How do people learn?

After a century of theories about how hard it is to learn to read, a new generation of phone-messaging teenagers have invented new literacies without a theory of differential learning in sight. If we can save the word learning for events like this, we might have something to work with and work for. – McDermott, R. 2011:9

I have been working in the education space for close to 15 years now and seldom do I hear anyone, including myself, ask this question. The truth is, too many of us teachers have tried to teach without considering how students learn. We pursue framework after framework, pedagogy after pedagogy, taxonomy after taxonomy, without pausing to consider just how exactly these help students learn or learn better. For many of us, as long as students are able to perform the pre-determine task, regardless of how they did it, they must have learnt. For others, test scores are taken as evidence of student learning. We often mistakenly equate performance and learning, and it should come as no surprise thus that we are raising a generation of performers instead of lifelong learners?

For too long, we focus on the outcome of learning without considering what happens during the process of learning. It thus begs the question, to what end is teaching? For me personally, the answer to this question has always stayed constant. Teaching is an act of enabling students to learn, and eventually to be able to learn without needing a teacher. Teaching is sharing my love for the subject that I teach with students, enthusing them to explore the domain that I enjoy, showing them new worldviews and perspectives that they might or might not eventually embrace. In short, teaching reveals to students the diversity of this world in hope that they will come to appreciate it, and at the very least to be equipped as explorers of the world and continue learning beyond the confines of the formal curriculum. And this gives rise to another question, how can we do that? How can we help students grow into independent lifelong learners?

In an attempt to answer the question above, I dug out this particular set of readings that I was assigned to read in graduate school, when I was trying to earn a master degree. As I revisited the course outline for this module, I could not help but marvel as how foundational learning theories were and (should) continue to be. Even though I was reading these papers for the second or even third time, I must confess I still do not fully comprehend everything that was written. However, I understood enough of the content to make connections, to see from the documentations made by educational psychologists and researchers how human understanding of learning has evolved over a span of 300 over years. Truth be told, I was blown away by what I began to see, indebted and grateful to my esteemed professors for conceptualizing and teaching this course, for allowing us to take these readings and knowledge back with us, and for the many lively and rigorous discussions that must have in some way shaped our thinking.

And as much as I was excited by what I found in these papers, I was disturbed, largely by what is happening around me. Because these theories are no longer talked about very much by educators, because even when these theories are brought up, they are quickly dismissed as ‘old-fashioned’, I began to wonder. Since when did the conversation on learning shift to what it is today, conversations about what goes on in schools as opposed to conversations about how the individual (learner) is being transformed? Since when did what teachers are doing become so much more important than what students are doing, or not doing?

Teachers today focus on pedagogy or pedagogies, without considering how these practices would actually help students learn. In taking a few steps back to study learning theories, I gleaned new insights as to what I as a teacher can do to help students learn, without having to invoke the big word ‘pedagogy’, and I find that liberating. For example, associationist learning theories tell me that we learn by connecting what is new to what is known, which leads me to the logical application question, How can I express X in relation to Y to help students see the link between what is new and what they already know? Behaviorist learning theories, which are frowned upon by many supposedly liberal educators, tell me that reinforcing encourages repeated performance, which leads to the reality check if my classroom practice is enabling misbehavior or sloppy work. It challenges me to think more deeply exactly what (stimulus & reinforce) would get students to say or do X? For me, these insights are exciting as they form different pieces of the puzzle, some useful for learning of concepts, others good for encouraging behavioral change.

This is but the tip of the iceberg, or rather, the gold mine from which we can harvest a clearer picture of the learning processes, which in turn has the potential to enrich our classroom practices, i.e. how we can help students learn. That said, please don’t get me wrong. I am not discounting the importance of pedagogy; rather, I am emphasizing the importance of understanding how pedagogy works out in the larger context of learning, bringing the focus back to the learner, reinstating the important of thought as opposed to action, to focus on the kind of questions a teacher should be asking before he or she embarks on lesson design.

There is a lot more that can be said about learning theories and their application to lesson design, and this is perhaps best done in a face-to-face setting. If you are interested to participate in this conversation, do join us at the Understanding Learning Environments workshop held on 2 Feb 2016, 2:30 pm at eduLab@AST. You can register for this workshop (for teachers) via TRAISI (course code: 72236). Hope to see you there!

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