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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How People Learn

What are your beliefs about how people learn best? What is the purpose of learning theory in educational technology?
My personal beliefs about learning are continuously informed and shaped by theory, research and practice.  Learning is indicated when there is a continuous change in behavior.  An individual might have several hypotheses about learning, for instance, I believe that the more involved students are in the learning process the greater the possibility that learning will take place.  I also believe that holding exclusively to one theory prevents the exploration of others through research and inhibits their application in the classroom.  I believe that for the teacher instructor there is a smorgasbord of theories with which to engage depending on the individual, the content, and the context.  If there is to be an understanding of how people learn there has to be an understanding of theories of learning which has evolved from research. 
How do theorists say people learn?
Siemens (2008, p. 9) saw linkages between theories and noted that theories form a progression with new ones building on previous ones. He advised that any discussion of learning must include a revision of learning theories.  Learning theory has evolved from three basic epistemological philosophies: (a) Pragmatism which is the belief that neither knowledge nor reality can be definitive or absolute but is dependent on empirical or rational processes.  (b) Interpretivism states that reality is shaped within and thus individuals construct their own knowledge.  (c) Objectivism states that reality is external and perceived through the senses and has nothing to do with the individual’s consciousness (Siemens, 2008 & Driscoll, 2005).  These epistemologies underpin three broad learning theories –behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. 
Behaviorism traces it origins in objectivism.  Behaviorism argues that it is impossible to observe what occurs within the learner.  Behaviorists proffer that learning occurs as the individual responds correctly to external stimuli offered in the form of reward or punishment (Driscoll, 2005 & Siemens, 2008).  Behaviorist theory is useful in educational technology when the aim is to help students learn a concept or skill through repetition. Programs have been devised which provides drill and practice.  For examples of these programs see: 

Math Practice at located at, and 
Chemistry Drill and Practice Tutorials at     

Cognitivists focus on the individual’s mental processes.  This involves insight, memory, perception and the way information is processed.  For the cognitivist learning is a change in what we know.  Learning occurs when information is organized internally (that is, in our memory) in a meaningful way.  Connections can be made between cognitivism and pragmatism.  Education technology connects with cognitivism with programs that target a range of knowledge and skills.  Comprehension programs whether in the form of interactive games or simply programs that offer a passage followed by comprehension questions are a good example.  Challenging Our Minds at,  is a program that can be used to develop cognitive skills.

For the constructivist learning is an active process in which the learner constructs their own knowledge as they interact with and seek to interpret the world around them.  In the constructivist classroom educational technology allows the teacher to be a facilitator The teacher provides material with which the students can interact and explore.  For example a geography class might explore a country’s topography online.  History and language students can participate in museum and archive tours online.  Students can create online journals.  These are just a few of the activities the constructivist teacher can do.
Siemens (2008) briefly examined connectivism, another learning theory.  In “Connectivism: A Theory for the Digital Age” (Siemens, 2005) he describes the limitations of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism and argues for connectivism as an alternative learning theory appropriate for the digital age.  Connectivists see knowledge as constructed of connections and networks.  Learning occurs in changing environments over which learners do not have complete control and in which they seek to make connections between specific types of information and so increase their knowledge (Siemens, 2005).  Classroom 2.0 provides a video discussion of connectivism and networked learning titled “Connectivism and Networked Learning” at  
How do people learn?
This discussion would be incomplete without noting the importance of learning styles.  It is important that practitioners are aware of the various learning styles since this can affect the learning process.  Visual learners favor using pictures or images; aural learners prefer sound; verbal learners use words both oral and written, and physical learners favor using their bodies.  Learning styles connect with educational technology.  There are tools available that can meet the needs of each type of learner.  For example, for the physical/kinesthetic learner can access word rocessors, music synthesizers, video cameras, and computer simulations to actively involve themselves in the learning process.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Pearson.
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from
Siemens, G. (2008, January 27). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. Paper presented to ITFORUM. Retrieved from

Additional Resources
How people learn: The National Academies Press
Technology Alliance found at scroll down the list to: December 8, 2006 - Dr. John Bransford, Professor of Education and Psychology, College of Education, UW, talks about how people learn. DOWNLOAD MP3 (30MB)
The Learning Theory Podcasts
A series of podcasts dealing with learning theories done by De. Daniel J Campbell found at
George Siemens on Social Learning Networks: From Theory to Practice
George Siemens argues for using social networks in the learning process in an interview found at Xyleme Voices: A Podcast Library on the Evolution of Training  
How Students Learn; How We Should Teach. Learning Theories
This site offers insights into the various theorists and their theories through brief articles and podcasts, together with suggestions for how these theories apply to goals and objectives, individual differences, motivation, teaching methods and evaluation
Tomorrow’s Professor Blog
This blog is sponsored by Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning. TP Msg. #1180 Learning Theory and Online Instruction, examines behaviorist’s, cognitivist’s, and constructivist’s learning theories.  It can be found at
E-Learning Provocateur: Provoking Deeper Thinking

In this blog located at the writer presents “A Taxonomy of Learning Theories” at