Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Do Theories Influence What We Think and Do?

Bill Kerr states that “Learning theory, like politics, is full of _isms: constructivism, behaviourism, cognitivism and now a new one, connectivism”, and asks, “What should we do about these _isms? Are they a useful guide to what to think and do?”

Each “-ism” is important in terms of what it brings to the classroom teachers’ toolkit.  Teachers learn so that they can teach and teachers learn how to teach.  The greatest impact of learning theory is in the classroom.  I remember my first teaching practice as a student teacher.  My assessor asked me (after a dismal performance) what had happened.  Wish I knew then what I know now.  It’s not only knowledge of the theory that matters, but how it is operationalized in the classroom to help students learn.  Theories guide teachers’ thoughts and actions.  When practitioners use the methods formulated out of these –isms, do they work?  How often have you read a theory and said “Aha”, or tried a new approach and gotten through to a student?  As long as the methods continue to be effective in the classroom, the –isms will not die.  Dr. Nancy Casey discusses this interaction between learning theory and classroom practice in the video “Learning Theory’s Impact on Teaching”.  

I like Kerr’s description of the interaction of theory and practice as a “continual spiral development” constantly changing, forever evolving.  I would like to add that in that spiral is a place where theory interacts with theory and both change.  A teacher might begin a lesson using cognitive theory and end it with the behaviorists’ repetition/drill and practice.

The cognitivist’ conception of the brain as a computer underlines the fact that we have not yet exhausted research on the brain.  We do not yet know the limits of either.  Theories about the brain and learning will continue to evolve and impact what we learn, how we learn, and what and how we teach.  

The learningdctr effectively captures the importance and value of theories which he describes as windows in a house through which we can look and see the inside from different perspectives.  What a beautiful metaphor.  Individuals have come to hold a pejorative view of words like rote, drill and practice, and repetition that have become attached to behaviorist theories.  Maybe the view is deserved if we think of traditional practice, but maybe practitioners should explore the new methodologies connected with behaviorism and see that methods like drill and practice does have a place in the learning environment.  I am now convinced (tentatively) theories and their methodologies offer teachers a smorgasbord of ideas that will always inform their practice.

Kapp, K.  (2007) Out and about: Discussion on educational schools of thought [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Kerr, B, (2007). _isms as filter, not blinker [Web log post].  Retrieved from


Segla Kossivi said...


Indeed, each “-ism” is important in terms of what it brings to the classroom teachers’ toolkit. As a teacher, learning theories inform my lesson plans. I differ from Kapp who postulates, “We have now find ourselves shifting to a cognitive form of teaching over that of behaviorism as we become more concern with the internal mental processes of the mind and how they could be used in encouraging effective learning” (Kapp, 2007). By definition, behaviorism displays itself in any learning situation. No one easily could see or measure the mental processing. Trough behaviorism, students depict a response to stimuli. As a math teacher, I write instructional objectives according to the principles of behaviorism. However, I approve Kapp’s (2007) recommendation of being selective of appropriate leaning theories for effective use. In my class, students experience behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism.
Kapp, K. (2007, January 2). Out and about: Discussion on educational schools of thought [Web log post]. Retrieved from

sportz75 said...

I love that you referred to the “toolkit” in your blog post. Dr. Moller mentioned in one of his posts that when the only tool you have is a hammer everything begins to resemble a nail. I’m a big fan of that type of thinking. It’s also one reason I favor psychologists over psychiatrists in the struggle over who can prescribe psychotropic medications. I think we should be as multifaceted as possible which means an eclectic educational background. I have tended to avoid higher degrees that are merely vertical in content. My masters is in public health, my specialist is in education, my undergrad was a duel degree in psychology and health sciences. All of these relate yet also offer a horizontal educational development I think. The more fields from which we can draw knowledge the better we are at forming solutions and applying them across paradigms. I suppose this also gets into the generalist vs specialist debate. As a functionalist I see the benefit of both but I also tend to see that specialists have a tough time looking beyond their own fields.

Dorothea Nelson said...


I think that teachers should be pragmatic. We have a range of methodologies to choose from, so why not choose what works best for the student, the content and the environmental conditions? It is great that no matter what the subject area we can find an appropriate methodology.


