Learning Theory: Grappling with the Theory/Pracice Nexus in Search of a Viable Praxis
As I read through these theoretical papers, I feel the professional academics get to dream as big as they want to, but the actual classroom teacher is the real life practitioner who takes what might be great in theory and translates what she can into her actual working situation.
This viewpoint, expressed so succinctly by one class participant in my current seminar on adult education curriculum theory, carries a great deal of resonance with others in the course as one of the critical themes that come across in the discussion posts. As one both immersed in 20+ years of daily practice as well as extensive theoretical explorations underlying adult literacy education, I also experience a good deal of angst in any effort that attempts to resolve the theory/practice tension so pervasive in educational discourse. The issue, as I see it, is less that one (theory) is idealistic and the other (practice) is realistic, since they each combine theoretical reflection and insight from the field in their various ways.
The issue as I see it is that academic theory and grounded practice have their basis in divergent discourse communities with different focused objectives, which have the capacity to converge in places, yet perhaps less often than what may be viewed as desirable from both the perspective of the theorist and the practitioner. I believe that this tension has its origins in western epistemology (how we learn) grounded in the founding texts of Plato in positing an ineradicable gap between the ideal and real, a polarity which has never stopped resonating in many conscious and unconscious ways. Given this assumption, I do not think there can be any straight-forward resolution of the theory/practice tension in contemporary educational discourse, in which, however, the dynamic relation between theory and practice offers much potential fruit for new learning for practitioners and formal theorists alike.
Bringing this closer to home, the tension between theory and practice in education would be broadly akin to that between the theoretical scientist and the engineer or the medical practitioner, whose primary purpose is that of building better bridges or practicing more effective medicine. In the process of carrying out their work, the engineer or medical profession may draw on core scientific precepts in grappling with a particular problem such as what drug (if any) to prescribe to a given patient, what dose, and for what exact purpose. Many variables about the patient’s own medical history in its potential interaction with the drug would need to be factored in. It is in working through direct application issues as indicated in the example in which the latest scientific journal article may convey to the medical practitioner that missing piece of information which may simply not be available through direct observation or dialogue with the patient, whether a new conceptual insight or a new mode of application.
In this respect the highly informed medical professional brings together information from both worlds (the scientific based journals and sound medical practice honed through years of practice). Such competency is further developed through detailed work with hundreds of patients, substantial comparative analysis of critical cases in one’s chosen sub-field, through discussions with colleagues, in attending special seminars, and in studying the academic medical journals with keen discernment in probing for relevant information, some of which may or may not be immediately germane to one’s current practice.
Thus, the highly informed medical practitioner keeps attuned to theoretical discussion and research relevant to his or her practice, though typically draws on it to work through some practitioner-based issue or problem. I say typically, because through knowledge gained in drawing on theory or research in application to a specific issue or patient, the practitioner could and sometimes does, contribute to the broader pool of knowledge of her/his field by addressing theory/research questions from the local of one’s grounded location. While such efforts are far from typical, they do point to a potentiality in the theory/practitioner continuum that could reap much value. Mediating efforts include participating on research teams or writing in a way that addresses theory/research issues in more practitioner-based publications.
In moving to our more immediate focus on adult education practice, the keen insights that we have shared on learning theory and its relevance to our own work provide a rich baseline of ideas that will need to be more thoroughly processed in the shaping up of revised and new curriculum designs in our own specific teaching contexts and integrate into the various topics we are studying. A summary of the key the key ideas raised these past three weeks include the following:
1. At some level theory matters in that ideas are incorporated into practice by definition and therefore cannot be avoided. On this assumption theory construction in some formal or informal level is part of the essential work of both the practitioner and the academic specialist and takes place all the time regardless as to our awareness as to how they are playing out in our own practice.
2. Better to be informed, therefore, of one’s implicit and explicit theoretical assumptions as they are enacted in our practice in order to better grasp, and also to modify or, as the situation may call for, even to more fundamentally alter some of the core presuppositions of our work if to do so leads to better practice.
