Learning Theories and Me

Evaluating my own teaching philosophy is one of the exercises I undertake every few years.  Prompted by this past EC&I 833 class and the required readings from Ertmer, Siemens and ACRLog, I embarked, once again, in a state of deep reflection on my craft as a teacher and the approaches I use to help my students progress in their academic work.

I feel very much in line with Adam’s descriptionof how his teaching incorporates elements from each of the main theories explored in the previous readings:

“As an educator, I see value in a number of different aspects of each of these theories. My teaching philosophy has some qualities of each of these four theories, which would make my theory of learning a bit of a mutt, I suppose. Each theory has a quality that speaks to the diverse population of learners that are in our education system. To say that one is better than the other for me would be hypocritical as I utilize pieces of each theory in my practice at some point throughout the year.”

Despite having difficulty associating with a specific teaching philosophy such as Behaviourism, Cognitivisim, Constructivisim or Connectivisim, I must say I associate more closely with Constructivism. The following idea by Ertmer and Newby resonates with me as it parallels in my mind the world of building knowledge using the scientific method:

“Constructivists do not deny the existence of the real world but contend that what we know of the world stems from our own interpretations of our experiences. Humans create meaning as opposed to acquiring it. Since there are many possible meanings to glean from any experience, we cannot achieve a predetermined, “correct” meaning.”

Our minds are in constant evolution and as we gain experience with life, we gather more data that we use to interpret the world around us.  Even with many people having similar datasets established by similar life experiences, I find it is often the case that conflict can arise as different people build their meaning in different ways.

At the beginning of my teaching career, I was extremely preoccupied with making sure subject matter was retained by my students. I would try to transfer knowledge any which way I could without giving much thought on how I was accomplishing the task or even evaluating the possible effectiveness of my pedagogy. Recently, I worry much less on content and subject matter and more on helping my students develop skills that will allow them to “build” better interpretations of the world.  Logic, curiousness, critical thinking, work ethic and openness to new ideas are all characteristics that I try to convey to my students.  I believe that by having these tools, it doesn’t matter what my students retain as information in their mind, they will be able to build whatever knowledge they need given the variety of situations in life they will meet in the world beyond their school years.  This way of thinking is perhaps more appropriate for mature high school students.  I cannot say if it would translate well to early childhood learning as all of my teaching experience is with high school students.  This is a subject I would love to discuss further with my classmates.

One aspect I find lacking in the many theories of learning I explored this week is teacher-student compatibility.  Teachers are individuals and students are also individuals all of which have their own personalities and character traits.  As much as I would love to believe that as a teacher, I can impact every student in profound and productive ways, I must acknowledge that some students are just not as compatible with my teaching style and my character traits as others.  Even if I try my very best with every student I have the privilege to teach, I must acknowledge that some students perform better in my classroom than others.  I have observed, over many years, students with which I don’t have a strong constructive relationship do very well with other teachers that simply have more compatible character traits.  As in life, not everyone that we encounter become our best friends. Certain pairs of people share special compatibilities that are very difficult to explain while others seem to be at constant odds.  This is not to say that work cannot be done to improve the functioning of incompatible student-teacher relationships, however, this could require the investment of a great deal of time and energy from all parties.  As my time and energy is becoming increasingly restrained in the current context if public education, I find myself unable properly and completely adapt to all my student’s needs.  It breaks my heart that I cannot give them all 100%, alas, we must teach in the world of reality and not in the world of theories.

The idea of Connectivism sparked much interest due to its context with educational technology.  As I’m progressing as a teacher in the years to come, I speculate that the idea of Connectivism will garner progressively a larger part of my practice.  With the quantity of knowledge always expanding and access to knowledge almost becoming ubiquitous due to technologies like the internet, our world is becoming smaller and cultivating the links within this world will become extremely important.

This week’s reflections were extremely difficult for me and I still don’t really know where I stand with regards to learning theories. This one really sent me in numerous directions and I still feel lost.  I hope my classmates will help me find the way this week.  I look forward to reading all your blogposts.


Teachers with technology can mold education into a force for equity in society

Once again, the Great EdTech debate didn’t disappoint.  The statement: Technology is a force for equity in society led me to numerous paths of thought before even considering my own personal position.  Coming into the debate, I had not settled on my own point of view and I was ready to be enlightened by either Jen, Dawn and Sapna or Amy S. and Rakan.  Both teams provided excellent arguments which resulted in making the analysis of this debate even more difficult and complicated.  As I have learned since the beginning of this class over the last few months, no issue related to technology or its application in society is black or white. There are always nuances related to how technology influences people and society.

In the particular context of education, I firmly believe that I, as teacher, am a force for equity in society.  As education has become more and more prevalent over the past centuries, society has evolved into what we know today.  In parallel with education, technology has been in lockstep with education in shaping our world.

