doug — off the record

just a place to share some thoughts

About Learning and Theories

One of my favourite classes at the Faculty of Education dealt with educational learning theory.  I’m not sure exactly why I was hooked but I was.  Thorndike, Watson, Pavlov, Skinner, Dewey, Bruner all come to mind.  I’m sure that if I thought harder, I could come up with more names.

As I look back now, I’m struck by two things.  First of all, we didn’t think about the theories by their title, we thought about them by an individual’s name.  I remember Pavlov and dogs but not classical conditioning unless I really think about it.  The other thing, and I think this is why I was really interested in this, was the realization that teaching was an art and not a science.  If all these smart people worked on learning theories and couldn’t come to a single conclusion, then there’s no way that you could bottle an answer or plug it in and have perfect results everywhere.

I think that, today, it’s why I just want to start asking questions when I hear the statement “We’re a 1:1 school”, “We’re an iPad school”, “We’re a Windows school”, …  I immediately harken back to the wise post by Sophia Mavridi “We need pedagogy, not just cool tools.”  How do you get a grip on the pedagogy?  How about the theories of learning? What have we learned since Skinner?

Yesterday, one of Canada’s true edtech gems and self-proclaimed “most prominent cyber-citizen of Moncton”, Stephen Downes gave us a wonderful post in his Half an Hour blog.  “Theories Related to Connectivism“.  Here, he offers his own summary of:

  • Connectivism
  • Constructivism
  • Constructionism
  • Connectionism
  • Associationism
  • Graph Theory
  • Linguistics

These thoughtful summaries should be part of the conversation when it includes “We’re an ######## school”.

At Faculties of Education, these are worthy of deep research and analysis – particularly before and after a practice teaching session.  During planning sessions at a school district, where do the components of each fit?  Can you be all-in on a particular one?  Are there real leaders available for dialogue in Ontario?  When topics are developed for professional discourse, do you give thought to these?  As you address expectations, is there a theory that can inform instruction?

Stephen offers one of those bookmarkworthy posts.  Do so now so that you don’t lose track of it.


3 responses to “About Learning and Theories”

  1. Thanks for these post Doug, I would say that our three schools fall under the theory of connectivism. Good to have a system of thought to inform our practice.


  2. I think it’s crucial, Paul. Without thought, it just becomes polishing the shiny things. Sophia nails it in her post.


  3. On a personal note I’ve always seen fit to re-imagine “Learning Theories” as “Learning Models” That is, I don’t bother myself with how learning actually occurs but rather use “It is as if learning happens this way” to help guide my own planning and subsequent actions..
    My best bit of received advice came from my old colleague Leon woo, one day when we were discussing how learning “theory” needed to fit into the documentation of what we were working on stated, “In the end theories of learning and of instructional design are really for those who don’t really know what they are doing.” At least they call fall back on…something.
    As far as I am concerned the best advice for any teacher is do this. (1) Yes, learn as best you can the various theories that are out there. They will inform your practice. (2) Become intimate with your field of study. Know it from as many perspectives as you can (3) Get to know your students, particularly their background skills and knowledge (4) Move forward in an iterative fashion. Try various approaches and constantly seek feedback (5) Insist that the students become involved. Simply put it’s about them “doing things.”
    Easily said, yes, but hard to do. In the end, though, that’s what works best for me.


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