This is a summary of my personal theory of learning, but speaking about “learning” in a general sense might be misleading. Learning is a relationship involving at least 3 elements: (1) the student, (2) a subject, and (c) the teacher. Each of these variables has the power to radically modify how we define learning.
As Marc Prensky (2007) stresses, contemporary learners have dramatically changed in many ways. Because of that, the data we have collected and the theories we have formulated in the past, about how people learn, might not be useful anymore. Today’s learners have developed new cognitive styles, so we also need to develop new theories of education.
My main experience as a teacher is with adult students in higher education, so this is the learner I will be talking about here. However, usually you will find general observations about “the student” or “the learner”, and hopefully you can link this theory to situations involving different types of learners.
Depending on what you want to teach or learn, you might think about learning in several different ways. A theory about an optimal way to learn facts might be very different from, for example, a theory about how to best develop critical thinking. There is not “the learning”, in a general sense, disconnected from a subject. I have usually been working in humanities as a teacher, so this theory might not work in the same way for biological or mathematical courses – you will have to find out.
Learning also happens without instructors, but the learning I will be talking about here is instructor-based learning. I will somehow be exploring how learning happens in Vygostky’s ZDP (zone of proximal development), that space between what the learner can do by himself, and what he can achieve through interactions with others. Because of that, or because of a fault I might have to correct in the future, I have a hard time separating a theory of learning from a theory of teaching. In some moments, you will read about learning, in others, about teaching, but in many moments learning and teaching might be mixed.
A summarized vision of my theory of learning is that education has to be: (1) student-centered, (2) constructed, (3) authentic, and (d) distributed.
Besides addressing each of these elements, I will also explore the use of games in education and the complex issue of assessment.
Teaching should be centered on real students, not on an ideal and abstract student. So, teachers need to know their real students, their knowledge and beliefs, and from there design learning experiences:
“[…]the teacher must actively inquire into students’ thinking, creating classroom tasks and conditions under which student thinking can be revealed. Students’ initial conceptions then provide the foundation on which the more formal understanding of the subject matter is built.” (Bransford, 2000, p. 19)
Teaching might use multiple instructional strategies to support different learning styles, like visua/verbal, visual/nonverbal, auditory/verbal, tactile/kinesthetic etc., as well as multiple intelligences. Whenever possible, teaching must be individualized.
Teachers should stimulate customization of learning and the development of personal learning environments by students. Students should participate on the decisions related to their process of construction of knowledge and the criteria by which they will be evaluated.
Learning is an active process: students should explore, search and discover, shaping and reshaping knowledge during the process, and critically monitoring their progress.
Neither the learning outcomes, nor the design, nor the tools, nor the process, nor the path should be pre-defined.
A teacher must be a leader in this construction process, guiding and showing paths. In an ideal community of learning, the differences between teachers and learners should disappear.
I see contemporary education as a process of construction by the student. Building has the sense of construction (like constructing a building), of assembling something with pieces with a pre-defined format, like lego. In this case, there is a limit for the construction, and creativity is blocked. To construct, on the other side, gives the idea of more freedom, of starting from zero and using any kind of material, what looks closer to the philosophy of constructivism.
Learning outcomes are previewed results of learning in a course project design. If the result is already previewed, the process looks more like building a pre-programmed object. I see education much more as an exercise of constructing, in which neither the final results nor the tools to be used are totally defined in advance. Design is also constructed during the process itself: the path and the process should not be defined in advance.
To teach and to learn is though that: to start a construction trip, without a rigid pre-defined direction, in which everything must be constructed – even the ways by which the students will be assessed. So everything becomes more complex.
Learning has a passive connotation. To be in harmony with the new digital natives, it should be replaced by a more active term, like construction.
Learning should be anchored and situated in interesting and realistic contexts and situations. Multiple contexts should be used to develop adaptive expertise, supporting transfer of knowledge to reality.
Courses and subjects should interact with each other during the learning process, to develop the capacity of holistically reading reality.
Learning should have a purpose for the student’s life and profession, allowing growth.
The learning process should be stimulating and dynamic, including practical activities, in order to generate engagement, involvement and attention.
Learning should be distributed across space, time, different medias and activities etc. Different points of stimulation should be available for the student.
Extra readings should be constantly suggested to students, and extra-classes activities should be stimulated, like research, extension, study groups, technical visits etc.
Videogames are a natural platform for the digital natives, so game-based learning should be deeply explored for this type of education, as a way to better communicate with today’s students.
Games might involve some instructional knowledge, as they retain attention and generate learning. Games also respect different learning styles, working both for the novices, the more experienced, the professionals etc.
Traditional instructional design models were born before games and simulations, so they might not be useful anymore.
“Game designers have a better take on the nature of learning than curriculum designers.” (Prensky, 2007, p. 97)
Learning/enjoyment & work/play frontiers should be challenged to engage students as when they are playing videogames, while developing critical thinking.
Branching stories, interactive spreadsheets, game-based models, virtual labs/virtual products and other types of simulations should be incorporated by teaching and learning, and supported by pedagogic elements.
In this model of education, assessment becomes more problematic. If you do not have a pre-defined object, at the beginning of the course, you cannot assess the “result” with a test. You must assess the construction (process) and the constructo (product), but without using as a parameter where you would have liked the student to get, the object you would have liked the student to build. That is to say, the criteria for assessment themselves should be negotiated during the process of constructing.
Different types of assessment activities should be used during the learning process.
Teachers should ask the student to perform activities only when these activities are purposeful, practical and useful for his process of construction of knowledge, that is to say, teachers should not request unnecessary activities simply to occupy students.
The student himself should choose which activities he wants to perform.
Activities should be challenging but able to be completed by students.
All activities, as the process of knowledge construction, should have a quick feedback from the teacher, so that students might be able to use it and reshape their constructions, that is to say, activities to which the student does not receive a feedback, and quick, should not be proposed.
Students should construct something that survives the course and the school and is added to the world wide web conversation, so it can be used by other teachers and students.
I have been working for years with the idea that the digital teacher should build an electronic toolbox to succeed in teaching with technology. In a broader sense, we can talk about a pedagogic toolbox for the teacher to succeed in this new educational environment.
BRANSFORD, John D. et al (Editors). How People Learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Expanded ed. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000.
CLARK, Aldrich. Learning by doing: a comprehensive guide to simulations, computer games, and pedagogy in e-learning and other educational experiences. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer, 2005.
CSIKSZENTMIHALYI, Mihaly. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.
GIBSON, David; ALDRICH, Clark; PRENSKY, Marc. Games and simulations in online learning: research and development frameworks. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, 2007.
GREEN, Timothy D.; BROWN, Abbie; ROBINSON, LeAnne. Making the most of the web in your classroom: a teacher’s guide to blogs, podcasts, wikis, pages, and sites. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Corwin Press, 2008.
HENDRON, John G. RSS for educators: blogs, newsfeeds, podcasts, and wikis in the classroom. Washington, DC: ISTE, 2008.
PRENSKY, Marc. Digital game-based learning: practical ideas for the application of digital game-based learning. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2007.
RICHARDSON, Will. Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2006.
SOLOMON, Gwen; SCHRUM, Lynne. Web 2.0: new tools, new schools. Washington, DC: ISTE, 2007.
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