Over the past couple of months (well, in those stolen moments), I have been reading up on Understanding Learners and Learning for my current Bath MA International Education unit. Where at first I was dubious about the value of going over ‘the old stuff from my PGCE year’, I have found it once again to be intellectually stimulating and challenging to my thoughts as an educator. In trying to prevent myself from being spread too thin (2014 is going to be a freight train), I am writing on what I know, taking a pragmatic look at my “MYP: Mind The Gap” work and presentation and connecting it to the Visible Learning impacts of John Hattie as well as digging deeper into key learning theories.
In reading the assigned literature, following the breadcrumbs and accessing more and more literature on the topic of learning, it becomes ever more apparent that the more we learn about knowledge and how it is constructed in the mind of the learner, the more questions we have. Learning is complex, multi-faceted and highly context-specific, yet despite all our differences we may be more alike in our learning than we are different. As educational research builds a stronger database of evidence for an against methods, resources or ideas, careful thought and a dedication to “knowing our impact” may help us determine what is working best in our own classrooms.
So what is learning, really? This post presents some key definitions I’ve picked up on my reading so far.
“Learning is the process by which knowledge is increased or modified. Transfer is the process of applying knowledge in new situations.“(‘Cognition and Learning’; Greeno, Collins & Resnick).
This broad definition is helpful as we discuss learning ‘across the gaps’ between MYP and DP, from more inquiry-focused teaching and learning (our ideals as IB educators) to the higher stakes of terminal assessment (and the need for effective and evidence-based methods that allow our students to be ‘successful’). This definition by itself does not do learning justice, however, and Greeno et al, have used their extensive literature review to outline three major perspectives on knowledge, learning, transfer and motivation.
The Behaviorist/Empiricist (B/E) perspective views knowledge as an “organized accumulation of associations and components of skills,” where learning is the “formation, strengthening and adjustment” of associations between stimulus and response and transfer is dependent on a gradient of similarity between the known and the unknown, or “how many and which kinds of associations needed in the new situation have already been acquired in the previous situation.”
The Cognitive/rationalist (C/R) perspective “emphasizes understanding of concepts and theories in different subject matter domains and general cognitive abilities, such as reasoning, planning, solving problems comprehending language.” Learning is understood as “a constructive process of conceptual growth,” and through this constructivist approach transfer is based on the assertion that “concepts and principles of a domain are designed to provide generality [… and is…] assumed to depend on an abstract mental representation in the form of a schema that designates relations that compose a structure that is invariant across situations.”
In the Situitive/pragmatist-sociohistoric (S/P) views, knowledge is “distributed among people and their environment” and learning is situitive/interactive, taking place “by a group or individual (and) involves becoming attuned to constraints and affordances of material and social systems with which they interact.” Success is determined more by successful participation in the community, rather than through subsets of skills or tasks, and “the practices of a community provide facilitating and inhibiting patterns that organize the group’s activities and the participation of individuals who are attuned to those regularities.” Transfer “becomes a problematic issue,” does this refer to transfer to new tasks within the same community or to those beyond the community?
In the simple overviews above, we might consider that various elements of our programmes, teaching and learning can be seen to represent the different perspectives at different times. It is possible here to draw comparisons between the exam-focused IBDP class and the inquiry-driven MYP class, or between two teachers’ clashing philosophies on teaching the same course. There appears to be a clear connection between the content/standards-driven curriculum and the B/E perspective, for instance, whereas a more concept-driven approach favours C/R thinking and the S/P views might better represent those classrooms that represent true ‘learning communities’ or those in cultures (such as in the East) that are less individualistic in their values.
In Knud Illeris’ excellent book Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words, Illeris writes:
“Learning can broadly be defined as any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change and which is not solely due to biological maturation or aging.”
I like this one in its distinction of the natural biological growth of capacity from the environmental effects of causing learning. Illeris goes on to describe learning as the interactions between the environment and the individual with the content and incentive; he also describes four types of learning: mental schemes (brain-based organisation of learning outcomes), mental patterns (a more content-specific level of knowledge that allow for transfer), cumulative learning (the formation of new schemes and patterns), and assimilative learning (the addition to and modification of existing schemes and patterns).
In the same book, Bente Elkjaer discusses the pragmatism as a “learning theory for the future,” basing her discussion on John Dewey’s ideas of the role of experience in learning. She quotes David Kolb’s 1984 ‘working definition’ of learning below:
“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”
Here the idea of ‘experience’ becomes important, as the transaction between the subject and the worlds they occupy and which “concerns the living, the continuous response to and feedback between subject and worlds, as well as the result of this process. It is within this experience that difficulties arise and are resolved by way of inquiry.” This introduction of the term ‘inquiry’ is crucial in my discussions with MYP: Mind the Gap (and to anyone in an IB setting), and I appreciate Elkjaer’s definition of inquiry as “critical or reflective thinking [that] concerns consequences.” It is future-oriented, not locked to the past, where “meaning is not ascribed in a priori terms (‘if-then’); rather it is identified by anticipating ‘what-if’ consequences to potential actions and conduct.” Elkjaer asserts that “a scientific mind is, and should be, part of people’s lives (…) demonstrated by exerting still more informed inquiry and critical and reflective thinking.”
As we look through the MYP: Next Chapter guides (and the newly-published IBDP Sciences guides), we can see that there is an importance on creating the rounded learners, who at the lower-levels of achievement can recognize, recall and describe and who needs to ‘learn for automaticity’ (Hattie), yet at the the higher levels needs to have solid conceptual understandings and transfer. As teachers we need to ensure we meet these diverse needs and mind the gaps: not just between the demands of the MYP and DP but also between the B/E and C/R perspectives of learning, between the knowledge and the transfer of that knowledge and between where there learner is now and where he/she needs to be.
“Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong.” Bente Elkjaer
Pragmatic thinking is, to me, an important approach to educational discussions. It does not, as Elkjaer recognises, mean that a pragmatist is focused only on results and solution-finding, even at the expense of ideals; pragmatists do consider the result, and do search for solutions to existing (and predicted) challenges but we do not roll over in our convictions for the sake of easy passage. It instead means that “pragmatism concerns the understanding of the meanings of phenomena in terms of their consequences,” and is why I would describe myself as a pragmatic idealist. Pragmatism is a learning theory that empowers educators and learners to develop a responsiveness to challenges through the method of inquiry: critical and reflective thought and an open-ended understanding of knowledge.
I continue to be convinced that those of us teachers who are privileged enough to be working in environments such as international schools, with the luxuries of good behaviour and a focus on curriculum and learning, should be feeding into the global learning community through educational reserach, sharing practices and collaborative, self-directed professional development.
If you have any favoured quotes that ‘define learning’, please share them with me in the comments, or on Twitter (@iBiologyStephen).
Greeno, Collins & Resnick. Cognition & Learning, chapter in Berliner, D. & Calfee, R. (eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology, Macmillan, New York: 15-46
Illeris, Knud. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists… in their own words. Chapters by Knud Illeris, Bente Elkjaer.
Hattie & Yates. Visible Learning & The Science of How We Learn.