Thinking about learning is fundamental to being an educator. How might our ability to facilitate learning be improved in our classrooms by understanding theory of how learning happens? How might we improve our learning environments by learning ourselves from thought leaders?
Having a working knowledge of learning theories can inform our own philosophy, inform how we build our learning environments, and inform how we invite our students to build their learning. Seymour Papert describes his understanding of mathematics by connecting it cognitively, affectively, and physically to his understanding of how gears work. As educators, our thoughts on learning function as gears in our learning environment. Our own cognitive processes, functioning in our attitudes and presenting in our physical spaces.
Following a metaphor of gears, I identify with several learning theories that can function together. Papert believed in Constructionism. a student-centered learning environment where learners participate in project-based activities and build on what they already know. In this environment, the teacher is coaching rather than lecturing (Alesandrini & Larson, 2002, 119-121).
Similarly, Larry Cuban and Alfie Kohn are two more contemporary voices in progressive education. Kohn’s education theory is based on Dewey and Piaget and other constructivists. Kohn writes that the learner actively makes meaning rather than absorbing information, and that learning should be organized around “problems, projects, and questions – rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines.” He believes students should have an active voice in the classroom with the ability to have a meaningful impact on the curriculum (Kohn, 1993).
In Constructivism, the learner’s main role is to construct information as he or she links new information to prior knowledge to make meaning. The process is active as the learner hypothesizes about their world or experience and constructs knowledge rather than acquiring it. Working in tandem with constructionism to build what the learning is internalizing.
“Constructivist principles acknowledge that real-life learning is messy and complex. Classrooms which emulate the ‘fuzziness’ of this learning will be more effective in preparing learners for lifelong learning” (Siemens 2005).
Cognitivists zoom in on the mental state and processes behind the thoughts and behaviors that allow us to draw meaning from the world, resulting in new knowledge. Key aspects, while stemming from the constructivist approach, focus on internalizing the learning while connecting to prior knowledge. Internalization of the experience and new knowledge increases self-efficacy. In essence, learners are thinking about their thinking.
“Cognitivists have increased our understanding of how humans process and make sense of new information, how we access, interpret, integrate, process, organize and manage knowledge, and have given us a better understanding of the conditions that affect learners’ mental states” (Bates, 2015).
A parallel theory growing from these, and vital to our current education climate, is Connectivism. George Siemens best describes this theory when he points out that knowledge is no longer static since the onset of technology. It is not linear, and information is changing every instant. Perhaps of more consequence, student connections in this past year look like nothing we have seen previously in education. If making connections is a learning activity, and we can no longer personally experience and acquire learning we need individually, we derive our competence from forming connections. Connections form by working collaboratively and taking risks with others as we construct knowledge together. The connections are the focus rather than the information itself, “the pipe is more important than the content within the pipe.” Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.
“The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era” (Siemens, 2005).
These “gears” of theory work together to paint a picture of learning. With the right environment, the learner moves from internal understanding to creating and building on that understanding. Are we providing an environment where this can happen? If educators today build on these principles and continue to be learners ourselves, our classrooms will become more significant learning environments. The changes we make in our classrooms will take time. Perhaps this process could be viewed as evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
If time and tools are used more effectively in the classroom, learning environments could be much more meaningful and significant. Tilisa Thibodeaux and Dwayne Harapnuik write in “Learning All the Time Everywhere” about designing an environment that is learner centered. Engaging, motivational, contextual, and authentic. An environment that gives learners Choice, Ownership, and Voice in an Authentic way (COVA).
“This shift gives the learner choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities that enables them to use technology to learn how to learn and adapt to the challenges of the future” (Thibodeaux & Harapnuik, 2018).
In his forward of Papert’s Mindstorms, Mitchel Resnick reminds us that Papert saw technology as a way to “support children not only in developing their thinking, but also in developing their voice”. As facilitators of learning, we can create an environment for our students that allows them to learn while constructing projects independently and collaboratively, constructing meaning with problems and inquiry. Our students can actively make meaning and internalize their learning while connecting to prior knowledge with their projects. All the pieces fit, and gears are turning. What are we building?
I want to provide an environment that encourages a love of learning, where technology can be the gear that aids that construction of knowledge. My goal is to foster 21st century learners, thinkers, and builders.