Ideas

Early in my studies of learning theory I found myself under the Behaviorists' tent. I really liked the idea of what you see is what you get. I also was attracted to the idea that any student can learn anything if given the proper stimulus or motivation. Over time though I realized that not all learning could be can be explained by Behaviorism. Much learning occurs without any reinforcement or any associated changes in behavior. I began to understand in my classroom that "light bulb" moments were very real and sometimes impossible to measure.

I moved into the Constructivist camp over time. Appropriately, my attitudes and understanding of this learning theory was based on observations of my students and a certain amount of intuition. I built on my previous knowledge with information gathered through my experiences. 

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

John Dewey

I have since refined my position. I built and live in a Constructivist house, but I look out a Humanist window. On a gut level I agree with Piaget that the goal of education is not to teach what has already been learned but (I'm paraphrasing here) to develop innovative and creative minds capable of new discovery. I can also make sense of the idea of building on previous knowledge with new experiences. I see it in my students and myself.

I also accept that culture influences my students' perceptions of me, my lessons, and the information they assimilate. Values, social interactions, and communication patterns influence my students. I need to remind myself to be aware of these and, when needed, make my lessons as unbiased as I can. Conversely, deeper understanding of some literature requires a cultural bias. I need to be explicit and direct under these circumstances.

Many coaches like to refer to themselves as teachers on the court and field. I like to describe my teaching as coaching. This fits nicely in the Constructivist world.  I try to show my students the path to their own understanding of the skills I am teaching, particularly in writing. For example, not all students can make sense of a Venn diagram. Similarly, not all students can function well with a linear outline. I explain and model many different organizational methods for the writing process.  Each student practices all of them. But in the end, I allow students to pick the method that works best for them in the given assignment. In other words, I coach. I explain the game situation. I list the possible plays¯ needed to win the game. I show how each works, and then I have students practice the plays.¯ Perhaps most importantly, I am open to new plays that may be more effective for any given student. 

Whether teaching or coaching, I am still not certain that I can teach a student to be creative. I feel that creativity is a bit like intelligence. Neither can be increased of decreased; they are constant. Both are capabilities that are used to increase knowledge or misused to increase mischief. Still, an area of my teaching that I need to improve is effectively encouraging students to discover and think intuitively. Although I think that I can't create¯ creativity, I can teach in ways that encourages it. I can give students a chance to use the creativity they possess and make more sense of the world.

As a Constructivist, I am more aware of my need to allow for more collaborative learning. I must develop strategies and tolerances for the kinds of social learning that will effectively use Vygotsky's ZPD theory. I suspect that if I can have students teach and stretch each other, I will see better results in the classroom.

I have always believed that the motivation and responsibility for learning lies mostly with the student. I have reconciled both Constructivists' and Humanists' schools of thought. It has reminded me that environmental factors can change a student dramatically. Even the student who is a genuinely good student, motivated to learn, and has made good learning decisions can be handicapped by forces outside of his or her control. 

Regardless of the student's background, he or she has needs that must be met before learning takes place. That student's potential for growth can only be reached when all other needs are resolved. I like the Humanist approach. When all other needs are met, Humanists acknowledge student success in controlling their learning giving credit where credit is due.

Based on my understanding of learning theory, I am challenged to encourage creativity, develop opportunities for social learning, and build meaningful, context driven content.

© Joseph Rafter 2013