Learning with Learning Theories

Learning theories.

flickr photo shared by Chris P Jobling under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Did you just shudder or groan? Are you wracking your brain to try to figure out what exactly I’m talking about? Don’t worry. That’s okay. If you want a quick primer (or just an overwhelming visual), you can check out this concept map. In most cases, the number of learning theories discussed in education circles are much more select. Behaviourism, Cognitivism, Constructivism, maybe Connectivism. These are the bigger ones these days although I wouldn’t say they cover everything.

When reading about these theories, I have an immediate intellectual aversion to Behaviourism. I rebel against the idea that we should condition learners, that we should treat them like lab rats, giving them treats to get to the end of the maze, that we can program them with the appropriate knowledge (which implies that we – teachers, instructional designers, facilitators – have all required knowledge). And yet. The part of me that lived through that, that sees how effective it can be sometimes, still thinks that way sometimes. In some ways, gameification feels like an offshoot of this and that’s probably one reason I don’t necessarily buy into it. Too often it is viewed as a way to reward students for doing exactly what we want them to do (trust me, this is how badges, achievements, points, etc are used in video games – this is how Blizzard convinces gamers to keep paying $15+ a month). Sure, when I was a kid and was dealing with precisely this in the education system, I just assumed that was the right way to do it.

I am also not a fan of Cognitivism. I don’t think there is a transfer process that is, almost solely, one way. I don’t think knowledge is a discrete thing out there, I don’t really believe in immutable TRUTH, and I only believe in FACT in limited situations. So I am not waiting for someone to help me acquire the appropriate structures to memorize and absorb knowledge. Again, I have experienced this sort of education but I wasn’t exactly a fan of it. I wanted to think, to have ideas inspired by what I learned. I didn’t want to be programmed because I sometimes disagreed, I sometimes questioned and thought differently. I fully admit that this was, however, how I taught the first time I taught. I hadn’t had nearly enough discussions about the mechanics of teaching, the theories of teaching, at that point. I was doing things last minute, scrambling to hold down a full-time job, teach a course for the first time, and plan my wedding. Not conducive to good teaching, let me tell you.

Constructivism made sense to me immediately the first time a coworker started describing it (before I started taking education classes). It seemed obvious. I’ve since realized that this is because my background is one of bricollage. My previous discipline assumed that I would take knowledge and reform it, put it together, use it in different ways, and have an impact on that knowledge. My instructors learned from the students. Memorization was only a tiny part of things but how I used it, did something innovative with it, that was what mattered. For your consideration, I present the grading system description for 90-100% from the University of Regina Undergraduate Calendar:

An outstanding performance with very strong evidence of:

  • an insightful and comprehensive grasp of the subject matter;
  • a clear ability to make sound and original critical evaluation of
    the material given;
  • outstanding capacity for original creative and/or logical thought;
  • an excellent ability to organize, to analyze, to synthesize, to
    integrate ideas, and to express thoughts both in speech and in

Making “original critical evaluation” and “original creative and/or logical thought” and having an ability to “synthesize” and “integrate ideas” all, to me, mean that I must construct knowledge. It sounds rather Constructivist to me.

Encountering Social Constructivism makes sense to me also; the idea that there is an interactive element, that we do not make knowledge in a vacuum but that we work together, we think together. I am often inspired by coworkers, by friends, to think differently. I hear something and it sparks a thought, or through discussion we agree to a different way of thinking. There is a lot of learning that happens when people learn together, in different ways than if they learn separately.

Connectivism is something that makes sense but I am still struggling to incorporate it into my own way of thinking about teaching. I strongly agree with the need to make connections, with knowledge, with other people. Again, some of this echoes my previous experiences with learning which revolved around connecting apparently disparate disciplines and thoughts and creating something new. I blended literary theory, gender theory, historiography, sociology, to analyze something and create my own approach.

Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
George Siemens

That quote makes so much sense. Our world is changing (or in some cases our knowledge of the world) and we need to acknowledge that and be responsive. A printed textbook could easily be obsolete by the time it is printed. I also very much believe that our ability to connect to others and make knowledge together, make knowledge public and allow it to change and shift, is important.

flickr photo shared by Cast a Line under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

So I’m some hybrid of Constructivism and Connectivism which is still changing and adapting (as it should if I am a Connectivist).

2 thoughts on “Learning with Learning Theories”

  1. Great post! I have to agree when thinking of the Behaviourism approach I am immediately turned off. I think of the lab rats as well and how it is more important to teach personal contentment and satisfaction in what you do as in life, we don’t have someone always giving us a reward at the end of a maze. Personal contentment is becoming wrapped up in “likes” and “shares” and not relying on what is inside and the satisfaction you can get from accomplishing something on your own. As far as your connectivism, I have to thank you! In our meetings regarding our presentation I learn so much from you. You present your knowledge of technology in a way that has me thinking about educational technology from different perspectives that I would not have considered before. So thanks!

  2. I liked reading your post. I agree that connectivism makes sense, but it is hard to conceptualize what it means in practice. In terms of cognitive learning theory, though, I have a different opinion than you. I believe cognitive strategies do allow you to “disagree”. Part of deeper level processing is evaluating arguments and considering whether you agree or disagree. I always encourage my students to ask lots of questions, make connections between material, and analyze content. These are cognitive strategies because they enhance processing and allow information to be stored in long term memory. However, they have elements of other theories such as connectivism.

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