An Ever-Shifting Perspective: Examining Learning Theories in a Connected World

This week’s readings presented a variety of popular theories of learning including behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. Ertmer and Newby (1993) provide an in-depth explanation of these learning theories in their article Behaviourism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features From an Instructional Design Perspective. Ertmer and Newby also include an article update in 2003 to reflect upon the changes in how learning theories can be understood as changes in the social learning environment have reorganized in the decades that follow their original piece. It is important to read an article like Ertmer and Newby’s in order to understand the historical background of these learning theories. This infographic nicely summarizes some of the key features of behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism:

learning theories instructional design

But…a shift has been taking place. We spent a lot of time in the Spring session with Alec talking about the stereotypes of different generations. Gen Z has received a lot of flack from its predecessors and in the media. But…it’s not all bad. This fabulous essay, “A Generation Zer’s take of the Social Media Age” (2018) by Elena Quartararo sheds some light on how the current generation is making use of the technological tools at hand. Her message is profound and intends to debunk many stereotypes which label her generation. The social action, connectedness and problem solving she talks about involve a variety of learning theories, including the newer theory: connectivism as presented by George Siemens.

In his 2010 Ted Talk titled “Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able“, Michael Wesch argues many of the same ideas being argued in Siemens’ Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age (2004) article. Both agree that “technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn” (Siemens, 2004). Therefore, our understanding of learning theories must also make a shift that accommodates the changes that technology has brought to modern society. We know, from the Future 2020 Work Skills document and all of the readings for this week that the skills required for careers of the future look much different from the previous generation. Teachers are currently preparing students for a world of work in which the landscape will look very different from our own. Therefore, Siemens’ suggests a learning theory called connectives in which knowledge is distributed across a network of connections to people and information — learning consists of the ability of construct and traverse those networks” (defined in a Map of Learning Theories).

This week, Alec asked us to explore which theories of knowledge and learning underpin our own teaching philosophy and classroom practice. To be completely honest, I don’t give much thought to all of the “isms” on a day-to-day basis but reflecting on my readings this week, I see how behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and connectivism all fit, to varying degrees, into the current educational system and my own teaching practice.

Behaviourism underpins a lot of what we (as an education system) do in Saskatchewan. Behaviourism is recognized by students producing observable, measurable behaviours that are scored using criterion-referenced assessment. The outcomes and indicators in our curriculum highlight the skills students are expected to know. They are taught in sequential  instruction and are scored using programs that measure student behaviour based on level of mastery. Behaviourism has imprinted itself on much of how we “do” assessment in our province.

In addition, you are likely to find behaviourism in many primary classrooms where (due to student level of mastery), the teacher often guides students to master skills and behaviours. My classmates, Sam and Sage, discuss using behaviourist theories in primary classrooms, especially to teach beginning-of-the-year procedures and establish classroom expectations. I teach third grade and we practice, practice, practice until we learn the the routines of our classroom, much of which is guided by myself and the students present observable behaviours to show a level of understanding of what is expected.

Cognitivism plays out in my classroom in some elements of reading, math and writing instruction where students learn how to learn and focus on a variety of strategies to construct meaning.

Further, constructivism has a role in my classroom as well where knowledge acquisition comes from learners using the experiences they have been given to create meaning. Meaning is content- and context- specific and can be used to support problem solving in a variety of situations. Daily 5 stations, Explore 4 stations, our learning in science, social studies and health can all be connected back to constructivism. Students are presented a variety of opportunities through stations in reading and math to make sense of the information presented. Additionally, I encourage my students to make connections across subject-areas in order to deepen their understanding of the information they are learning rather than the information being discipline-specific. We also take our learning as it relates to the place/context that we are in as people of Saskatchewan and identify how our experience is unique because of the place in which we live.

Finally, connectivism is gaining momentum in classrooms across the province. For me, the newest learning theory has become more relevant through the Master’s program courses I have taken. Due to how technology has changed the lives of our learners and ourselves, we must continuously examine how we help our students gain new understandings of the world. Connectivism allows teachers to use technology in a way that allows students to gain many of the Future 2020 Work Skills mentioned previously. Siemens’ presents a list of questions that are relevant for teachers to consider when selecting learning theories, some of which are listed below:

  • What adjustments need to made with learning theories when technology performs many of the cognitive operations previously performed by learners (information storage and retrieval).
  • How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?
  • How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?
  • What is the impact of networks on learning?
  • With increased recognition of interconnections in differing fields of knowledge, how are systems and ecology theories perceived in light of learning tasks?

As Jana discusses in her blog post, it isn’t necessary to choose one learning theory and ascribe solely to that theory but rather utilize the various aspects that each theory has to offer in a balanced approach to understanding teaching and learning. There are so many elements to consider when we craft lessons and learning opportunities for our students and we must select a method of learning that benefits students in the most meaningful way.

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