On Learning Theories: What Are They Good For?

Hi, my name is Dani and I’m a cognitivist.

This is what a cognitivist looks like.

This is what a cognitivist looks like.

Allow me to explain.

We recently held our bi-annual teaching librarians’ retreat at work. We focused on learning theories and how keeping them in mind can improve teaching. To get ready, I brushed up on educational theory, which got me to thinking about how they affect my teaching practice.  And the outcome of that reflection sort of surprised me.

Here’s a quick rundown/review of the three major learning theories that tend to get discussed (and which we talked about at our retreat):

Behaviorism: Behaviorists believe that learning leads to permanent changes in behavior, which are observable. These behavioral modifications occur due to external pressures, such as reinforcements and punishments. Two famous examples: Ivan Pavlov’s salivating dogs/ringing bell experiment and B.F. Skinner’s work with operant conditioning.

Cognitivism: Cognitivists focus on the internal mental processes of individuals, believing that understanding how the brain works can lead to improved teaching and learning outcomes. Things you may have heard of that come from this theory: Scaffolding, mental schemata, chunking.

Constructivism: Constructivists posit that knowledge is created by the learner, based on their previous experiences and interpretations of reality. The learner is actively engaged in the learning process, with the teacher behaving more as a mediator. There’s a strong emphasis on experiential learning, collaborative learning, and reflection.

These are presented in chronological order of their development. They’re usually presented in classes in this order too, with the semi-explicit understanding that they’re also in ascending order of with-it-ness. So to see the most evidence of cognitivism in one’s practice is kind of, well, retro.

But that’s ok. Especially as a relatively new librarian, I’m down to use whatever tricks make getting in front of a class easier and the probability of students actually learning something higher. And the idea that there are certain things to do and guidelines to follow that increase the chances of success, based on how the brain works,  that students will learn something in my library session, well, I’m going to do that.

As we’ve talked about in previous posts, there’s a lot to be learned about education from cognitive science. And there is, to be sure, plenty of overlap between these learning theories. There’s absolutely truth in all of them–as distasteful as behaviorism can be, people do respond to rewards and punishments. Heck, I even praise without thinking about it.

My awesome boss said this during our presentation: “When you use learning theories, it’s like you have all the really smart people who worked on them standing behind you, backing you up.” It’s a perfect way to think about this.

Of course, I want science too and cognitive theory is the most science-y to my tastes (not empirically, of course, just personal bias). Thinking about working memory and how much I can (or can’t) pack into a class gives me confidence that today’s class has good odds of having some positive outcomes. Do I include some constructivist-style active learning activities in my teaching too? Sure, but I cling to them less than my favored life boat, cognition. So I self-identify as a cognitivist, and when I talk about my teaching, that’s what I tend to focus on. Having a learning style to lean on makes me braver.

Are there any theories or strategies that make you more confident when you teach?


1 Comment

Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher

One response to “On Learning Theories: What Are They Good For?

  1. I’m relieved to find another self-professed cognitivist! I admire and include certain aspects of constructivism in my teaching, but I do find myself more naturally gravitating towards cognitivism.

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