Tag Archives: knowledge

What I’ve Learnt – 1 Theories of Learning

I’ve been a Physics teacher for ten years and head of one of the school’s more successful subjects for the majority of that time. Not having done a PGCE means that I’ve had to work a lot out for myself – when I started I didn’t even know what pedagogy meant. These days I’m confident that I’m reasonably well informed, so what have I learned? I’ll start with theories of learning – in a nutshell – I don’t think there is much science behind them, but we all use them.

Before becoming a teacher I’d done a few jobs including post-doc scientist and zoo tour guide. Coming to teaching late I didn’t do the traditional PGCE – supposedly I was on a Graduate Training Course, but the truth is I was just bunged into a classroom and told to get on with it. In my first year I was evenly split between Maths, Chemistry and Physics. I’ve taught others since, but have concentrated on Physics.

The result of all of this was that I was the most reactionary teacher you’ve ever met, my only experience of teaching before I joined a pretty traditional school was my own grammar school twenty years earlier! You know that progressive/traditional debate – well I didn’t know there was any way except the traditional.

Having survived my first experiences of teaching I was struggling to reconcile my experience in the classroom with CPD that continually exhorted me to organise group work and get the kids to discuss and debate the subject. I realised that I’d best learn something about teaching theory – I had been a scientist after all.

So how do you conduct research? You start with a literature review.

Oh my goodness the literature. It isn’t like scientific literature at all; the continual name dropping and referencing within the text, the asides to sociological theory and the failure to ever use a short word when a longer one is available. I couldn’t make my mind up; was this stuff incredibly profound, and I was just too ignorant to understand it, or was it was really as thin on ideas as it seemed.

I’m still not sure which it is, but I know from other blogs that I’m not the only one to have reacted this way. See for example Gary Davies, the third section of this blog is titled “Education research papers are too long and badly written”!

There were some ideas, however, so what were they?

  1. Knowledge is constructed by each individual (Piaget)
  2. The construction of Knowledge occurs socially (Vygotsky)
  3. Knowledge is constructed only from the subjective interpretation of an individual’s active experience (von Glaserfeld)
  4. Knowledge is an individual’s or a society’s and is therefore relative not absolute.
  5. That the brain develops through stages and that the onset of abstract reasoning is not until the teens. (Piaget)
  6. That skills are more desirable educational outcomes than knowledge (Bloom)
  7. That the way to learn skills is to ape the behaviour of experts (in Science Education I blame Nuffield).

These are clearly based on theories about the way that learning operates, and so seem like science. But they’re not. To my mind the process runs the wrong way around. By which I mean that it is the theory that is all important, rather than the process of obtaining evidence for or against the theory, as is the case in the Physical Sciences. In Physics similar accusations of “not being scientific” have been made against String Theorists, but I doubt that there is String Theorist anywhere who is not aware of the problem – they organise conferences to discuss it – Educationalists seem utterly unaware or unconcerned.

In fact there is only one of the above about which there seems to be any consensus at all about evidence; the fifth. The Edu-twitteratti would have it that the evidence is completely against developmental stages. Which is a shame because it is the only one I liked! Number five seemed to me to have explanatory power for what I was seeing in the classroom. In fact, authors that science teachers still swear by, Driver or Shayer for example, took a position when they were writing in the Eighties where 5 was accepted as truth.

When I looked into why 5 was so completely ruled out, I discovered that research, mostly centred on tracking babies’ eyes, has shown to everyone’s satisfaction that Piaget massively underestimated what babies can do cognitively when defining the earliest of his stages. How this is a killer blow for abstract reasoning being a teenage onset thing I’m not sure, but I guess it is another example of theory being king – reject one small portion of a theory – reject the theory.

I also suspect another reason for developmental stages being out of fashion: Piaget’s implication that children are cognitively limited doesn’t chime with what most educators want to believe, so 5 is gone.

What about the rest? Well it doesn’t take a genius to realise that if theories  1 through 4 dominate educational thought, then students discovering things for themselves (1&3), in groups (2), without a teacher acting as an authority figure declaiming the truth (4) is the ideal model for how learning should operate. No wonder I was continually being exhorted to organise group work. Meanwhile 6 & 7 explained all that emphasis that a science teacher is supposed to put on investigations and on “How Science Works”. Students need to learn “scientific literacy” not the facts of science.

When you think about it, it is quite liberating to do theory driven education. Pick a theory you like, it doesn’t have to be one of the seven above, it can be anything with a touch of logical consistency about it and at least one obscure journal paper as “evidence”. Remodel your teaching to suit, develop materials, convert your fellow teachers and no doubt your passion will mean that your outcomes improve. Before you know it you’re a consultant, write a book, write two, market a system, save the world!

It is also quite hard to teach without a theory, how do you proceed if you have no idea how knowledge can be inculcated? I suspect, consciously or not, that we all have an idea (maybe it is not fleshed out into a full blown theory) about how learning and the development of knowledge occurs, and we teach accordingly.

So I’ve been at this ten years, what is my unscientific theory of learning?

It is sort of Piaget and runs…

  • We carry within us a model of how we think the world works, any new knowledge has to be consistent with that model.
  • The most likely fate for knowledge that is inconsistent with the existing model is its rejection, perhaps with lip service being paid to pacify the teacher. Only very rarely will the model be adapted to match the new knowledge
  • Knowledge is individually constructed upon the existing model, but the “experience” of the new knowledge can be reading, watching or hearing, it need not be physically experienced or discovered.
  • Oh and I’m a scientist so there is such a thing as objective truth, most knowledge is not relative.

Am I prepared to defend this theory – yes. Do I secretly still think that abstract reasoning is a teenage phenomenon – yeah secretly. Do I believe my theory is true – I hope it contains grains of truth, but as a good scientist I have to admit it might be complete nonsense.

Am I somewhat ashamed to be found to be holding views unsupported by science – yes, but if I’ve learnt anything from reading Piaget it is that kids will defend utterly ridiculous theories of how the world works and will fight to maintain the logical consistency of those theories while flying in the face of facts – as adults I imagine we are just better at disguising the process.