How we as humans learn is an ever changing and evolving process. I can say with absolute certainty that I am not the same learner today as I was in college as a psychology major in my twenties. I am not the same learner as I was in high school. I believe that our ability to learn and the style of learning that best suits us grows with us and changes depending on a variety of factors. Our interest in what we are learning, as well as our connections to prior knowledge and how the learning is presented to us all factor in to our learning process. As I studied the three main learning theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, I came to understand that each theory is useful in its own way and that to best teach my students a combination of these educational theories must be employed. The shift in education from teacher centered to student centered is based on the belief that not every student is the same and a one size fits all approach is not effective in reaching all students.
Who am I as a learner?
When I was in my post baccalaureate program to become a teacher, metacognition was the buzzword of the day and we were expected to reflect on our thinking and how we think and learn. As stated in the article How People Learn, “A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.” (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 2009). During that time, I felt like I learned effectively through lectures and guided study with some hands-on experience thrown in for good measure. The products I was expected to produce had clear expectations of exactly what my professors wanted them to look like which gave me a sense of comfort. When I started my first teaching job, I learned that my peers were my best resource for learning and that I benefited from modeling of concepts. In August of 2020, I began my master's program at Lamar University and what I thought about learning and how I learned best was turned on its end. I went in expecting lectures, note taking, projects, and assessments. In my first class I was given questions to answer on my own using resources and examples. Once I got over the initial feelings of discomfort because there was no clear singular outcome that was expected, I began to explore and take chances with my work. Another key difference in learning came with my products. I had freedom and choice for how my work was presented and took ownership of my products because they would become part of my portfolio and were a representation of my voice and my learning. This learner centered approach was very new to me, but I quickly realized that I created more meaningful connections to the learning this way. Now looking at different educational theories, I have realized that this type of learning is more of a constructivist approach, which is credited to John Dewey, as well as John Piaget later with cognitive constructivism and Lev Vygotsky with social constructivism. I have gained more meaning and purpose from learning through this approach than I have through more traditional methods. Exposure to the three major learning theories coupled with my own success as a learner has helped me realize that a combination of the theories is the best way for my students to learn.
The teacher I am becoming
I have been teaching a little over a decade now and have aligned my teaching with the behaviorist and cognitive theories of education. Cognitive theory has been at the forefront of teaching for my entire career. It is most strongly associated with Jean Piaget and it closely aligns with Bloom’s Taxonomy. As stated in the article Learning theories and online learning, “...in k-12 education, a cognitivist approach would mean for instance focusing on teaching learners how to learn, on developing stronger or new mental processes for future learning, and on developing deeper and constantly changing understanding of concepts and ideas.” (Bates, 2014). I have used the Bloom’s higher order question stems in every class I have taught to get students to think critically about their learning. I believe in the value of having students dig deeper to create meaning for their learning rather than giving basic knowledge-based responses to questions. I create scaffolding with my lessons by connecting to prior knowledge, modeling, giving examples, and checking for understanding. The management of my classroom and implementation of classroom routines follows the behaviorist theory of education. This theory, credited to John B. Watson, and later refined by behavior psychologist B.F. Skinner is “better known as operant conditioning – reinforcing what you want people to do again; ignoring or punish what you want people to stop doing.” (Smith, 1999). This approach has worked well for me because we have limited class time (48 minutes to be exact) and I need my students to get materials, understand behavior expectations, and be ready to work each day. A well-established routine is necessary to maximize class time and minimize wasted time and distractions. Student behavior expectations are outlined at the beginning of the school year and are practiced and reviewed. The students understand that failure to comply with classroom expectations will result in consequences and I make sure that I am consistent with the expectations. Students become comfortable with the routines and appreciate the consistency of the environment. The use of both behaviorist and cognitive theories has made me an effective instructor, but I have felt like something has been missing in my teaching even though it works at the surface level. A lack of engagement, student voice, and choice in their learning made me question my practices as a teacher and has driven me to seek a better way to reach my students and deepen their understanding of their learning. I began asking myself if I am teaching them to memorize or teaching them to understand. They have been learning to memorize more than they have been learning to understand and I knew I must change that. This was the driving force behind the innovation plan I created. Blended learning stations will offer my students a chance to change the way they interact with other students and with their learning. As I have learned more about the constructivist theory of education, I have realized that this is the piece that is missing from how I teach. The concepts of peer learning, inquiry based learning, and self-regulated learning are already embedded within the station model as well as the change in my role from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”. There will still be cognitivism in my whole group and teacher lead station, and the behavior and class room management portion will still be done with a behaviorist approach, but the addition of the constructivist theory will be the game changer taking my students from passive learning to actively learning and making lasting connections.
“Constructivists argue that individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state. It is an attempt to create order in their minds out of disorder, to resolve incongruities, and to reconcile external realities with prior experience. The means by which this is done are complex and multi-faceted, from personal reflection, seeking new information, to testing ideas through social contact with others. Problems are resolved, and incongruities sorted out, through strategies such as seeking relationships between what was known and what is new, identifying similarities and differences, and testing hypotheses or assumptions. Reality is always tentative and dynamic.” (Bates, 2014)
I have been successful as both learner and teacher in the behaviorist and cognitive learning theories. I have used each in my own classroom for years, but have felt that there was still something missing in my approach. It was my introduction as a learner to the constructivist theory that helped me see my own potential as a learner and to become an active participant in my learning. It is the key ingredient that will help bring my students into a new era of learning where the learner is central to the process of learning, they construct their own meaning from the information they gather and share with peers, and they create a community of learners who are ready to ask questions and problem solve.
Bates, T. (2014, July 29). Learning theories and online learning. Online Learning and Distance Education Resources - Moderated by Tony Bates, Research Associate, Contact North. https://www.tonybates.ca/2014/07/29/learning-theories-and-online-learning/.
Donovan, S. M., Bransford, J. D., & Pellegrino, J. W. (2009). How people learn: bridging research and practice. National Academy Pr.
Harapnuik, D. (2016, March 11). Four keys to understanding learning theories. harapnuik.org. http://www.harapnuik.org/?p=6344.
Harapnuik, D. (2018, July 14). COVA. harapnuik.org. http://www.harapnuik.org/?page_id=6991.
Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘The behaviourist orientation to learning’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/the-behaviourist-orientation-to-learning/. Retrieved: 3/14/21.