“Maybe we should live our lives in a constant state of expectation, always curious and excited about the possibilities that could unfold in front of us. Maybe it is our sense of vision that colors our reality” (Fallon, 2013).

What if our learners controlled their own learning path?  For hundreds of years, innovators in education have searched for the perfect formula that links teaching and learning.  How do learners learn? What drives curiosity to ask questions without the promise of an answer? How should instruction be structured to facilitate learning?  Is an effective teaching philosophy or learning philosophy the key, or perhaps a balance of both? Albert Pike (n.d.) said “philosophy is a kind of journey, ever learning yet never arriving at the ideal perfection of truth.”  After extensive research and reflection, I believe our learning philosophies are the foundation for effective teaching, and by effective teaching, I really mean guiding our learners to become their own inner teacher. We all have the capacity to be both our own teacher and learner, and the only person who can grant that permission to own both roles is ourselves.  Later we will dive into the different learning philosophies that are widely accepted by theorists around the globe, but keep in mind that our world is changing rapidly due to technology’s impact and connection to limitless information. There is not one philosophy that will provide the magic formula I believe every compassionate educator seeks, but a balance of all to meet the unique needs of all learners.  We should also expect new theories to emerge as technology continues to elevate the rapid exposure to information.

Needs of My Learners

Currently, I am in a very unique position that serves a population that is escaping domestic violence or sexual abuse.  My school is located within the safety of a shelter where my students and their families live. We also serve students who are in the care of CPS, but live at what is formerly known as Austin Children’s Shelter.  Their stay is anywhere from a day to two years, possibly longer depending on the safety concern. This creates a class roster that is ever-changing, and the need for flexibility among the structure. Therefore the needs of my learners are incredibly unique, unlike the needs at other public schools.  My role has shifted from Kindergarten-2nd grade all subjects, to 3rd-5th grade all subjects, to Kindergarten-5th grade all subjects within the same classroom. I have poured my heart into researching the best practices to help students who are struggling with trauma to make meaningful connections and learn.  Much of our day is centered around building social emotional skills and strategies for self-regulation. There is not enough research for educators who are in a similar situation to help learners like mine thrive in an educational setting. Their little minds are in constant survival mode, fight or flight, so to ask them to think beyond this is often overwhelming.  This is why I decided to go back to school to obtain a graduate degree in education in hopes to access a wealth of research, and apply what I am learning to create authentic learning opportunities for my students. Our recent topic of study is on the importance of developing a learning philosophy to drive our planning of the significant learning environment.

Learning Theories

Although many experts may disagree on the exact definition of learning, one may define learning as “a persisting change in human performance or performance potential which must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world” (Driscoll, 2000, p. 11).  This definition of learning sets the stage to discuss the three main learning theories which aim to bridge the gap between research and practice. Learning theories suggests the science behind how one comes to know and learn, while a learning philosophy relates to our own personal belief of which theory rings true for us.  The link between learning research and educational practice has been a topic of discussion for centuries. American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey (cited in Reigeluth, 1983) “called for the creation and development of a ‘linking science’ as an aid for translating theory into practice” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013).  Designing instruction and creating significant learning environments to meet the needs of 21st century learners will be how well we bridge the gap between learning theories and proactive practice. George Siemens (2004) states:

Learning theories are concerned with the actual process of learning, not with the value or what is being learned.  The need to evaluate the worthiness of learning something is a meta-skill that is applied before learning itself begins. When knowledge is subject to paucity, the process of assessing worthiness is assumed to be intrinsic to learning. When knowledge is abundant, the rapid evaluation of knowledge is important.  The ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill.  According to Berkeley Graduate Division, “there are three basic types of learning theory: behaviorism, cognitive constructivism, and social constructivism” (2016).  

John Watson (1924), the founder of Behaviorism defined it as “a natural science that takes the whole field of human adjustments as its own” (p. ix). Saul McLeod sums up the foundational ideals of behaviorism:

All behavior is learned from the environment, behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable behavior, as opposed to internal events like thinking and emotion, there is little difference between the learning that takes place in humans and that in other animals, and behavior is the result of stimulus response (2017).

Although these ideals may appeal to some, the belief that all behavior comes exclusively from the external environment, and not from intrinsic motivation or emotion, I decided that I lean more toward a constructivist mindset when it comes to beliefs about learning.  I do believe behavior can be affected by external events, but I also feel that internal thought processes and triggers can also determine behavior. I struggle to see how there is little difference in humans and that of other animal responses due to our ability to reason and deeply analyze a situation at a much more sophisticated level than animals.  When creating my own significant learning environment, I will consider research behind the impact well-placed stimuli will have on learner’s engagement and intrinsic motivation. I believe if we design a learning environment that offers choice, ownership, and voice, the results will be authentic engagement and deeper learning.