Dorothea Nelson said...

I learned early that the only thing certain is change. I also learned to keep an open mind which is what I interpret Dr. Moller's statement as saying. Our perspective can become so clouded that everything we see fits into one pattern, our pattern. Teachers cannot afford to be dogmatic. Teachers should have a toolkit into which they place the different ideas that can affect their classroom practice. These various methodologies will inform and guide what they think and do.


Tiffany Thompson said...

Great post Dorothea. Yes, I too, wish I knew then what I know now. I feel for those poor souls that had to endure me in their class as a student teacher. Even with the Psychology classes behind me, I still treated the student teaching portion as "What standard do I cover? How to set up THE dreaded lengthy, very detailed lesson plans. And I am so nervous about getting up in front of them." Now I have had experience working with a variety of learning styles and learned how to change my approach in the moment to reach several students. I also now, because of experience consciously change approaches throughout the day to engage students and reach the different styles. I still have a long way to go which is what intrigues me about this class. I have had several "ah ha" like you suggested that have made me recount several situations where I was at a loss of what to do. I look forward to learning more through this class.

smmotley said...


I have found that all theories can be utilized depending on the age group, the subject, and the personality of the students. I may plan a lesson based on one theory, but how the students respond may cause me to switch before the end of the lesson.


ktino1 said...

I have my own "little bag of tricks" (much like your tool box) that I occassionally have to dig into for assistance. I have never catagorized them as to teaching and learning styles, but as I reflect on some of my favorites, I realize that most of them are in a cognitive group. Most tend to fall into a hands-on or situational learning experience. As you stated,"It’s not only knowledge of the theory that matters, but how it is operationalized in the classroom to help students learn." I can;t agree with you more.

Dorothea Nelson said...

Hi Tiffany,

A kindred spirit I see. I think that "dreaded very lengthy detailed lesson plan" contributed to my undoing. Thanks for sharing the valuable lesson you learned. It is so important that variety is brought into the classroom. It not only changes the pace but appeals to children's different learning styles. Children get the opportunity to move out of their comfort zone and learn in unaccustomed ways and also to relax and work within their own learning style.


Dorothea Nelson said...

Ah, yes Simone,

There are those times when lessons take teachers in unplanned directions. It is at times like these when teachers need what Karen (see below) calls her "bag of tricks". Teachers need a range of methods to choose from. One never knows what will reach a particular child.


K.A. Christian said...

I do appreciate the different learning theorists that I am now learning about in Psychology class. I wish I knew a lot of them before.I tend to wonder about the curriculum provided by schools, are they catered to different learners?

Anonymous said...

Dorthea, I have always had the big picture in mind going into my classes. When you think of the students as the strokes in the picture not any two of them are the same. That is what makes teaching so challenging, yet rewarding. I still have to review most of the isms and their descriptions, but the two I have come to see most in the way I plan and present to the students are constructivism and connectivism. To work in a group of kids that work together to make sense of new materials and see the way they connect to what they already know is not only rewarding to teacher and students, but EYE opening. Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog. I look forward to your reply. Becky

Dorothea Nelson said...

Hi Becky,

This is not a revision for me it is a re-learning process. I find the methodologies connected with constructivism and connectivism engaging as well. I am also drawn to Seymour Papert's ideas and his constructionism which is an outgrowth of constructivism. It is captivating to see the evolution of the various theories and how each contains some of its predecessors' ideas.


Dorothea Nelson said...

Hi Kelly,

I remember when I first entered Teacher Training College and the head of department said to us: "You are going to ask yourselves, "What have I been doing to peoples' children?"" Studying the theorists and their fascinating theories and the methodologies that spring from them makes me ask the same question. All of these new ideas and ways of reaching children assist in meeting the needs of more learners who without your acquiring this knowledge might have fallen through the cracks.


Royjr. said...

It always amazes me that most of my former teachers knew nothing about these theories when they were teaching us. They have been teaching over 12 years and are now being trained. I can imagine the effects if they had the knowledge of these theories plus their sense of pragmatism. I believe one should embrace the knowledge of these theories but not too tight. These theories can definitely assist in the learning process.