Personal Learning Theory


At the beginning of the unit, I wrote that “to learn something means to understand it intellectually and be able to put it into practice. . .  when we have really learned something, we can both recall it and do it, and often the thing we have learned has changed the way we think.”

After learning about theories of learning, I still believe that this definition is basically correct. I believe that when we have learned something, it has changed both our thinking and our actions. I think there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and being able actually apply it and let it change our actions. I also believe that when a piece of knowledge has changed our actions, that is when we have truly internalized and made it our own.

My definition of learning is somewhat eclectic, taking principles from both behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. When I consider my personal theory of how we learn, I think about how I have learned in the past, and I’ve come to the conclusion that humans learn in a wide variety of ways. I think each of the theorists we’ve studied has explicated an important piece of the learning puzzle, and that taking an eclectic approach to my learning theory is the best way to more completely encapsulate how all humans learn.

Some people have to learn through an active exploration of their environment, as the constructivist theory espouses. They have to learn how to be a grown-up human through their own experiences, and because of this, sometimes they make mistakes and it gets messy. For some students, this is the best way for them to learn and discover ideas and concepts that are new to them—they need to get in the dirt and try it out. For me, this is how I have learned about teaching. I can’t just read about it or memorize facts or watch others; I have to try it out for myself.

Some people take a more hands-off approach to learning, and want to learn by watching other people and then not making the same mistakes that they’ve seen others make. They don’t want to make mistakes and they don’t want to get messy. Instead, they want to internalize the knowledge that others have gained so they don’t have to re-discover ideas and concepts. In a somewhat social cognitivist fashion, they mostly learn by watching others. In my experience, I have learned this way when I’ve learned how to “adult”—I’ve learned through observation what types of jobs I don’t want, what types of life experiences I do and don’t want to have, and what types of life choices I do and don’t want to make.

I believe that, on the whole, Social Cognitivism and Constructivism are how people naturally want to learn. Both of these types of learning happen routinely in the lives of adults outside of school. I think that learning through cognitivist principles happens mainly in structured environment such as school or a workplace where we’re asked to focus our attention, rehearse a new task or idea, and then put into practice that task or idea. Cognitivist principles work, and most of my school experience has been learning through cognitivist principles.

My personal learning theory draws the least from behaviorism, I think. The other theories put at least a little control with the student—the student can choose to pay attention, they can choose to change their thinking, they can choose whether or not that thinking alters their behavior, they can choose if and how to explore their environment. But behaviorism takes that choice away. Behaviorism boils learning down to giving a stimulus and then providing either reinforcement or punishment, and automatically student behavior will change. This ignores the human factor that is vital to learning. I believe that if my student doesn’t want to learn, they won’t learn, and if a student wants to learn, they will learn, sometimes in spite of their environment. My personal learning theory places great control with the student and their choice they make about learning. I believe that each student is an agent to themselves, and can choose what they think, say, and do. Thus, my personal learning theory draws more from the theories of constructivism, social cognitivism, and cognitivism.

So what

Because I believe that learning is a change in thinking and sometimes a change in actions, I want to provide students with a lot of opportunities to think metacognitively and challenge their own ideas. In and English class, I think there are many chances for me to have students think about complex ideas. Literature tackles some tough issues, and I want my students to read and understand the text on a level personal to them. Because I believe learning changes how we think, I want my students to grapple with the difficult ideas. To help them with this, I will use a range of reading and writing strategies to give my students a way into the text. Rather than reading and taking a test, we’ll explore themes, symbolism, language, and I’ll use reading strategies to help my students make sense of the text. Often the change in our thinking that comes from deep learning is small and happens over time, but it does not happen at all if we don’t read and talk about complex ideas.

Because I believe that many students learn through active exploration, I want to provide a lot of complex learning environments for students. I don’t want my classroom to be like the morgue at the end of the hall: quiet, cold, with an aura of doom. I want my classroom to be bright with student talk as they engage with the content and with each other. In English class, we don’t actually play in the dirt like you might in a science class, but we can get up close and personal with writing as we actually do writing instead of just talking about it and observing it. We can do research and do speaking and listening; students can experience writing and language for themselves instead of only seeing what others have done with language.

Because I believe that many students also learn through observation, I want to provide excellent models and examples for my students. When we learn about figurative language, we’ll use the best models and examples. When we learn about writing informative articles, we’ll use the best newspapers and websites as examples. We’ll also use the worst examples—sometimes showing a person what not to do is powerful for learning as well.

Because I believe that students are active humans who can make choices, I want to give students choices. I don’t want them to feel locked into learning, like a rat in a maze, because for some students I think this actually discourages learning. I want students to be able to choose how they demonstrate their learning, choose what they write about, and choose what they read. I believe that student motivation increases when they have choices, and when motivation is higher, then learning increases as well.

Now what

I want to learn more about complex learning environments. Looking back at middle school and high school, I didn’t experience a lot of complex learning environments, and my learning was not as great. My college experiences have been almost completely complex learning environments with authentic activities, and my learning has been exponentially greater. I want to learn more about how I can introduce more and varied complex environments for my students to discover. How can I implement project-based learning when we have a central text we have to cover? What I can do to help students develop their own inquiries? How can I effectively facilitate student discovery of research and presentation principles? We’ve explored a lot of student-centered models in curriculum and instruction, and I am excited to try them out in my classroom. But I also want to know more about the models and the environments they create.


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