This past couple of weeks I have been working on a learning theories paper. Researching and writing this paper (while it’s focus was one learning theory) has caused me to rethink my epistemological beliefs. Since I began my credential program in 2000, I have believed strongly in the idea of discovery learning. However, I haven’t always taught that way. Writing this paper has allowed me to see why.
In the past, I wanted my students to discover literature on their own. For the first couple of years I taught English, I avoided too much discussion of figurative language or historical connections. I wanted students to “discover” the meaning of the work on their own. Unfortunately, I realized that my students, especially the 7th graders, didn’t really have a frame of reference to which they could connect the story. They could “discover” the story within, but, because they lacked an understanding of historical and current events, they could not place the story within a larger narrative and use it to understand the world.
As I reviewed basic epistemological philosophy and basic learning theories, I realized that my teaching style has reflected my underlying belief that both empiricism and rationalism are valid epistemological beliefs. There are times, especially when building a knowledge and skill base, that behaviorism (which leads to direct instruction) is the best course of action. I think this applies especially well to basic reading, grammar, and writing skills. Discovery learning (which is a constructivist theory, evolved from cognitivism) is useful to teach content. It is not, however, an excuse to leave students to their own devices to interpret the content with which they come into contact. Instructors need to make detailed plans to spiral the content from more concrete to more abstract over the course of a year so that students can make sense of it. Discovery learning is likely to be successful when it involves inquiry, problem-solving, and ill-structured problems. The mistake I made in trying to adopt discovery learning was that I left my students to their own devices. I did not teach the process of inquiry or ensure that students had the cultural symbols with which to interpret and organize the information with which they came into contact.
One discovery I made through writing this paper is the idea of constructing a narrative. Bruner’s explanation of narrative and how we use it to interpret, or construct, reality fascinated me. I plan to share this article with my colleagues, as well as with my sister who is a writer. According to Bruner, we use narrative to interpret our world, but we also construct narratives to explain our world. We learn from breaches in the narrative as well as from how we choose to construct it. I’m sure that my explanation does not do justice to the theory, because I am still working out what it means, but I definitely want to embrace it.
Going back to how my practice fits my beliefs, I have never believed in drill-based programs, but I have decided that students need this kind of repetition for learning grammar. I used to think that grammar could be taught in context with mini lessons, but that has not been effective. Many students have not received grammar instruction for years, if ever, by the time they reach 7th grade. Unfortunately, they need grammar as a tool for discussing writing. Mini lessons do not help students to truly understand the concept, so I have gone to direct instruction. While I am not sure how well the lessons transfer into writing, students at least have a language with which to discuss their sentence structure.
Bruner, J. (Autumn 1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1-21. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343711
Ertmer, P. & Newby, T. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), pp. 50-72. Retrieved from http://www.itma.vt.edu/modules/spring11/efund/lesson2/ErtmerNewby1993BehCogConComparison.pdf