After discussions with educators, instructors, and classmates, I’ve refined my Learning Theory Mash Up. I’m grateful for those conversations as they always help me refine my own thinking (via experiential learning). Please keep the feedback coming.
In my experiences as a learner and a teacher, I have found I learn primarily from cognitive and constructivist learning theories. As a teacher, I have found these theories are most effective in teaching mathematics. One theory may be more useful than the other depending on the type of activity and the stage of learning.
Cognitive learning theory says that we learn based on our own filters. We build and expand on those filters as we are exposed to more ideas. For example, a child may start by placing dogs, cows, and bears all in the same category because they all have 4 legs and they are usually brown. As a child’s experiences/exposures to these animals and other four-legged, brown animals broadens. more categories may be introduced such as pets, farm animals, and wild animals. The more we learn, the more the categories are refined. Newer research has shown that the more we can refine our thinking by making connections, the lower the cognitive load when learning new things. Under this theory, teachers can present ways to connect information helping students develop a more organized “filing system” in the brain and, thereby, reducing cognitive load.
In relation to math, they have found that when students reach the level of automaticity with basic math facts (students no longer have to solve 6 x 8 but instead know the result to be 48), the cognitive required to solve more complex problems lessens. Students who haven’t reached of level of automaticity with basic facts often get hung up solving 6 x 8 and lose track of the larger problem they are solving.
Constructivist learning theory is similar in that it says we learn from our experiences and build on our prior knowledge. The main difference is that learning is more personal or internal. A teacher can facilitate learning by asking questions, providing guidelines, and creating an environment in which a student can construct understanding.
There are times during the learning process that I feel students need to be given more structure, more specific direction in order to build new thinking. When enough prior knowledge exists, students can construct their own learning. This is the way I think cognitivism and constructivism work together pinging off of each other. This combination of theories works well with Kolb’s experiential learning theory. Students start with a concrete experience–either something they have experienced in their daily lives, or something orchestrated by an instructor. From this knowledge base, students can observe, reflect, and sift through their discoveries to develop abstract concepts. Pulling from the constructivist side, students test their own ideas and will likely refine them further, possibly by creating their own concrete experiences. And the cycle continues.
An additional learning theory, contextual learning theory, can be the cloak over which experiential learning occurs.
“Contextual teaching and learning is a conception of teaching and learning that helps teachers relate subject matter content to real world situations; and motivates students to make connections between knowledge and its applications to their lives as family members, citizens, and workers and engage in the hard work that learning requires.” (Berns, 2001)
In addition to its use in career and technical education, the contextual learning theory has been found very effective when teaching mathematics. When students can see math in use within situations they find familiar, it reduces cognitive load. For example, suppose students are given a problem involving calculating the amount of hay a horse eats in a day. Students who have never seen a horse will have a portion of their brain trying to figure out what a horse is, how big it is, why it would eat hay, etc. That cognitive load will take away from their ability to solve the problem. If students have a concrete experience of a horse, they context of “horse” will not draw on their cognitive load.
Using the basic cognitive and constructivist learning theories are often helpful when building new knowledge. A cognitive approach is best when no prior knowledge exists or the learning requires a complex connection to prior knowledge. Once students are ready to apply learning to build understanding, experiential and contextual learning theories come into play. This is when students are ready to start integrating and applying their knowledge.
The more I work in the field of education, the more I see that each learning theory has its benefits and draw backs. Sometimes the most beneficial learning approach depends on the topic, other times in depend on the student. I think it is important to be flexible as students’ capacities to learn constantly grow and change.
Learning theories are complex and often interwoven. I would love to receive feedback regarding my combination of these learning theories. Do you think they work well together, or are there contradictions? Are their other learning theories that blend well or would enhance what I have included here?
1.1 Instructional Systems Design
It is important to keep these, and other, learning theories in mind when designing instruction. Depending on the audience, it may be necessary to use one or two learning theories as the guiding force for the instruction. Most computer games expect students to construct their own knowledge and understanding by exploring the game, testing and analyzing results. To keep a player from giving up in frustration, tutorials or helps with direct instruction may be necessary.
Update: Based on the comments and conversations, I’ve attempted a new diagram for my learning theory mash-up. You can see the new diagram here.