without recognizing and celebrating achievement can also lead toward a fixed mindset. I believe the best outcome is one where the student needs to work hard to succeed, does succeed, and then is empowered and encouraged to continue working hard and succeeding.
Learning Should be Personal
While I would not advocate abolishing all educational goals and standards, our current education practices and systems often seem to be better designed to produce robots than humans . Perhaps the prime example of this, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even increased segregation based on ethnicity and income .
Rather than celebrating diversity in learning styles and bents, our system still has arbitrarily determined standards and labels anyone who dares deviate:
- Can’t sit still and focus on school for 6 hours? ADHD
- Too focused on one or a few things but not others? Autism
- Ethnic minority? Low income? At risk
While I don’t discount that there are real mental health issues–in fact, I am in treatment for some now–many of these classifications are used as ways to separate out segments for treatment rather than changing how we educate. We know more than ever about different learning styles and approaches, yet the overwhelming majority of students are still educated the same way.
It was for this reason primarily that my wife and I chose to home school our children. This allows for learning to be more personal, more effective, and more interactive. Obviously, home schooling is not practical for every family, but we need to reversing the trend for education decisions to be made at higher and higher levels of government will allow instruction to be more tailored to a state’s/community’s/classroom’s/student’s specific needs rather than completing a federal government spreadsheet.
Learning Should be Available
Also, as control has moved more national, opportunities for the most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased . Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). I believe moving control more local will also help decision makers to more easily identify and address problems with educational access.
Further, I believe that technology is changing and will continue to change the paradigms. Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher as a gatekeeper of information may eventually go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information will grow more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.
Learning Should be Continuing
If learning is engaging, challenging, and personal, and available, I believe it follows that learning will be continuing as well. When we assume that students want to learn and focus on removing roadblocks to learning, the result will be a continual cycle of learning; it will just become a way of life because, well, it’s fun!
Present Learning Networks
I’ve worked for many years as a one-person web development department, learning networks have been tremendously important for me–especially since professional development and travel budgets seem to be the first to go when budgets tighten. Most of these have been pretty technical, how-to boards, but those technical discussions are often the catalyst for broader discussions when I get to meet those people in person.
The most important network for me up to this point has been a user forum for the content management system my college uses. When I was learning how to use the program, I searched and browsed through the forums looking for answers and, if I couldn’t find any, asking questions myself. A few years later, as I became more proficient, I started to realize that I was able to start answering questions as well and started to contribute more in that way. I viewed it as a way to give back to the community that had helped me learn. A couple years later, I noticed that they waived the conference fee for people who speak at the annual user conference. Since I figured that was the only way I’d be able to get my college to send me, I submitted a proposal and it was accepted. I was surprised how strong the connection was among these people with whom I’d only exchanged technical information. I spoke a few more times at the annual conference, and that community has been very valuable for me in developing a professional network.
Another beneficial network for me has been the Higher Education Web Professionals association, or HighEdWeb. I’d followed conference hashtags for a couple years on Twitter to glean information and ideas and later was able to attend the national conference one year. After that, I joined the member community and was able to interact a bit more. I also spoke at a regional HighEdWeb conference. This community was a nice balance in that there was a more even mix between some technical information and some broader education or research-focused discussion.
As I was moving into my current position, my predecessor recommended that I join this listserv. At present, I’m still at the stage of being a “lurker,” but as I get more comfortable and confident, I imagine I may have more to contribute. There are a few other listservs at EDUCAUSE I follow, but this has been the primary one thus far.
New Learning Networks
I do want to find some more networks, especially ones with a more specific educational focus. Here are some new networks I’ve found and joined.
I’m involved in a project to create a maker space at my college and I’m hoping to start some youth clubs (primarily so my kids can be in them), so this looks like a great resource and community. I’m also following them on Twitter (@MakerEdOrg), along with Make Magazine (@Make) and Maker Faire (@MakerFaire).
Update 5/13/2017: I haven’t used this much, yet, but I’m sure I will as the projects move forward.
Came across this in the class discussion boards, and I was initially really interested in the Learning Spaces PLN, but that’s only with the paid level of membership. I’ll hang out in the free section for a bit to determine whether it makes sense to bump up to a membership.
Update 5/13/2017: I haven’t really seen much come through or followed up much with ISTE, so I think I’m just going to let this one drop off, at least for now. It seems like there isn’t much to be gleaned from the free version.
Edutopia was another one that seemed popular in the discussion boards, so I checked it out. It looks like it is a good community, I started by following the Learning Environments and School Leadership topics.
Update 5/13/2017: I’ve found really great resources from the Edutopia communities I’ve followed, I’m sure I’ll be mining the back catalog for this one.