What is? What can we know? How can we know it? How do people learn? What is your evidence? Is it anecdotal from your experience and others or research-based? Effectively, what is your personal theory of teaching and learning? These were the questions put to me this week by my instructor, and so, armed with the week’s readings and my personal experiences, I will undertake to explore and communicate that which many a philosopher has struggled with in centuries past.
As a bible-believing Creationist, my personal philosophies often stand in stark contrast to those of my counterparts in the educational community, particularly those who embrace the hard sciences. While my beliefs stem from a strong faith in a Creator and in what I believe to be His word, I have a strong independent and inquisitive mind which would never be satisfied to take something at face-value just because I was raised to believe it. I have spoken to experts on both sides of the issue, read many books on the subject, and examined evidence. Personally, I believe it takes greater faith to believe that the world and its inhabitants came to be by chance than to believe in an intelligent designer, and I believe there is evidence to support a young earth, a world-encompassing flood, and many other of stories found in the bible. So any discussion of my personal philosophy of life or education will necessarily stem from my foundation of faith.
Therefore, although I embrace the methodologies put forward by social constructivist theorists, I do believe we can know truth, so I am more of an Empiricist in this regard.
I think I began forming my viewpoints on education long before I became personally involved in it. I had three sons with special needs; two with severe ADHD and one with bi-polar disorder. The public schools would not recognize their behavioral disorders as learning disabilities for which they should have been eligible for special education interventions even though the result of their problems was inability to learn and failure. These were smart kids that were falling further and further behind in their classes, but the teachers and administrators saw them only as disruptions to be controlled and not as students in need of learning interventions. I saw ways to help them learn at home but the school was unwilling to try these methods at school, so when, in fifth grade, my oldest boy could not yet multiply and was now being asked to learn long division, I pulled them out and began homeschooling them.
At that point, I did not know what to call my methodologies, but they would be called cognitive or constructivist methods by any knowledgeable observer. I used lots of unit studies so that the whole curriculum was related and tied together rather than segregating the day into disciplines. For math we used a system which taught the concepts (from addition to multiplication to fractions) entirely using manipulatives. Science included many hands-on experiments. Every subject was as active, meaningful, and engaging as possible. They certainly weren’t deprived of a social education either. All three boys learned the same material together, adjusted to be appropriate for their individual grade levels or abilities. This gave us ample opportunity to discuss things, and often the discussions went on over dinner and included the adult perspectives of both their parents. Beyond that, we were heavily involved in a homeschool support group, participating in cooperative learning experiences, physical education classes hosted by some of the group’s fathers, and regular field trips. I chose these methods to teach my children because they seemed the most effective methods to teach them, but in looking back on my own educational experience, I recall that the times learning seemed most meaningful or in which it stands out most in my memory are experiences like the ones I gave my children.
I began studying education and its related philosophies in 2009. My education gave me names for what I already knew I believed about learning. I have since learned other philosophies and other learning theories, and I’ve begun teaching myself. What I believe and what I practice often stand in stark contrast, and I have, on this blog in fact, questioned myself and my own methods in light of my personal beliefs.
This week we were assigned to read an article which served for me to make sense of the world and put things into greater perspective. It is not that Behaviorists were wrong in their theory of the world and instruction. They have a valid perspective and their methods work for some learners in some situations. It is not that cognitive methods should be abandoned in favor of new constructivist principals. Each of the major theories of learning have a place and time for which they are appropriate.
After reading Ertmer and Newby (1993), I am giving myself a new title. I’m an eclectic. I believe that all of the learning theorists and philosophers have a kernel of truth. No one has cornered the market on it. I am going adopt from Dewey that which I read of his which fits with my own ideals, and leave the rest behind. I’ll take those things from Piaget which fit into my way of thinking and ignore anything that doesn’t align to what I believe. I can use direct instruction when it seems appropriate, provide my students with advanced organizers and learning aids when that seems right, and have them work in groups to solve ill-structured problems when conditions seem right for that. I don’t have to put myself in a box, nor do I have to put my students in one.
So I guess I have developed my personal philosophy beginning from anecdotal experience but I am growing it from research. It has changed as I have gained a greater understanding of the field of education. But while I respect the ideas of those who have gone before, I am free to discriminate between those ideas and decide what fits me and what does not.
Ertmer, Peggy and Newby, Timothy J. (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly 6(4), 50-71.2.