Having attended a small rural school, I can attest that technology has afforded me opportunities that would have otherwise not been available to me.  As a high school student, not having access to qualified mathematics and science teachers, the internet and distance education allowed me to receive the same level of teaching as my urban counterparts.  Although there were many difficulties at the time such as poor bandwidth (remember 56k modems and 128kbps ISDN lines?) unreliable computers (remember Windows XP and CRT monitors?) and poor communications technologies (remember analog phones and fax machines?), we as students were able to navigate these sources of friction and achieve excellent results.  As Layla Bonnot explains in her analysis on open educational resources, technology is enabling quality education access to even the remotes places on earth.  In my situation, technology was a force for equity.

Speaking to a colleague that immigrated from a remote African village some 10 years ago, he mentioned that over the past few years, access to the Internet and computers has changed the lives of his family that is still living in that part of the world.  Given that the economic situation in many areas of the developing world is improving, many people are now able to dedicate time to expanding their knowledge of the world as opposed to spending 100% of their time on tasks related to survival.  A few years ago, I was able to meet physicist Neil Turok.  He talked about how technology is at the center of his efforts in supporting and developing science and mathematics education on the African continent though the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences which he founded in 2003.  Where it not for the internet, he would have never been able to progress in developing this institute.

To me, this once again demonstrates how technology can be used as a vehicle to expand the possibilities of education and making it accessible to a wider portion of the population.

Just like in every other debate we have had; no situation is perfect and purely beneficial to all parties involved. Annie Murphy Paul highlights the digital divide that is seemingly happening between affluent kids using technology and low-income kids using similar technology.  It is no surprise that socio-economic standing greatly influences learning opportunities as this has been researched extensively at many levels.  That being said, money remains a factor that determines in many cases the level of access to technologies at home and in schools. Some affluent people thus think by simply dumping the highest tech in the poorest places in society, inequality will be solved.  This train of thought can lead to dangerous traps, that are underlined again by Annie Murphy Paul.  In addition Facebook’s free internet initiative is another example of applying technology to a problem that needs other solutions.

At times, I feel like many teachers view technology as an interesting means to teach and often get caught up in the technology itself while forgetting the educational outcome they are trying to achieve. On many occasions, I have witnessed teachers praising a students’ AMAZING project involving a high level of complex technology use while not realizing this particular student didn’t achieve the desired learning outcome.  The initial shock and awe of the project often creates bias in certain teacher’s assessments.

I often discuss with my colleagues the trap of attacking challenges with technology when simple proven solutions can be just as effective.  A pencil and a paper can be a powerful and simple technology that can accomplish great things and must not be ignored.  I find simple low-tech solutions can produce some of the best learning situations for teachers and learners.  Last summer, while participating at the Einstein Plus teachers’ conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, myself and the other conference attendees participated in an activity where teams were given 10$ to spend at a dollar store.  Our objective was to maximize the money by creating an activity that can be used to teach a concept related to science.  The results of the exercise were nothing short of amazing.  I have used many of these ideas developed during this activity quite frequently in my own pedagogy.  Once again, low tech, but very effective.  Here is an example of our exploits, you might even recognise yours truly.

Technology in this case, although inexpensive and simple is providing new opportunities for education thus once again, providing equity despite cost.

With technology creeping into every nook and cranny of our society, companies are seeing opportunities that seem fantastic on the surface but can be quite disconcerting when properly analyzed. It’s hard to argue cost when things are free.  Many resources we use online are sold as free tools that will change the world. Services provided by Google or Youtube and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook all commercialise our personal information for profit.  We as users effectively become the product of these tools.  The information harvested through our use of these services can then be sold to entities such as advertisers and insurance companies.  This information can then be used to target segments of populations for very specific commercial gain.  Who has ever searched for something on Google only to see, within a few minutes, Amazon ads for this product everywhere on the internet?  Although this example is perhaps benign as it is simply a form of advertising, much more serious consequences can result in the manipulation of data.  A more worrisome example of this might data manipulation is how Russia used social media through firms such as Cambridge Analytica to manipulate and influence the 2016 Presidential Election.

As our world adapts to these technologies, we will suffer many setbacks and see many bad consequences.  That being said, I stay optimistic for the future in that humans are at the center of society and its evolution.  Technology will play a key part in allowing humanity to become healthier though providing access to better opportunities to those less fortunate.  As teachers, we must be the vehicle by which we drive this technology to improve education. I believe that education can become a force for equity in society by properly harnessing the appropriate technologies.  Dan Meyer proposes four interesting questions he always asks about new Technology in Education:

  • What does it do?
  • Is that a good thing to do?
  • What does it cost?
  • What do people think about this?

I don’t have all the answers, but these represent an excellent place to start.