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PGCHE Week 2: Learning Theories

The second session in my PGCHE (see my first post on this for context) took place this Friday, and covered an introduction to learning theories. I knew a little about some learning theories going in (e.g. behaviourism, social constructivism and cognitive constructivism), but it was useful to have a refresher on this and discuss some of their practical applications.

We did a group exercise that gave us some practice in applying learning theories. Each person was given a card of a different colour. Red cards had a learning problem on them (e.g. you are dealing with low-level disruption in your classes), yellow had a group of learners (e.g. 18-20 year old Business students), green cards had a particular learning theory, and blue cards had an intervention (e.g. a pop quiz, or other learning activity).

People with the red “problem” cards had to gather a team of “friends” around them, consisting of one yellow card, one green, and at least one blue. As a group, the “friends” then had to come up with a solution for the problem, using the learning theory on the green card, suitable for the learners on the yellow card, and using as many blue intervention cards as they deemed appropriate.  We then had to pitch our solution to the rest of the group, and vote on who came up with the most cohesive and effective pitch.

It was a really fun activity, and worked well for getting us all to consider what learning theories might be suitable for solving particular problems, and how this would actually inform practice. The cards we used are available online if anyone wants to look – we were promised the link would be emailed around to us, so I’ll add a link in here when I get them!

One of the learning theories we touched on, although didn’t go into much detail with, was humanism. This is the approach that looks at the learner in a holistic way, and takes into account the experiences and knowledge they bring with them, and any barriers to their learning. I hadn’t heard of this theory by that name before, but it immediately made me think about critical information literacy. In particular, it brought to mind Char Booth’s keynote at LILAC in 2016.

Char talked about information privilege, the cost of educational materials such as textbooks, and the effect this has on who is able to access education. At one point in her keynote, which has always stuck with me, she talked about asking her students what they would be able to afford if they didn’t have to pay for their course textbooks.

Some of the answers were funny (e.g. “a cat that doesn’t hate me”), some were practical (e.g. rent, parking), and some were just heartbreaking (one surprisingly common answer was “new teeth”. NEW TEETH!!). The screenshot below is a word cloud showing their answers, from Char’s presentation which is available on Slideshare:

Word cloud showing responses such as

Answers to the question “What would you be able to afford if you didn’t have to buy textbooks?”, from “Why Reflect? The Holistic Practice of Stepping Back“, keynote by Char Booth at LILAC 2017, Dublin

I think there is a clear link to the humanist approach to learning. If your students are distracted by dental pain because they can’t afford new teeth, how much attention are they able to pay in class? If they are having to work several part-time jobs to make ends meet, and/or have caring responsibilities, will they have time to do the critical appraisal of information that we insist is essential?

At the close of the session, we did five minutes of “generative writing”. This is an activity that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had a go at NaNoWriMo: to avoid the trap of trying to endlessly polish the same sentence rather than getting on with your writing, you set a timer and just write non-stop without going back to edit. You then go back and tidy it up later, but by then you’ve done the hard work of just getting your thoughts down, even if in a messy way!

Here’s what I wrote, unedited:

I think my teaching is really constrained by the environment in which I teach. My inclination is to take a humanist and socially constructivist approach, but having to teach only large lecture groups, and seeing them only once a year, forces me into a behaviourist approach. I don’t find this a natural fit, so this could be the route of a lot of my current discomfort with teaching.

Where I have seen smaller groups, e.g. the foundation engineers or Alex’s computing groups, I have taken a more socially constructivist approach. I encourage and facilitate collaborative learning, enabling learners to reach their own conclusions rather than prescribing a “right” way to be information literate. I hadn’t come across the humanist theory before, but it instinctively feels right to me. How can you possibly teach information literacy without considering the whole person?

I would like to find out more about humanism, and see if anything has been written about it from an IL perspective. It seems to be a natural fit with critical IL to me, so I’d be surprised if there was no literature on it from this perspective.

Reading list

My plan is to finish each of these weekly blog posts with a round-up of what I am currently reading, or planning to read to follow up the ideas from each work.

I have started using Mendeley to save my reading: partly because it comes highly recommended by a colleague, self-described “Mendeley fangirl” Alison McNab! I also wanted to learn a new referencing tool as another way to better support my students: I know my way reasonably well around EndNote and RefWorks, which are the two subscription products we use at Huddersfield, but I do occasionally get questions about Mendeley which I’ve never felt confident enough to answer. So far I really like Mendeley: it’s more intuitive than EndNote, and seems more consistent than RefWorks!

Currently reading

Alder, R. (2011). 6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use With Your Students | Edutopia. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/scaffolding-lessons-six-strategies-rebecca-alber

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2015). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice (4th ed.). Oxford: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315763088

Smith, M. K. (2016). What is teaching? Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-teaching/

Smith, M. K. (2016). Key teaching activities. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/key-teaching-activities/

Planning to read

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. London; Routledge.

Rogers, C. R., Kirschenbaum, H., & Henderson, V. L. (1990). The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable.

Smith, M. K. (2004). Carl Rogers, core conditions and education. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/carl-rogers-core-conditions-and-education/

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