Cognitive & Social Constructivism

Cognitive constructivism was primarily influenced by Piaget’s theory of intellectual growth beginning in the early 1930s (Clark, 2010).   Piaget argues that “humans cannot be given information, in which they immediately understand and use. Instead, learners must construct their own knowledge” (Clark, 2010).   According to constructivists Biggs (1996) and Piaget, (1968, 1983) learners engage dynamically through organizing and constructing knowledge in both individual and constructive activity.  Knowledge relates to an operation, in which to engage in it, one must act on it (Piaget, 1964). Learners must own the problem because it promotes learner agency and responsibility in developing solutions (Jonassen, 1999).  According to Berkeley Graduate Division (2016), cognitive and social constructivism are both intrinsically motivating theories in which learners develop their own goals, and are motivated by those goals. The main difference between the two theories is cognitive constructivism suggests that learning is facilitated by personally engaging in an environment rich with resources, whereas social constructivism highlights learning as a collaborative effort in which students engage with one another as a collective (Thomas and Brown, 2011).  Both demonstrate the learning process as coming to the environment with tacit knowledge that which is (“understood as a product of experience and interaction”) (Thomas and Brown, 2011, p. 74), and uses previous experiences to make meaningful connections to new ideas (Otto, 2018). Dr. Dwayne Harapnuik suggests “learning is an active and dynamic process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The making of meaningful connections is key to learning and knowing” (n.d.).

My personal learning philosophy aligns primarily with the constructivist model because I find it is how I learn.  I believe the constructivist theories support inquiry-based methods of learning due to the cycle of meaningful questions that arise when engaging in inquiry.  I have always been a very curious person with a wild imagination. My parents probably attributed much of their exhaustion to my constant questioning, exploring, and asking “why.”  I would go to any lengths to discover the answer, or at least ask more questions until I answered it for myself. Recently, I have picked up the hobby of recording, mixing, and producing music through two different softwares and a mix board.  With a constructivist mindset, I approach the mixing board with years of experience singing and writing music, but need to elevate these skills through learning how to produce and share my passion with the world. The technical part comes when I am attempting to manipulate the software to create a balance in harmonies, instruments, and dynamics that will truly move my listeners.  When I don’t know how to use parts of the equipment, I look to other resources for help, and research the best approach. The resources I usually seek are software tutorials via YouTube, online collectives and forums of other recording artists, my husband, and friends who also record. It has been exciting to not only learn how to use this new equipment, but to utilize my voice and own the process as well as the finished product.  I hope to inspire my students next year through projects that ignite their passions.

My beliefs regarding learning in general, my personal view of how I learn, and how I believe others learn will influence how my students and I will build our learning environment.  I believe a balance between cognitive and social constructivist approaches perfectly compliments my innovation proposal that will launch come August.  My plan follows a proposal to incorporate project based learning, an inquiry-based approach that engages learners through meaningful learning experiences.  My learners will learn what it means to be a part of a collective (Thomas and Brown, 2011), and challenge one another with questions that reflect the uniqueness of each learner.  Thomas and Brown (2011) state “in communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn” (p.52). L. Dee Fink (2004) states in his book Creating Significant Learning Experiences, “when the act of reflection is linked to the human need to make meaning, the enormous significance of this activity becomes clear.  Only then do we become meaning-making beings, rather than simply meaning-receiving beings” (p. 106). We will celebrate each other’s successes, and learn that failing forward (Dweck, 2012) is necessary in developing 21st century skills for real life once their formal K-12th grade education has ended.  

My goal is that my learners will make connections with one another and to their evolving experiences.  The intention is meant to cultivate a curiosity to apply their experiences to decisions they will make in their future.  Karen Stephenson states:

Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge.  Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people (n.d.).

George Siemens (2004) relates constructivism to the term “connectivism.” Siemen says that the process of making decisions is a learning process in itself. This reminds us that what we must commit to a life of learning because what we know now is not enough for a future we cannot fully predict.  We have to learn how to learn, and guide our students how to do the same.

Annotated Bibliography

Clark, D. (2010, September 26). Constructivism. Retrieved June 11, 2019 from http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/history/constructivism.html

On this site, Clark describes constructivism in simplified terms.  It is a quick read, yet detailed in order to understand the main points of each constructivist theory.  He also discusses the main psychologists who were responsible for each theory such as Vygotsky, Piaget, and Sophocles.  Piaget’s cognitive constructivist view suggests students construct their own knowledge and own their own learning. Vygotsky’s social constructivist view suggests a similarity to Piaget’s, but focuses primarily on learning being a social process.  He suggests that we learn through exposure to learning experiences and the experiences of our collective.

Dewey, J (1902) The child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL & London, England:  The University of Chicago Press.

Dewey highlights the difference between a child’s mind and that of an adult’s.  He suggests that children have more interest in social surroundings and play rather than order and laws.  Dewey encourages us to consider the child’s point of view when considering what they are to learn.