3. Some of us have identified key theoretical breakthroughs in identifying or altering our teaching or program-based practice.
a. Some have referred to the importance of Malcolm Knowles work on the self-directed learner and the focus in adult education on practical relevance through a facilitative pedagogy, which Knowles refers to as andogogy. Knowles’ insights might be aptly viewed as a blending of humanistic philosophy and constructivist learning theory.
b. Many have referred to the importance of constructivism as central to adult education practice while realizing that in certain task-based contexts or in contexts where automaticity is crucial, other theoretical emphases may be more relevant. As pointed out in many of your postings, much of the critical work of the discerning practitioner is to deftly apply specific aspects of theoretical insights to particular pedagogical challenges which we encounter daily in our programs.
c. I have sought to bring to the fore the central role of Dewey’s concept of “growth” in providing an imaginative schema in grounding my understanding of a “middle-ground” practice which opened up a significant interpretive lens on both my daily work as a site based adult literacy program manager and formal theory construction. Dewey’s learning theory has been a central thread of progressive educational thought throughout the 20th century and has much, though largely untapped potential in enhancing adult education thought and practice.
4. Some wonder about the relevance at all of possessing formal knowledge of established learning theories in that some of the most highly competent teachers practice their craft with keen intuitive insight and a solid knowledge base honed by years of practice, with very little formal theoretical understanding of the pedagogy informing their work. On this I offer the following:
a. While there are important and potentially useful relationships between academic learning theory and best practices they are not tightly correlated. Rather, theory, like instructional materials are a resource that the savvy practitioner utilizes to better inform her or his practice. In this respect, knowledge of academic learning theory becomes relevant to the extent that it offers valuable resources and insight to effectively enhance practice in any given context. In this respect, the well grounded teacher draws on theory in a manner analogous to the skilled engineer rather than in the mode of the research scientist. In either case sound principles apply, but the one does so to further refine discussions on theory while the other does so to improve practice. Both are valuable; both are necessary. Sometimes there is nothing more practical than a good theory. Sometimes there is nothing more practical than better practice.
b. Resources gleaned from constructivist learning theory are generally more useful (a) when the important instructional work at hand is helping students to strengthen their own internal representations as knowledgeable learners, (b) when the topic matter is focused more on empathetic and critical probes into different points of view or based primarily on self-reflection and building empathetic communities of learners. Still, as pointed out, constructivism may play a significant role in providing an underlying tone in learning challenges that are primarily focused on mastering sequential tasks and developing automaticity in developing greater phonemic awareness. That is, while a task may call for a mastery of sequential steps, issues related to internal representation and motivation still may require constructivist insight in linking a particular learning style and history with a progressive mastery of a given task at hand. These are subtle matters that require a great deal of discernment in which we often learn through the inevitability of our mistakes, particularly when we utilize them as resources for further reflection and modifications of our plans.
c. Cognitivist theory as exemplified in D.M. Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction or in Sticht’s functional context theory may play a central role in helping students progressively master a series of essential learning tasks like learning about new work processes in one’s job, starting a business, developing a week’s worth of healthy recipes for one’s family, mastering the fundamentals of basic algebra, or following and applying basic rules of English grammar and punctuation. Yet, as stated above, while near term knowledge acquisition may require well laid out mental maps in order to master a given set of tasks, longer-term knowledge development may require more subtle internalization in which one’s identity as a learner become positively reconstructed as part of the ongoing process of learning new tasks and procedures.
d. Behaviorist theory may play a principle role in developing the automaticity skills in increasing basic phonemic awareness or in mastering the fundamentals of basic arithmetic where practice through repetition is the more immediate key learning objective at hand. Even still cognitive development provides an important resource in helping students to internalize the schematic framework to make sense of what they are learning in order to enable such learning to flow into the long term memory. This often leads in turn, to viewing oneself as a competent learner (constructivism) which serves an important reinforcing and legitimizing role that is essential for persistence in learning, particularly when the challenges are difficult, yet potentially in reach (Bandura).
e. Pragmatic learning theory can be central in learning challenges emerging out of some gap in felt experience in which the pivotal challenge is to progressively overcome the gap through forms of knowledge and reconstruction of the context in which the problem was situated. Loss of a job could be one such source as could encountering a radically new and uncomfortable experience like incarceration or release from prison. Constructivist precepts could help in the firming up of a revitalized identity in lending meaning and purpose to the challenging work of activating needed sequential mastery in learning some complex set of tasks required to meet the challenges of coping effectively with a new work or social environment.
f. Even still, the more fundamental challenge may be that of appropriate problem identification and progressive problem solving to which a pragmatic inquiry-mode as exemplified in Dewey’s theory of learning could open up.
