Breathing and Learning
As embarrassing as it is to say, when I first started teaching, learning is not something that I ever really consciously thought about as a teacher. I know that sounds really bad, but I likened it to breathing. I guess you could say that I took it for granted that my students would learn in much the same way I took it for granted they would breath. I don’t think that I was entirely wrong to assume that my students were learning, no matter what, or how, I taught. I taught kindergarten for the majority of the 24 years I was in the classroom and my 5 year old students were like sponges, they soaked up everything they came into contact with. Classroom experiences were novel to most of them and as long as I kept the lessons short, engaging and changed activities often, our day was usually full of learning. There were always lots of questions in the process of learning and I tried to honor that natural curiosity and inquiry as it occurred. I would often stop in the middle of a book or lesson and model the process of finding information about a topic or talk about how to figure out a problem that came up while we were learning. I pretended to not know the answers to the questions so that we could discover them together. There was always careful considerations about how the physical environment would support student learning as well as how I demonstrated my own attitude toward learning.
As I gained experience, teaching involved much more than just delivering content. I tried to plan for hands on activities that would support multiple concepts while connecting newly acquired knowledge in meaningful ways. It was important that my students were involved in activities that naturally led to discovery and inquiry. My lesson plans generally involved an equal consideration for the learning environment as well as the content. Of course, I didn’t start out teaching this way. It took years to realize the importance and positive effect that the environment can have on learning. Did I know I was doing this? Not really, not officially, however, with time, observation and lots of research, I began to realize the importance of creating a learning environment that would foster learning.
Looking back at my own learning, I realize I have always favored an approach to learning as a constant evolving practice. Many of my mentor teachers would simply reuse each year’s lesson plans without much thought for their current students. I always preferred reading and learning new, interesting ideas that explored adapting my instruction to my current students. This practice is actually what first led me to using technology with my students. I researched and proposed the benefits of integrating technology in the Kindergarten classrooms which resulted in each class receiving six iPads. This, as they say, was only the beginning. My appetite for learning new ways to re-evaluated my teaching methods to ensure my students were using the iPads effectively lead me down a path to my current position of district Instructional Technology Coordinator and in pursuit of a master’s degree in digital learning from Lamar University.
So what do I believe about learning?
Again, I had never really considered my learning philosophy before this class. That is not to say that I didn’t have a learning philosophy, instead, there simply had not been a need to define it. I actually have very firm beliefs when it comes to both student learning as well as my own learning. However, I see now that I rely on multiple theories depending on the situation. For instance, I without a doubt used the behaviorist views of Edward Thorndike each time I rewarded my students’ good behavior with the many classroom management strategies I tried over the years. And I am quite confident B.F. Skinner would be proud to know that many of my students learned their high frequency words due to the sticker rewards and classroom celebration they received each time they “memorized” a new word. Maybe this isn’t cognitive learning in the traditional sense, but in a kindergarten classroom, it is equally important. When considering my current students (teachers), I think the fact that I often provide learning incentives, both physical (cupcakes and candy) and intrinsic(the promise of increasing student learning) also falls within the views of the behaviorist theory.
The primary focus of the cognitive approach is on “changing the learner by encouraging him/her to use appropriate learning strategies” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013). This theory considers how learners arrive at knowledge or “what mental processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem-solving are relied upon when learning” (Smith, 1999). Today many teachers depend on the ideas of psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Ulric Neisser and Jerome Bruner as they sequence instruction, build on prior knowledge, provide visuals and try to make complex ideas easier to understand for students with various techniques (David, 2015).
As I explored the key components of the cognitive and constructivist approaches to learning, I recognized that instead of each theory being its own individual set of ideas, one seems to build upon the other. Constructivism stresses the importance of how the learner “creates meaning from his or her own experiences” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013). This idea expands on the cognitive theory, in that learning occurs when the student interacts with the learning environment (what they are learning) to create meaning or relevance. This explains the frequent phenomenon that is an ongoing problem occurring in many classrooms today. Students are seemingly, successfully being taught, many times by very well-meaning teachers, only to discover that the presumed knowledge is many times short lived or not transferable. In other words, we are not teaching students to think, we are teaching them to follow directions. The cognitive approach of learning might be sufficient as students acquire basic facts or when a learners first encounter new information. However, as the learner moves into deeper, complex thinking and needs to be able to make sense and apply the learning elsewhere, the constructivist approach becomes necessary.
I often think about the common practice of many high schools using CTE classes to prepare students for a future job market and how it relates to the cognitive and constructivist approach to learning. Students must first learn the basic names of the tools of the trade and learn how to use them properly, and if that is all that would be required then I suppose the cognitive theory would suffice. However, if students are to learn real world applications for their learning, they must be immersed in a situational context. They will need to practice, and fail, many times in a safe learning environment before they are ready to transfer what they have learned to real world occupations. This is why the constructivist view of learning is the best theory for the types of learning that will be required of our students in the future. Students must learn how to learn in an environment that stimulates that process.
CTE for All Students?
So let’s think about those amazing CTE courses that school districts across the country are investing in. Bonds are being passed and millions of dollars are being spent because districts believe in the importance of immersing students in a meaningful, relevant environment to prepare them for their future. I guess you could look at it as an investment in future productivity by the district/city. So if this process is the best approach to learning to prepare for certain careers, why is it not important enough to carry this process over to other areas of learning in schools by all ages. I see a great disconnect between how regular classes are conducted and career prep classes are taught. Is the learning process not the same? What if we approached all classes and subjects in the same way CTE courses are taught? Maybe call them “Real World Math”, "Reading For Real" and “Everyday English”...just a thought.
Implications for Blended Learning
As I explore the different aspects of each learning theory, I am left to wonder how these ideas connect to my blended learning initiative. I think just as learning is a complex process, convincing teachers to accept a new way of teaching will be equally complex. I do however recognize how different approaches to learning can influence learning in different ways. Because many of the ideas behind blended learning are new to my district, I will need to depend on the cognitive approach to deliver basic information, terminology and differences between models. However, as teachers understand the “what” of blended learning, it becomes important that they can conceptualize the “how” of blended learning. This will be a more involved process. I plan to demonstrate and deliver information using blended learning to model how it can be done with students. Teachers will create lessons and reflect on how they will set up stations, we are planning to visit a nearby district to see blended learning in action and will conduct a book study on the book Blended Learning in Action by Catlin Tucker. Hopefully, these higher level thinking activities will allow a certain internal conceptualization to occur about why blended learning is needed to promote personalized,independent student learning for students.
David, L. (2015, June 20). "Cognitivism," in Learning Theories”. https://www.learning-theories.com/cognitivism.html
This article offers a brief explanation of the cognitivist theory of learning as well as key concepts and
Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features
From an Instructional Design Perspective[PDF]. International Society for Performance Improvement.
This article gave a detailed explanation of the Behaviorist, Cognitive and Constructivist Learning Theories. It
compares and discusses the following key questions for consideration among each of the three theories. (l) How
does learning occur? (2) Which factors influence learning? (3) What is the role of memory? (4) How does
transfer occur? and (5) What types of learning are best explained by the theory?
Norton, B. (2004, November 25). Albert Einstein [Digital image]. Retrieved from http://fav.me/dmxory
Smith, M. K. (1999). ‘The cognitive orientation to learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education.
This article explains the cognitive approach to learning and describes the key principles of learning associated
with the cognitive theory.