Sunday, August 25, 2013

Two Theories Diverged...

This past week I had somewhat of an epiphany as I was working with a large number of Juniors and Seniors at the College of Education from our local university. They'd asked that I give a three and a half hour overview of literacy, Common Core standards, and anything else they thought might be helpful to kids at the beginning of their careers.

Three and a half hours is a long time, especially to the students who were hearing a lot of information all at once. But I tried to build a foundation from the beginning by starting with educational theory. It was the discussion of theory that led to my epiphany.

My basic approach was to talk about two major theories of learning that teachers tend to have - the transmission theory and constructivist theory. Transmission theory holds that the teacher possesses knowledge that must be transmitted to students, who are simply receptacles. This is also called the banking method - the teacher makes “deposits” in the students' knowledge, slowly adding to their overall understanding over time. The students' job is simply to receive the knowledge and remember it. The problem with this approach is that it views the learner as passive and uninvolved, and doesn't value the knowledge the learners bring with them. It also tends not to stick, because the learner doesn't value or relate to the information. Teachers who believe in transmission theory will often say, “I don't know what's wrong with these kids - I told them what to do and they just won't do it.” The implication is if the students don't learn there must be something wrong with them because the teacher did her job.

Social constructivist theory, on the other hand, holds that learners construct their understandings by combining new knowledge with old knowledge. In order to understand a concept at a deep level, such as how to infer character motivations in a classic novel, the learner must draw from both the text (new information) and previous experiences (old knowledge) to infer, for instance, why Atticus Finch chooses to defend a black man in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. A teacher believing in the transmission model would explain the character's motivations to the students, while those using social constructivist theory would ask students to talk about it, drawing on what they already know about the time period and human nature. Social constructivist teaching takes longer, but it's relevant learning that remains with the student after the teacher is gone.

I'm beginning to realize, as a coach working with teachers and other coaches, that oftentimes what I see as stubbornness or resistance to new ideas is actually a clash between my learning theory and theirs. Underlying all instructional moves, assessment decisions, or classroom management strategies is the instructor's theory, and if I don't first understand that, I can't hope to effect change.

I need to think about this further, but so far I have several things I wonder about:

  • Does everyone consciously know their own theory of learning? My guess is they don’t so then, as a coach, how do I help them tap into that?
  • Is constructivist theory always best? Are there times when transmission is the preferred method?
  • What language can I use as a coach that is the least threatening, and allows people to freely examine their learning theories without feeling defensive?

What about you? What is your theory of learning?


Deanna Ryan said...

Wow, Heather, that's great insight. As a watched one student tempted by the late afternoon, after-lunch urge to doze (and this was a very normally receptive, responsive student) I was analyzing the 'learning' situation I was creating. My own personal epiphany was even though my goal was for us to try to, together, take a trip into a desert we could not afford to travel to through a bit of what I thought was high interest footage, it wasn't grabbing them because their job, to just watch wasn't engaging enough. What I came up with is that tomorrow I will go from the students watching 'Survivorman' to creating the most believable script they can on how to keep someone alive in the tundra... now this will require them coming together and creating something - this they could remember! Thank you for helping me think of learning in a new way. You rock, my friend!

Heather said...

Love that idea! Thanks for your feedback and encouragement!