Our blog challenge this week was to examine which theories of knowledge and learning underpin our teaching philosophy and classroom practice and to explore how those beliefs shifted or changed over the course of our teaching career thus far. In addition to the readings from Ertmer & Newby, Siemens, and Benjes-Small & Archer, another trip down memory lane back to my high school days is in order.
Awe, 1993… the year I graduated high school. It was also the “birth” year the Internet, which was about as mind-boggling as the hair trends of the late 80s/early 90s. I learned from educators who mostly followed a Cognitivist approach, in which “[l]earning is concerned not so much with what learners do but with what they know and how they come to acquire it” (Ertmer & Newby, p.51). Memorization and retention of information was extremely important in most of my high school classes. My penchant for memorization helped me excel in my humanities classes, but not so much in maths or sciences. Because of my struggles with those courses, I was under the impression that there was something inherently wrong with my brain. How could humanities be so easy while maths and sciences were such a tremendous struggle for me? Then I had an Algebra teacher who could explain things a variety of ways and could find a way to make me connect to the content. Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling dumb anymore. In retrospect, that teacher likely employed more of a Constructive approach, where “[l]earners … build personal interpretations of the world based on individual experiences and interactions” (Ertmer & Newby, p.55).
I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a teacher but I also knew that I needed to work for a while before I started University. In the four years that followed my high school graduation I worked, became a mom, met the man who would become my husband, and built up some savings. When I started University in 1997, the world was a very different place than it had been when I was in high school. People were buying cell phones (not smart phones yet!). Advertisements on TV often had web addresses to drive traffic to the Internet. Computers were in more homes and businesses. I had to learn Windows 95 and then soon came Windows 98. Trying to keep up with the ever-evolving technology was like learning a new game where the rules were constantly changing… or like Minesweeper, just waiting for an explosion! It was overwhelming at times. When I felt overwhelmed, I would call and talk with my grandma and remember all the things that she had witnessed through her lifetime (which I talked about in my previous blog post) and then I would take a deep breath and dive back in.
My university profs took more of a Constructivist approach to learning as well but looking back I know that there were exceptions to that. I remember an undergrad ELA class where we were analyzing literature and all of us were pulling our hair out trying to figure out how the professor would interpret the story – he was a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. This was a huge contrast to my high school ELA teachers, who gave us the freedom to connect literature to our own lives in addition to using the historical context of the literature we were studying. Some of my experiences taught me how I did NOT want to act as a teacher and other experiences were truly amazing examples of how educators can empower students. Based on those experiences, I would say I started my teaching career based on the Constructive approach. Students are often wary when I tell them there is likely not a “correct” answer to literature analysis. This is the impetus for our discussions about how we can construct meaning from literature based not only on historical clues and context, but on our own personal experiences. Students must be connected on a personal level to be fully engaged in the curriculum so it has been my focus over my career to guide them towards those connections.
My tech woes and struggles utilizing instructional technology within my classroom are punchlines for my colleagues but those struggles have been both a hindrance and a help to my growth as an educator. My students often teach me things about technology just as much if not more than I help them with their learning, and in that collaborative atmosphere we create a safe place to take risks in order to learn.
That safe space to take risks is absolutely the single most valuable thing in my classroom.
Our students are constantly being bombarded with information and images. Unlike when I was in elementary and high school, memorization is no longer a necessary skill when most people have information at their fingertips. Instead, our students’ learning is more about how they make sense of new information and connect what they already know to the new information that they acquire. Siemens notes that “[t]he ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital.” Our kids need to have the cognitive tools to look at all of the stimuli around them, categorize it, and be able to interpret it in meaningful ways. Essentially, they need critical thinking skills. This is Connectivism, which is a type of Constructivism wherein the focus “is on creating cognitive tools which reflect the wisdom of the culture in which they are used as well as the insights and experiences of individuals.” The principles of connectivism outlined in Siemens’ article that really resonate with me are that:
- Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions
- Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning
- Decision-making is itself a learning process
Life long learning truly is necessary in our ever changing world. Teaching students to respectfully disagree with others who have differing opinions, nurturing and maintaining connections, and practicing decision making will help them develop the critical thinking skills they need for life beyond our classroom walls.