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Evolution of Learning Theories

I have to admit it’s been a long time since I’ve explored educational research on the level that I have since beginning my COETAIL journey. It’s bringing back memories from graduate school and working parts of my brain that haven’t been used in quite some time. But just like getting back on the exercise train after an indulgent holiday season, the brain (and body) has muscle memory. Revisiting learning theories with all of the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired since my grad school days brought to light some new understandings, especially since I’ve been shifting back and forth between roles in education.

Living in the Past

Since beginning my career as an educator, I have wondered what it must have been like to do it in pre-internet times.

  1. How would I lesson plan without technology and the ability to hyperlink resources?

  2. What might a faculty meeting look like if I didn’t have my smartphone? (Guilty) Or if the people running the meeting didn’t have a PowerPoint? (Okay, that would be a good thing)

  3. Were those sacred hand-written gradebooks all the assessments they were responsible for submitting?

  4. Did they loathe writing report cards then as much as I do now?

  5. How were school policies and curriculum shaped without being able to consult huge amounts of “best-practice” research?

Lucky for me, I have access to a few teachers who can speak to these changes. One of them is my father-in-law, and he’s been such a great person to ‘talk shop’ with throughout my years as an educator and a student. These conversations often lead back to the theoretical foundations of teaching and learning, well, because of course they do. What do you believe about the way people learn? Your answer inevitably impacts the way that you teach.

The Here and Now

But like most things in my life, there never seems to be one singular explanation that fits all of my experiences, ideas and knowledge. More often, it’s a collection of bits and pieces that come together to help me make sense of past, current, and future experiences both in and outside of the classroom.

Parts of behaviorist theory make a lot of sense to me, especially when I think about how well students tend to do with certain classroom routines. While I don’t necessarily agree with the punishments and rewards side of this learning theory, I think there’s something to be said for established norms and routines. Additionally, when you are working with students who may have special needs, these strategies and ideas can be hugely beneficial to teachers.

Likewise, I think parts of cognitivism have merit as well, but don’t think it answers all of the questions. One of the nuggets of cognitive learning theories that I agree with wholeheartedly is that people are rational beings who need to actively participate in the learning process. And yes, I do believe that the human mind is a lot like a supercomputer, even if we can’t beat IBM’s Watson at Jeopardy.

Contructivism has a special place in my educator heart as well though because I think learners are really at the center of learning, not content. I see learning as a personal and social construction of meaning that learners make from having experiences. And, much of my pedagogical practices as a teacher come from these beliefs and ideas.

The information presented in this week’s reading resonated with me, especially the articles on connectivism. It’s a given that the Internet and new media have changed the way people learn, and I don’t think anyone would argue that. It has created new opportunities for people to learn and share information. Examples of this from my life include blended learning classes in college, an online graduate school program, and hundreds of hours of web-based learning through webinars, PD courses and continuing education like this COETAIL class.

But what are the implications of this theory on the institution of education? Is it too early to really tell? Will this theory be able to transform legislation and the way education has traditionally been seen? I sure hope so!

What the Future Holds

So what does all this mean for me and my practice? How do these learning theories influence the way I teach and how am I evolving as an educator in light of the new information being presented? There’s not a simple answer, but I made a LOT of ‘connections’ (see what I did there?) to the content this week and here’s where I’ll share some of it:

In the reading Living with New Media, it was concluded that “…rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, what would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally, a public life that includes social, recreational and civic engagement?”

  1. This is a radical idea for some, but it resonates with tons of educators who engage with youth under the current constraints of standards, testing, expectations, etc. This reminded me of a post from a ‘future-focused’ school in San Diego, Design 39.


The article also stated that the “most successful examples of youth media programs are those based on kids’ own passionate interests and allowing plenty of unstructured time for kids to tinker and explore without being dominated by direct instruction.”

  1. To me, this affirms the need for more programs like STEAM, makerspaces and iTime integration to be a key component in today’s educational institutions. Imagine if there was no set curriculum, no tests, no scope and sequence to which the students or teachers were bound…

The revised version of Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy presented in this week’s resources was also a nice reminder of how we should be scaffolding digital learning for our students. What I like most about using a tool like this is that it can be used across grade levels and content areas. This visual model is the one I prefer:

Photo credit: Teachonline (ASU)

  1. One way I use Bloom’s Taxonomy is as a reference in planning and scaffolding learning tasks. It acts as a checks and balances for what we’re expecting from our students.

  2. Another way to use this tool is to help differentiate for students with different readiness, abilities, and learning needs.

As my journey in COETAIL (and in education) continues, I hope to revisit these foundational understandings that underpin my practice more frequently. If anyone out there has useful tips and tricks for embedding this in efficient ways, please feel free to pass them along. And until next time, have a great week!

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