Reflection: Learning Theories

Links to original photo

“Dog tricks at Regent’s Place” by EG Focus (2011).

Library science programs are kind of notorious for neglecting to teach their students how to teach. This is unfortunate for librarians, many of whom find instruction to be prominent aspects of their positions. It has been unfortunate for me.

My exposure in this class to the theories of learning, to the schools of thought undergirding them, and to the instructional models that emerge from them, is my first focused exposure to this kind of information (with the exception of Ed Tech 503, where I was introduced to some of the concepts). This is much needed information!

The amount of information available about these topics astounds me. Not all of the information is consistent; there is disagreement about the names of theories, about who is responsible for what. For example, when trying to understand social constructivism, I found that in book Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching, and Technology, Kim (2001) notes that social constructivism is most closely associated with the theories of Vygotsky, Bruner, and Bandura (What is Social Constructivism section). Yet Anderson and Dron (2011) credit Vygotsky and Dewey (Social-Constructivist Pedagogy of Distance Education section). Additionally, discussions of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development rarely occur without mention of the importance of scaffolding (Galloway, 2001, The ZPD section; Hill, 2012, p. 272; Wang, 2007, p. 152). Yet there is little acknowledgment that it was Bruner who fully developed the concept of scaffolding as it pertains to social constructivism (Kivunja, 2015, p. 231-2). Fortunately, there is some consistency about the general ideas. I am able to see enough of the picture to form my own understanding of the epistemological beliefs behind the major schools of thought and the concepts that make up the theories.

Although they were sometimes a source of confusion for me, the readings for this module were quite interesting and prompted me to consider some new ideas. Anderson and Dron (2011) discussed the relationship between the emergence of technologies that would support new kinds of communication, which allowed for pedagogical transitions in distance education. Having been a distance college student before the ubiquity of the internet, I can recall taking classes that involved listening to audio tapes and watching video tapes, and going to a classroom on campus to take exams. Contact with the professor was limited to receiving feedback on exams via snail mail. We have come a long way, with the development of technologies that made “many-to-many communication . . . widely available” (Anderson & Dron, 2011, Social Constructivist Pedagogy section). It is spectacular that technology has allowed us to expand the distance classroom beyond traditional geographical boundaries to reach most any connected person, most anywhere. However, I have reservations about where technology is taking us (or where we are taking it–those lines are becoming less clear!); as Anderson and Dron note, connectivism “is, paradoxically, plagued by a lack of connection” (Strengths and Weaknesses of Connectivist Approaches section). Additionally, they note, “the crowd can be a source of wisdom . . . but can equally be a source of stupidity” (Anderson & Dron, 2011, Strengths and Weaknesses of Connectivist Approaches section). Are we moving toward isolation, toward a classroom–even a face-to-face one–in which all communication will be computer-mediated? Are we going to stop thinking critically and accept what our “connections” tell us because we don’t need to know anything ourselves anymore?

Despite my discomfort about the potential for lost critical thinking skills, it is my opinion that the progression in pedagogical approaches has been moving in the right direction. As I read Ertmer and Newby’s (1993) article, I found myself really thinking about the teaching I have done. Interestingly, what struck me most about behaviorism is how much it describes the way I work with dogs. I understand that this is still, in many situations, an appropriate pedagogical approach to teaching humans, and I in no way intend to imply that it is beneath humans. It is merely that in my personal experience, this is the approach that most closely resembles the approach I use in dog training. Let me explain.

When I want to teach my dogs a new trick (or I want my students–I volunteer as a trainer–to train their dogs to do a new trick), the process I use involves a prompt, a stimulus, a response to the stimulus, and reinforcement for correct behavior. I first use a prompt, usually a verbal cue, but it can also be a hand signal, or in some cases a combination of signals. For the trick “paws up,” for example, I use the verbal cue “paws up,” and I stand with my arm extended for the dog to put his “paws up” on. At this point, the dog has no idea what “paws up” means. The extended arm may be a clue, but the stimulus, a yummy (and usually stinky) treat, lures the dog up into the correct position. The dog responds to the stimulus, raising his body upward, and resting his paws on my arm so he can reach the treat. To reinforce that he has behaved in the correct way, I give him the treat. We practice this a few times until the dog begins to associate the cue “paws up” with the behavior. Soon enough, I can remove the lure, and give the verbal cue, or perhaps even just the cue of the extended arm, and the dog will respond appropriately, whether or not there is a reward available. Again, I’m not disparaging the use of this approach to teaching humans; on the contrary, I am very excited to think that dogs are capable of learning in this very human way! There are, of course, other ways to train dogs, including some processes that allow the dogs to “figure things out” on their own. I will not, however, be making any comparisons between constructivism for humans and dogs in this reflective piece!

Teaching humans is much more complicated than I’ve made dog training sound (and dog training is not always nearly as neat and tidy as I’ve indicated). There are definitely inconsistencies between what I believe about the ways people learn, the ways I should facilitate that learning, and my actual practice. In traditional library instruction sessions, academic librarians crammed as many learning objectives into a 50-minute one-shot session as we could. We had so much to share with the students, and we might never see them again, so we tried to share it all as quickly as we could in hopes that something would stick. Or we would be asked to show students how to use a database (or ten of them), and we would demonstrate while the students tuned us out. When they had to conduct a search, they would ask us to show them how, when just moments ago we had shown them how! They didn’t learn anything. They didn’t know why they should. There was no clear relevance for them.

We are making strides. We recognize that the demo days need to be over, and that students need instruction that is, at the very least, relevant to a current assignment. But that isn’t enough. Students need to be able to take what they learn about information literacy in one class and apply it in a different context in another class. They can’t. Why not? In terms of constructivist learning, students need a truly authentic problem, preferably in their major area of study–an authentic problem that isn’t a research paper, but something they may encounter on the job. They need to know how to find the answers to resolve that problem on the job. They need to work with their peers as they would on the job. They will need to use their previous knowledge and skills to create a meaningful solution using the resources at their disposal…which may mean using resources that are not subscription library resources. It may mean teaching them to use Wikipedia, Google, Twitter, and Facebook in ways that will provide them with real answers and real solutions. It may mean teaching them to use the Research function in Google Docs so they can efficiently collaborate and do their research all in one place. It means I need to start having meaningful conversations with faculty about what information literacy really is and how we can help students to become truly information literate.

I have my work cut out for me. But I’d better wait to see what else I will learn.

References

Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(3). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/890/1663

EG Focus. (2011, June 1). Dog tricks at Regent’s Place [image file]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/egfocus/5838618733 (Licensed under CC-BY 2.0)

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72. doi: 10.1111/j.1937-8327.1993.tb00605.x

Galloway, C. M. (2001). Vygotsky’s constructionism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved September 29, 2015, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/

Hill, J. R. (2012). Learning communities: Theoretical foundations for making connections. In D. Jonassen & S. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments (2nd ed., pp. 268-285). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kim, B. (2001). Social constructivism.. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved September 29, 2015, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/

Kivunja, C. (2015). Exploring the pedagogical meaning and implications of the 4Cs “Super Skills” for the 21st Century through Bruner’s 5E lenses of knowledge construction to improve pedagogies of the new learning paradigm. Creative Education, 6(2), 224-239. doi: 10.4236/ce.2015.62021

Wang, L. (2007). Sociocultural learning theories and information literacy teaching activities in higher education. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 47(2), 149-158. Retrieved  from https://journals.ala.org/rusq

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