The Sound and the “Theory”
According to the Encarta dictionary, epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, in particular its foundations, scope and validity. (Encarta, 2010)
The later part of the definition captured my interest the most, especially when you look at each word separately.
Foundations = basics or fundamentals
Scope = possibility, opportunity, or choice
Validity = rationality or legitimacy
A sound educational theory must have a solid foundation that incorporates identifiable principles. Also, such a theory must provide opportunity and choice; and lastly, it must be logical and valid. Even if a theory meets this criterion, is it the “be all and end all”? The simple answer to this question is: no. As a long time educator, I can honestly say that one theory doesn’t fit all. Nor should it.
Fortunately, for both teachers and learners, some educational theories actually evolve. They become stronger—and dare I say, more sound? That’s how I look at constructivism. It has been shaped and fashioned, and reshaped and refashioned many times—and in my mind, this evolution has been a good thing. Right now the social-constructivist theory appeals to me the most because of my experiences in the classroom, both as an educator and a learner. When I first started teaching, the learning environment was teacher centred. This approach is no longer valid, especially now that we have access to technology. According to the social-constructivist theory “the locus of control … shifts somewhat away from the teacher, who becomes more of a guide than an instructor, but who assumes the critical role of shaping the learning activities and designing the structure in which those activities occur.” (Anderson & Dron, 2010) Teacher as guide and activity designer seems more accurate these days. One of my favourite structured activities is to have the entire class construct an information wiki. Once the groups are formed, each group is responsible for their own “wiki” page. They cannot use Wikipedia information or their sources, but they have to replicate a Wikipedia page. The students work together to locate and build the “information” page. I am a strictly a guide. Everything is in their hands. They have to decide what is included and what isn’t. They have to decide how to organize and present the information, and so on. This hands-on information wiki became Art-pedia (about famous artists). Later I did something similar with a different class: it became War-pedia (about Canadian war heroes). To me this is learning at its best. Learning in this instance is student centred; more importantly, “social discussion, validation and real world applications” are a must. (Anderson & Dron, 2010).
During the 2013 spring session I experienced the social-constructivist approach to learning first hand when I had to create a podcast with two other people. The podcast had us explore the concept of edutainment as it pertains to different educational theories. Like the Art-pedia or War-pedia groups we had to decide what had to be covered, and how it would be covered, and so on. We started (seemingly) with nothing but by the time we were done we had created a professional podcast together. The best part of the whole experience is that we managed to do this despite the fact that none of us lived in the same place. Of course neither project would have been possible without the help of technology. Frankly, at this point in my teaching career, I can’t even imagine teaching and learning without technology.
Of course this approach to teaching and learning isn’t always feasible. As an English-Language Arts teacher I know that my students will have to work in isolation sooner or later. Not everything can be collaborative. Writing an essay, for example, requires a different approach. It isn’t collaborative, nor will it be during a provincial government diploma exam. As teachers we can’t always operate within one “theory” or realm. I have never asked my students what it is like to move from one learning extreme to the next. Besides, would the answer change anything? Not really. Sometimes we have to do what we have to do. I am not sure if these inconsistencies are detrimental or not. The real world isn’t simple either; sometimes it is chaotic and messy. People who live in the real world have to learn to adapt—both teacher and learner do this each and every day. Not all curricular outcomes can be “shaped” to meet one learning theory. Drill and practice still exits to a certain extent. Students have to learn how to quote and paraphrase; this takes practice. Mastery is more likely to occur if a student practices “how to do it” over and over. That’s a fact. Of course, I would hope that educators wouldn’t rely on one approach either. Drill and practice—all the time?! Perish the thought. That ranks right up there with worksheet after worksheet. Teachers have to choose the right kind of learning theory or approach for the right reason. It has to serve as a means to an end.
With that said, I have to admit that I am also drawn to the connectivist theory as well. In this theory the “learner’s role is not to memorize or even understand everything, but to have the capacity to find and apply knowledge when and where it is needed.” This viewpoint could be applied to the Art-pedia project or the podcast assignment too. Each and every learner had to find and apply knowledge. Furthermore, “connectivist cognitive presence is enhanced by the focus on reflection and distribution of these reflections in blogs, twitter posts, and multimedia webcasts.” This approach to learning is being utilized in my classroom as well. Blogging was central to our Poetry4Now project, so were personal electronic devices. For me (and my students), connectivist views seem very timely right now. Furthermore, I just created a role-play project that requires students to use Twitter. I cannot wait to test drive this. I appreciate the fact that there are so many sound learning theories out there. I think it is my job to choose the right theory, at the right time. Students have different needs; we try to meet them as best we can. I truly believe this is best achieved one theory at a time.
The one thing that brings social-constructivist theory and connectivist theory together for me is that they both share the common belief that learning is a social experience; real learning occurs in the company of others. According to McDermott (1999), learning does not belong to individual persons, but to the various conversations of which they are a part.” (qtd. in Smith, 1999 ) I love this quote. I have always appreciated and prized literature. Stories are important to me, especially stories about how human beings struggle to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. Of course the character’s journey and end are important, but what really makes the story important is the conversation I have with other readers. Those discussions stick with me as much as the character from the story does. I can’t imagine reading a book (or watching a movie) and not being able to talk about it with other people. Perish the thought! I love being a teacher and learner in the 21st century. Nowadays we can blog, tweet and chat about anything and everything. Better yet, we can converse with people who live thousands of miles away. What more can you ask for? Seriously.
Before I go, I want you to consider the picture of the inuksuk at the top of the page. In order to build one, Inuit people must use rocks. However these rocks are rarely the same size or shape. Furthermore, they have to work with what is available. This means the builder (or builders) works hard to find rocks that will fit together in order to construct a free standing being. This being, which means “something which acts for or performs the function of a person,” has an important job too. (Inuksuk, n.d.) Some experts believe that these creations may have been used “for navigation, as a point of reference, or as a marker for travel routes or food caches”. (Inuksuk, n.d.) As I see it, these unique structures could represent the various learning theories teachers draw upon to get the job done. One rock isn’t enough. Two rocks aren’t enough either. The teacher finds and utilizes as many rocks as it takes. More importantly, each theory must be brought together, mixed if you will, in order to build a completely free standing, modern day learner. My job requires me to build one free standing being at a time using the best tools and approaches available to me and my students. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that. I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.
Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2010). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 12(3), 80-97. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/890/1663
Epistemology. (2010). Microsoft Encarta Dictionary. [software]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation.
Inuksuk. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inuksuk
Smith, M. K. (1999). The social/situational orientation to learning. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved from: http://infed.org/mobi/the-socialsituational-orientation-to-learning/