5. The insights gleaned on learning theory need to be incorporated into a broader set of insights and resources drawn upon in the challenging work of developing a teacher designed curriculum focus for a given course or program. We’ve seen such interfaces in our discussions of adult education theory and in the formal literature on curriculum theory in which Bruner’s spiral model and Dirkx & Prenger’s theme-based approach are prime examples of constructivist learning theory. As we shift this upcoming week into the topic of discerning the contexts of adult education theory we’ll see additional convergences between constructivism and the notion of literacy practices as detailed in Fingeret and Drennon’s Literacy for Life: Adult Learners, New Practices http://www.amazon.com/Literacy-Life-Learners-Practices-Language/dp/0807736589. We’ll also see the connection in Sticht’s Functional Context Education which shares strong affinities with Merrill’s ID2 integration of constructivism within a complex cognitivist design.
As we move through the remainder of this course we’ll identify various interfaces between learning theory and pedagogical strategies in Weeks 9 and 10. We’ll also give consideration to the strong correlations between CASAS and Merrill and Sticht’s complex view on cognitional learning theory and the pivotal role of constructivism on EFF, yet one that incorporates significant cognitivist components. Though we will not address it in this class, the issue of the relationship between qualitative and quantitative modes of student assessment and program evaluation are very much linked to divergent views on learning theory.
6. In drawing some closing conclusions, there is much to draw on from learning theory as indicated in the many discussions we have which we have had during the past three weeks. Among other things this includes the emphasis on constructivism in adult education and gaining a better sense of its many applications as well as coming to terms with the many contexts where its utilization may be limited or even counterproductive. What also stands out is the significant work of Merrill on the second level application of instructional design (ID2) and Sticht on functional context theory, both of which seek to establish linkages between cognitivist and constructivist theories and design principles from a highly nuanced cognitivist perspective. In the process of sifting through the ID2 perspective characteristic of both Merrill and Sticht, we’ve gained a better sense of the differences as well as similarities between their viewpoint and Dirkx & Prenger’s more constructivist-oriented theme-based perspective.
What is eminently clear is that a fundamental dividing point is not over the importance of content or theme-based instruction, which Merrill and Sticht fully share with Dirkx & Prenger, as well as the other constructivist learning theorists that we have studied. The primary difference, rather, has to do with the ways in which learning and supportive teaching takes place and the ways in which emergence and pre-planning interface. While we did not give as much attention to Dewey’s pragmatic theory of learning as progressive problem solving as I would have liked, his work too, as exemplified in Democracy and Education opens some intriguing insights for fresh learning that can be gleaned through a close study of his work.
7. The challenge is to think like a practitioner-inquirer in which it is not theory in itself that is the most salient factor. Rather, it is cogent application through effective utilization of theoretical insight as a critical resource in moving our understanding and practice forward in ways that facilitate demonstrably better outcomes of a more or less enduring type within the learning and broader life projects of our students. I’ll close with a quote from with Chapter 11, “Experience and Thinking” in Democracy and Education.
An ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory simply because it is only in experience that any theory has vital and verifiable significance. An experience, a very humble experience, is capable of generating and carrying any amount of theory (or intellectual content), but a theory apart from an experience cannot be definitely grasped even as theory. It tends to become a mere verbal formula, a set of catchwords used to render thinking, or genuine theorizing, unnecessary and impossible. Because of our education we use words, thinking they are ideas, to dispose of questions, the disposal being in reality simply such an obscuring of perception as prevents us from seeing any longer the difficulty (p. 144). http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publications/Projects/digitexts/dewey/d_e/chapter11.html
The work on learning theory has the potential of becoming increasingly viable to the extent that we are able to draw on insights discussed in the readings and among us, in applying some of what we’ve learned to our own contexts, in assessing its impact as it gets played out in our practice, and in making additional adjustments or modifications to our teaching as warranted. The value of the knowledge of learning theories for the discerning practitioner-inquirer is no more and also no less than that, in which “to ‘learn from experience’ is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy and suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it’s like; the undergoing becomes instruction—discovery of the connection of things” (p. 140). Through this we learn and in the process make changes in the challenging effort of creating, or at least contributing to the more desirable outcome; learning experiences for and with our students as satisfactory as possible.
It is this which Dewey refers to as “growth;” some reconstruction of the world—that small, but far from insignificant portion of it where we have some control, and where our actions and where our undergoings make a difference in our own lives and among those with whom we have some influence in our desire to build the good community through which we might define as the good school. In this effort, effective appropriation of learning theory has a humble but not insignificant role to play.