Welcome to week two of blogging! Our readings and class collaboration this week centered on discussion around the historical and prevailing learning theories that underpin our teaching p[practice. The build up towards this post turned into quite the reflective exercise! In reading about and pondering over the dominant learning theories of our present and past, I have been able to see my own career, still in its early stages, from a distance. This distance makes it possible to see some definite shifts and phases I have gone through with my teaching practice and its underlying assumptions.
phase 1: my constructivist classroom?
I completed my undergraduate education training and embarked on my teaching career in the last 2000s and early 2010s. I came into the professions during a time when, I believe, the tenets of constructivism were really gaining preeminence. Although not always brought up by name, the critical importance of learning being done in meaningful contexts was the focus of a lot of discussion and a lot of writing.
And it made sense! Of course learning should be done in context. What better way to communicate the importance of learning than by introducing students to scenarios in which that learning is required to perform! I moved to Regina and entered the classroom just as Math Makes Sense was becoming the main resource recommended by our school board for mathematics instruction. A familiar resource that is certainly relies on tenets of constructivism, with a heavy emphasis on exploration and problem solving to build understanding.
Honestly, it looked pretty good to me! But over the years that followed, Math Makes Sense has turned into quite the focal point for fiery criticism and heated rhetoric . It hasn’t been just upset parents challenging our direction with math curriculum, but teachers and even governments as well.
And you know what? I’d be lying if I said I did not run into challenges in both my role as classroom teacher and Learning Resource Teacher. I certainly saw some pretty big successes, in all content areas. But I sometimes felt like I was running into a wall with some learners.
It certainly wasn’t working for everybody … and I was not alone in my feelings with this. There was, at times, an almost palpable frustration from some teachers who were interpreting our school division having this one main resource as a directive to only use this resource.
phase 2: Learning Resource teacher (instructional designer?)
My frustrations, a few years into my career, I think are mirrored in the cautionary notes sounded by Peggy Ertmer and Timothy Newby in their article comparing the dominant learning theories of our time.
Designers must have an adequate understanding of strategies available, and possess the knowledge of when and why to employ each.
I had been trying to design and implement instruction without having even a beginning understanding of the learning theory I was trying to implement. And I certainly had little to no awareness of variants and competing theories that have historically underpinned our instructional methods. (although I did have that familiar vague understanding that things were different when I was a kid)
Learning Resource Teacher
As I moved into inclusive education, and found myself moving from having a classroom to a Learning Resource Teaching position, I began to put the kind of time into understanding why things were not working as well as I thought they might be. Through my role supporting classrooms, I started to internalize the idea that any given learning theory, no matter how prominent one may be, is not meant to be a prescription with generalizing value.
As Ertmer and Newby say:
…learning theories are a source of verified instructional strategies, tactics, and techniques.
As tempting as it may be to look for a cure all, learning doesn’t work that way, and learning theories aren’t meant to be used that way either.
phase 3: something missing?
A recurring theme over the last few years of my career has been that I felt something was missing. This main idea, that something has been missing, has surfaced recursively over the course of the last year as I’ve taken several courses focusing on educational technology with Alec Couros.
As I’ve often recounted in blog posts through ECI 831, 832, 830 and now ECI 833, the main impetus behind my wanting to enroll in this series of courses with Alec was a growing understanding that I was out of sync with how students were learning. I was becoming increasingly certain that I was out of touch with the tools my students were using to learn.
This is where George Siemens article on connectivism resonated with me this week. He articulates a lot of what I am seeing with students, and I am seeing this with progressively younger students as comfort with technology has become a birthright.
As students increasingly come to school with devices at their side, knowing how to use them and their related applications in ways that befuddle me, I have struggles with questions around what and how they learn. Is it really important that my students have these particular facts at the tip of their tongues when they can search it in a matter of seconds? Is their mental energy, their time at school, better spent in other ways?
Siemens gives voice to (in 2004 …) to the conflicts that many teachers continue to debate today. Myself included. He talks about how the very nature of knowledge is learning has been changing. The expiry date on what we consider to be current knowledge passes us by so quickly that we don’t even know we’ve become obsolete.
As is the case with many things in life, balance is the key. There are merits, and drawbacks, to all of the prevailing learning theories we have discussed. On top of this, the elements of what makes one theory especially meaningful for the situation of one student I support might make that theory ridiculously inappropriate for the situation of another. As I mentioned earlier, learning is wayyyy too complicated for there to ever be a one size fits all set of strategies.
This balance I aim for is the same kind of balance that Adam strives for:
As an educator, I see value in a number of different aspects of each of these theories. My teaching philosophy has some qualities of each of these four theories,
Another peer of mine, Scott, advocates for that kind of balance in his effort to “mix it up.”
Honestly, the most engaging thing about my position as an LRT is the experimenting environment that I lead in trying to help classroom teachers figure out how to best address the needs of their learners.
Thanks for reading!