Theories of Learning and their Roles in Teaching

books

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Maimonides

If you walk into any school in the country, you will most likely encounter testing of some sort. Whether it is fill-in-the-blank, matching, or short answer, the assessments all require one thing from the students: memorization of information for a short period without maximum retention. It is time for educators and those in charge of implementing testing to realize that the theories of learning in place are hindering the true learning potential that resided within all classroom.

Developmentally appropriate practice for classrooms involves several aspects, such as teacher clarity, discussion, feedback, formative assessments, and metacognitive strategies. If educators expect maximum results out of their students, it is up to the educators to ensure clarity of purpose and learning goals while providing explicit criteria on how students can be successful along with modeling work that the students will create. By ensuring that teachers are striving to reach their highest potential as an educator, their continued growth will only benefit the students whom they strive to serve.

Educational practices have been influenced over the years by various theories of learning. As the decades have worn on, theories such as Operant Conditioning by B.F. Skinner have shifted to Constructivist Theory by Jerome Butler to Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner and the list continues.  While these are only three of the many learning theories, it is essential to understand how different learning theories can affect educational practices. For example, if an educator is using Operant Conditioning Theory because structure and order are desired, the students would suffer the effects of not receiving a holistic education as they are merely seen as a means to an end (paycheck). If another educator utilized the Multiple Intelligences Theory, they would be acknowledging that their classroom is composed of many diverse learners who have different strengths and weaknesses. While this would be highly helpful when designing lessons, it could also cause certain students’ intelligences to be ignored if their group consists of 1-2 students in a class of 30.

If teachers wish to ensure that they are teaching their students for life and not simply to pass a test, educators need to apply their learning theories to “best practices”. This goes back to teacher clarity, discussion, feedback, formative assessments, and metacognitive strategies. By ensuring that the student is growing and developing on multiple fronts in a supportive and encouraging environment, teachers can better engage and motivate learners. By finding the learning theories that best serve this goal is the ultimate objective since our students’ success is what we are all working towards.

Agents of Change and Reform

skipping stone

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Theresa

I believe that every classroom should be centered around the themes of social justice and empathy.  These two topics are participatory; they cannot be learned solely from the pages of a book nor from a how-to instructional video on the internet, students must apply themselves if they seek to understand what it means to be empathetic and socially just.  Through this focus on social justice and empathy, classrooms strive to encourage the equality of all individuals and often give a voice to those who are usually silent.

A classroom lacking the aspects of social justice and empathy could have dire consequences on our society.  Since students spend much of their time in the presence of teachers, it is our duty to inform our students about the harsh realities of the world.  It is also our duty to inspire our students to be the change that the world needs to see by developing their understandings of social justice and empathy.  This can be accomplished by providing our students with the tools they will need when facing those harsh realities on their own, such as critical thinking, perspective taking, and the ability to rationalize to name a few.

My goal is to base classroom curriculum on a foundation of social justice and empathy as a way of insuring that students understand the importance of these two subjects.  By providing the tools necessary along with this solid foundation, students can better interpret the world while also being able to better reflect on the self.

Curricular Vision

stacked stones

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” – George Washington Carver

 English is a disciple that has endless learning opportunities, but the ability to shape and mold those opportunities into a curricular vision that is both engaging and balanced is one that requires not just the mind, but the heart.

I believe that curricular vision should encompass more than the textual aspects of a classroom and should strive to incorporate empathy, social justice, and open-minded practices.  Students spend roughly around 35 hours a week in the presence of teachers, making us a huge influence in our students’ lives.  As such, it is our duty as teachers to ensure that students receive not only intellectual growth, but mental and emotional growth as well.  As educators, we should strive to teach the entire student, not just the intellect.  The heart of the student is no less important and should thus be given as much attention as the brain.

By incorporating aspects into the classroom curriculum that focus on enriching the heart of a student, such as empathy and social justice, we can make current curriculum that focuses on knowledge acquisition that much richer.  A curriculum that ignores the heart denies our students of the opportunity of receiving a well-rounded and diverse learning experience. This is why having such an engaging and balanced curricular vision is of the utmost importance, not only for ourselves as educators, but for our students as well.

Teaching Subject Matter

book love

“In a good book the best is between the lines.” – Swedish Proverb

Reading has always been an activity that has given me the utmost pleasure. Between the covers, I would lose myself among the leaves to embark on journeys that would take me to the ends of the universe. For me, reading was empowering because it allowed me to live different lives, develop perspectives, and ultimately enhance my ability to empathize with the world around me.

By developing bonds that run deeper than only needing to pass a test, we can engage students in critical thinking, perspective-taking, and a number of other skills that are essential in a democratic society. As an educator, I want to aid students who have never been interested in reading learn to love the written word. I want to hear the discussions, the analyzing, the critical thinking, but most of all, I want to hear young people talking passionately about something they care about.

If students are expected to connect and engage with texts, they will need the opportunities to experience reading in this fashion. Using Ralph W. Tyler’s backward design model, teachers can develop quality units with overarching themes and lesson plans guided by essential questions. Through the use of these broad, yet guiding principles, teachers can better plan for more engaging activities that will help connect students to different works of literature.

Teaching Diverse Learners

fish and tree

In diversity, there is beauty and there is strength.”  – Maya Angelou

One of the most beautiful things about words is their ability to bring people together. In our increasingly connected world, we all share words and meaning, especially in classrooms.  Now, more than ever, classrooms strive to celebrate the diversity and multiculturalism that comprises the United States.  While this task may seem challenging, daunting even, due to the homogenous nature of many schools, it is possible and even imperative that educators strive to foster this environment.  By incorporating diversity and multiculturalism into the classroom, not only are we giving our students a chance to learn about others who are different from themselves, but we are affirming identities by demonstrating empathy and human kindness.  Our students need to be aware of and informed about the issues and realities of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status so they can agents of change.

Recently, my class had a discussion over multicultural and diversity issues, specifically focusing on race and religion. It was clear at the very start of the discussion that there were several uninformed students.  However, the way that their classmates respectfully and compassionately explained the topics not only affirmed the students who were uninformed but also allowed them to grasp a deeper understanding of two highly controversial issues.  At the end of the discussion, one student even thanked his classmates for helping him understand rather than attacking him for his ignorance.  This moment comes to me time and again as I think about how important diversity is in our classrooms. With knowledge and understanding of others, students can overcome the fear of the unfamiliar.  With the respect and empathy of their peers, students can grow and learn to see that there is beauty and strength in all that is diverse.

One of the most beautiful aspects of students is the collage of self-identities that create the classroom. While this spectrum of learners is both magnificent and exciting, it can be easy for teachers to shut out part of the scope of students in a class. These students may include the high-ability learners because they are the students who need the least amount of attention and guidance. Another overlooked group may be the struggling learners who do not wish their peers to know they are doing poorly.  As a result of this poor performance, these students may act out in a variety of ways, causing the teacher to overlook their struggles in favor of more cooperative struggling students.  Students with different linguistic backgrounds from English may also be overlooked. Since these students need extra support to understand academic language, their learning pace is much slower than their classmates.  This could result in the teacher feeling the strain of needing to slow down and explain the lesson for some students and the need to fit in all necessary information from the lesson. These reasons for shortening the spectrum of which student identities  are affirmed are perfect exemplars as to why differentiated instruction is so crucial. Through differentiated instruction, a wide range of students can be reached, their learning styles can be catered to, and there are supports in place to ensure maximum learning is occurring. Differentiated instruction also allows for the inclusion of more students, especially lower-ability students who may have never participated in class before. If educators are going to ensure that all student learning needs are met, differentiated instruction is a must.

diverse learners