In looking closely at my practice as a secondary English teacher and instructional technology peer coach, I can see days at a time when my curriculum could best be understood through the lens of one theory over another; however, when I step back even farther, my work is clearly infused by a multiplicity of approaches. Perhaps it is for this reason that I felt a sense of connection to the Alexander, Schallert, and Reynolds (2009) reading. In the closing of their essay, “What is Learning Anyway?” the authors express that “no ‘grand theory’ of learning exists, and...any effort to formulate such a grand theory must not only incorporate each and every dimension, but must also encompass all levels or variations of those dimensions. To explain only acquired habits at the expense of scientific concepts, or to disregard the role of innate capacities in learners’ subsequent development is, in effect, to relegate a perspective to only a particular corner of learning’s vast and complex landscape” (p. 189-190). Thus, it is from this angle -- one of taking multiple perspectives -- that I approach the central questions around learning theory: (a) What is learning? (b) How does it occur? (c) How do we know when someone has learned something? (d) How can we influence learning in others?
I started the semester by stating that “learning is a process,” and that “at some point in the learning process, the learner moves from not knowing to knowing.” While I tend to agree with my initial idea that learning is a process, I think it is important to clarify the definition of “learning,” and distinguish between different types of learning. After all, I expect my students over the course of a year to adopt the behaviors of diligent, responsible students, the skills and cognitive constructs of a knowledgeable student of literature, and the beliefs and habits of mind of a scholarly community of practice that is deeply rooted in inquiry. All of these are examples of what learning is, but each can best be explained by one theory or another to demystify how it occurs.
Strict behaviorists, like Pavlov, Skinner, Thorndike, and Watson, would contend that a student can be trained to learn habits and skills through the process of stimulus and response, rote memorization, and the use of rewards and penalties. They would agree -- learning (or, more specifically, forming and strengthening responses to stimuli) is a process. And while I would be devastated if all I could teach was “skill and drill” (or more affectionately, “drill and kill”), I do see elements of the behaviorists in my teaching. Whenever I dole out bathroom passes and homework passes as rewards in my token economy, or give extra credit for students who exhibit exceptional student behaviors, or penalize late homework despite the quality of the work, I’m listening to my inner behaviorist.
But I also know that I am influenced by the cognitivist thinking of Piaget, Ausubel, Meyer, Katona, and Wertheimer. In response to the behaviorists, the cognitivists argue that “under certain circumstances, people do learn just like animals. [But,] the question is whether we should create more circumstances that encourage people to think this way. Cognitive scientists claim that we should not, because...students can develop deeper knowledge when encouraged to learn differently” (Wortham, p. 5). They would also agree that learning is a process. Students are like computers that process information, and organize it conceptually using schema to transfer content from the short term to long term memory. They learn through a partnership with the teacher, who provides students with opportunities to build schematic connections and construct meaning, such that the student is mentally engaged (Willingham, 2003). Whenever I provide students with an advanced organizer of a story, a visual model of an essay, or the opportunity to journal at the start of class to help access prior knowledge, I’m following my inner cognitivist.
My philosophy of learning and teaching can also be explained by the situated learning theory of Vygotsky, Lave, Brown, and others. The situated theorists would also agree that learning is a process, in that meaningful personal transformation happens when students participate in the process of constructing their own educational setting, and go out into the “real world” to adopt the norms and culture of a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). They speak to my desire to situate learning in a real-world context, to kick down the walls of the classroom and let the outside in, and to give students meaningful connection to authentic audiences. Therefore, any time that I ask students to engage in project-based learning or community service learning, or to create public portfolios of their work instead of sitting for an exam, I am following the model of the situated learning theorists. And not surprisingly, every time I turn to this model of instruction or assessment, I am impressed by how much more of the learning students “own” (Brown, 1989).
As for the question of how a teacher knows that learning has occurred, here I also need to deviate from my previous paper. I had written that “practically speaking, educators know when students have learned based on how students perform on formative and summative assessments.” And while I still fundamentally agree that assessment is a great way to measure learning within a fairly fixed system, I find the Alexander et al. (2009) definition far more compelling: “Learning is a multidimensional process that results in a relatively enduring change in a person...and consequently how that person...will perceive the world” (p. 186). Ultimately, learning should lead to some enduring change. I love altering the paradox of school -- that instead of students having to change how they behave at school in order to endure the “learning,” we will know that learning has occurred when meaningful change endures in a student.
Perhaps most importantly, then, is the question of how we influence that change -- that personal transformation -- in others. Since the first personal learning theory paper, I think my response has become more vague and more open to variation. I have influenced learning in many ways -- as a strict disciplinarian, ruling with a mighty carrot and stick; as a careful curriculum planner, considering the best ways to maximize a student’s cognitive load (Sweller, 1998); and as a mentor, kindly guiding the learner toward reflection (Derry, 2003; Brown, 1989). Students have the capacity to learn despite and without their teachers, and also have the right to resist learning altogether (Alexander et. al, 2009). Thus, we influence change by doing the best we can, but also by staying grounded, realizing that learning happens somewhere between the instructor, the student, and the context for learning, and that not all three elements are within our control or sphere of influence.