Driscoll, M. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction.  Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Driscoll describes the settings in which learners learn best.  He emphasizes the need for collaboration and social interaction for deeper learning and engagement.  I was inspired by his definition for learning in which he describes it as a change in human performance depending on their experience and interaction with the world.  The way he defined learning helped validate my learning philosophy toward a constructivist view. The molding of a human being’s intelligence comes from their exposure, interaction, and building of both their external and internal worlds.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Dweck’s book Mindset has had a tremendous effect on my view of both my own learning and the learning of others.  She has helped me understand failure from a hopeful point of view, and that it is a necessary aspect of life. She promotes the word “yet” to remind us that learning is a journey, not a destination.

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71.

Ertmer & Newby go into detail about each learning theory and how each relate to instruction.  They ask thought provoking questions and answer them with research which helped me formulate my own questions when deciding on my personal learning philosophy.  They simplified each, and helped me organize my thoughts on how I can further implement these ideas in planning units in the future.

Fallon, A. (2013). Packing light: Thoughts on living light with less baggage. Chicago, IL. Moody Publishers.

Allison Fallon, formerly known as Allison Vesterfelt when this book was published writes about how life is better when we give up some things in our lives that clutter our hearts and physical space.  She is one of my favorite authors because she truly has a gift for words, and helps her readers formulate their own words when attempting to express internal struggles. I was inspired to open my blog with her quote because it highlights how curiosity, discovery, and passion are a natural human experience, and to give ourselves permission to open opportunities for others to do the same.

Fink, J. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences:  An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint.

Fink’s approach to designing courses took in account the human dimension to help us better prepare significant learning environments.  He provides multiple diagrams to simplify and organize the vast information and research. He also highlights holistic approaches to learning as a driving factor in creating authentic learning environments.  Fink discusses in extensive detail the dimensions of teaching, learning, and how theory relates to practice. I was inspired by his description of factors to consider when planning course goals which consisted of foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn.  I expect to revisit this resource often for future reference.

GSI Teaching and Resource Center. (2016). Overview of learning theories. Retrieved from https://gsi.berkeley.edu/gsi-guide-contents/learning-theory-research/learning-overview/

This guide may have been one of the most useful resources due to its simplicity in breaking down each learning theory, and how they compare and contrast.  Provided is a columned example breaking down the basics of each theory without overload of information. I found that I revisited this diagram often for inspiration and clarification when considering my own personal learning philosophy.

Harapnuik, D. (n.d.). Learning philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.harapnuik.org/?page_id=95

Dr. Harapnuik provides valuable insight to how our learning philosophies drive how and why we do what we do. If we clarify our own personal learning philosophy, it helps drive our learning environments and provide authentic learning experiences for our students. He suggests that we cannot really teach any one anything, but we can set an environment that inspires learners to connect the dots on their own for deeper engagement and inquiry. I highly recommend checking out his ePortfolio for further inspiration on creating significant learning environments through choice, ownership, and voice.

Otto, D. (2018, October) Using virtual mobility and digital storytelling in blended learning: Analysing students’ experiences. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education-TOJDE. ISSN 1302-6488 Volume: 19 Number: 4. Article 5. Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/yonetim/icerik/makaleler/1772-published.pdf

The overarching idea of this article is how students learn best in digitally enhanced environments.  Otto provides research of how students connect the dots and thrive in collaborative settings including learning networks.  It also provides a case study based on digital story-telling for consideration when planning a course guide.

Piaget, J. (1964). Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2, 176-186.

Piaget is the developer of cognitive constructivism we know today.  This resource is packed full of valuable insight on the cognitive development in children.  He breaks down the constructivist theory with examples based on his own case studies and research.  Piaget’s work has been a tremendous inspiration in my own personal learning philosophy. Other work by Piaget that I would recommend can be found in my Literature Review which supports inquiry-based constructivist methods.

Pike, A. (n.d.). Albert pike quotes. Retrieved June 11, 2019 from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/albert_pike_386739

Albert Pike was a journalist, author, poet, and lawyer among his many other contributions.  I used his quote regarding philosophy to highlight its purpose in determining my own learning philosophy.  It inspired me to think of this learning philosophy as one that is a journey, ever-changing, yet important to revisit continuously if I wish to make an impact on both my own learning and the learning of my students.

Siemens, G. (2004, December 12). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, volume 2, number 1. Retrieved from: http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm

Siemens provided an eye-opening resource that suggests how our rapidly changing times will require us to rethink how we view learning theories.  He suggests that because technology presents limitless information, the way we learn will quickly need revising or perhaps a new system all together.  I was inspired by his term “connectivism” instead of merely constructivism because he linked both the constructivist ideas with the need for collaboration, and how connecting the dots meaningfully is what will make the biggest impact in the future of learning.  Connectivism essentially helps learners learn how to learn in a rapidly changing, digitally enhanced society.

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.

Thomas & Brown’s book encouraged me to view the learning environment in a variety of ways that best suits 21st century learners.  They provide examples backed with research to encourage teachers to view their role as more of a guide and fellow learner, and create a significant learning environment that includes project-based learning, peer-to-peer learning, creating collectives rather than merely communities, learning through play, and even incorporating gaming.  For more inspiration developed by this book, visit my blog on Significant Learning Environments.