Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dipping from many wells

I've spent the last two months studying learning theories at Walden University, and it's been a fascinating journey. The class forced me to get involved with blogs, and it made me jump head-first into the pool of Web participation. Talk about a lesson with wide-reaching effects!

Photo by Diego_3666

When I dipped my toe into studying learning theories, I classified myself as a cognitive constructivist, and I think my first instincts were good ones. Although aspects of behaviorism hold true for me (as they do for everyone), that theory doesn't explain the way I learn higher-order skills and knowledge. Cognitive theory, with its focus on connections between related concepts and emphasis on metaphor, is an obvious choice for me; it pairs well with constructivism, which explains the fact that I learn best in rich environments where I can see the problem, work at it from different angles, and draw on different resources to find solutions.

As I've learned about later theories like connectivism, social learning, and adult learning theory, the water has grown a bit muddier.

Connectivism--the focus on a network of resources, rather than one person's knowledge--has played a tremendous role in my intellectual development. I adopted technology early on, hit the Internet well before the Web had been invented, and never really looked back. The network of resources has been a feature of my learning since elementary school. I still spend hours each day immersed in the Internet, connecting with friends and colleagues, researching new ideas, communicating, and learning. I only recently learned about connectivist theory, but I've been doing what it describes for years.

I'm not sure where I stand with social learning theory. Some of my best experiences have been with other learners, but I tend to gravitate toward learning on my own. Perhaps this stems from years of being interested in things that bored my classmates, or maybe it grows from my native introversion. When I can find groups of people with similar interests, I learn a lot by discussing and debating with them, which is why the 'net is such a wonderful tool for me. I also learn through teaching.

Adult learning theory seems more like a collection of descriptions than a coherent theory, but it has a lot of merit. It points out that adults tend to be self-directed learners (I am!) and tend to prefer forms of instruction that explain why the learning is useful. We also draw heavily on our past experiences and pre-existing knowledge, and use technology to aid our learning.

I rely on technology for many things: I use a computer to stay in touch with friends and colleagues; I participate in forums, blogs, and email lists where I both learn and teach; I schedule my time with the aid of a BlackBerry; I make music on electronic instruments and record the analog instruments with a computer. Technology plays a big role in my learning because it makes it easy to find information and it also simplifies the task of preserving what I've learned and publishing new ideas. Discussion boards are very helpful to me, as are the few close friends who'll indulge me, because I often cement learning by summarizing it and explaining it to someone else. Internet connectivity facilitates this. I also find a simple word processor valuable in taking notes--I can type at around 100 words per minute, which is more than three times the average handwriting speed (31 wpm). Faster note-taking means less time away from the material I'm trying to drink in.

My learning theory preferences seem to relate to the letter 'C': the more 'C's, the better. So I am strongly constructivist and connectivist (both have two 'C's), still quite cognitivist and interested in social learning (one 'C' each), and not very behaviorist (no 'C's at all). Since every family needs a black sheep, mine is adult learning theory, which lacks a 'C' but still enjoys my warm regard.

You may have noticed the water theme running through my post. That's intentional: one of the things I learned from cognitivism is that attaching metaphors to things can make them easier to learn. I feel like my understanding of learning has flowed through each theory, sipping from each, drinking deeply from a few. In the end, I find it difficult to say which influences me the most--so much depends on context. I think they all serve useful purposes, and I intend to continue dipping from each well.

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