A few weeks ago, I had a chance to conduct a workshop for EdTechTeacher on Leading Innovation in the Classroom. Before beginning to prepare for the three days, I created a survey for my participants to gauge their prior experience and interests. Beyond asking about familiarity with particular concepts, I wanted to know their thoughts on three critical questions:
If you could take a deep-dive into any particular concept, topic, idea or strategy during our time together, what would it be?
If you could design your ideal three-day experience, what objective would you want to achieve for yourself by the end of it?
What is the one topic, tool, concept, idea, or strategy that will cause you to roll your eyes and wish that you could sneak out of the workshop never to return again?
Answers to the last question proved to be fascinating as they clustered around three themes: no more “collaboration,” enough with the talk about “growth mindset,” and NO EduSpeak. I really liked the last comment as it seemed to eloquently sum up the underlying issues with the first two. This group of teacher-leaders did not want three days of flowery language that had little meaning and could not be acted upon. On the first morning, I made the group a promise: we would not use any terms that we could not define in an actionable way.
Few terms have achieved the state of “buzzword-ness” as innovation. Three years ago, I made an attempt to define it based on input from thought-leaders John Kao and Scott Berkun as well as educators Lisa Palmieri, Lawrence Reiff, and Kristen Wideen. What resonated most in the writing of that post was Berkun’s notion that innovation could be defined as significant positive change. He then further clarifies that significant implies a change of at least 30%. Using this definition as our baseline, we set out to determine what 30% change might look like in the classroom.
With the first potential eduspeak out of the way, we next tackled the challenge of defining learning. If the goal of innovation was to change 30% of something in a positive direction, student learning presented a good starting point. Instead of guiding the conversation or providing a pre-packaged definition, I asked my participants to collaboratively construct their own conception of student learning by working through the Think-Pair-Share thinking routine. That first morning, they generated a substantial list of ideas: having experiences, connecting to prior knowledge, retaining and applying information, as well as asking questions. However, in listening to their definitions, I realized that the problem of eduspeak may be driven by a lack of pedagogical language to concretely define the desired learning experiences.
To kick off the second morning, I asked the group to revise their definition of learning based on the prior day’s experiences. Though they agreed to keep many components of their original definition, they also added reflection and the idea of learning being a student-centered, active process. At that point, I introduced Ertmer and Newby’s (1993) concept of learning theories as points on a continuum to guide the selection of instructional strategies. By using a set of essential questions to guide thinking, Ertmer and Newby (1993) argue that educators can design instruction based on the type of learning that would produce the desired results. These questions ask educators to consider how learning occurs in a given context, the factors that could influence learning, the role of memory in learning, and how transfer might manifest itself.
Table based on Ertmer & Newby (1993).
In discussing the differences between behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, two insights emerged. First, we discussed whether constructivism should be the goal. Admittedly, by presenting this information as a table, I inadvertently gave the false impression that learning theories could be viewed as a rubric with constructivism being the desired outcome.
Much of the eduspeak touts the need for “constructivist” environments. And while I am a major proponent of inquiry-based learning and designing constructivist experiences, Ertmer and Newby (1993) make an excellent point that sometimes constructivist theory may be ineffective for the desired learning. On the other hand, much of the current educational system focuses solely on behaviorist strategies with an emphasis on convergent thinking and assessments that value recall versus the construction of new understandings. Instead of viewing the table as a rubric, one participant commented that we should consider it a “Bingo Card.” The goal should be to fill the card over time and not focus on a particular column.
The second insight involved the prevalence of construction metaphors in education. Within the cognitive perspective, learners construct new knowledge by building on prior experience. According to the theory of constructivism, learners construct meaning and a new sense of reality by interacting within an authentic context. However, constructivism is often confused with constructionism - particularly when technology enters the conversation. According to Papert and Harel (1991), many educators may never progress past a simple definition of constructionism as “learning-by-making.” In the first chapter of their book Constructionism, they warn that many readers will end their definition with that concept rather than recognize that learning occurs when students construct artifacts that represent their knowledge structures. In and of itself, making does not constitute constructionism - it requires the deeper learning associated with the constructivist theories.
The Language of Pedagogy
In many ways, the irony of the conversations that we had during that workshop, as well as the argument presented in this post, is that learning is inherently linked to language. According to psychologist Lev Vygotsky, humans form their perceptions of the world through social interactions. In his book Mind in Society, Vygotsky (1978) describes how children initially “talk to think” as a way to create an opportunity to process new ideas. Over time, they progress to using speech to plan deliberate responses before using it to control their own behavior. Ultimately, language supports both interpersonal and intrapersonal communication as speech becomes the tool through which people engage and learn with others.
In other words, learning cannot occur without language as it exists as the tool for constructing knowledge and understanding. My group from a few weeks ago made an incredibly important point -- we need to stop with all of the EduSpeak. However, I would also argue that we need to bring back the language of pedagogy and develop a deeper conception of how theory drives strategy to inspire student learning.
Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72. doi:10.1111/j.1937-8327.1993.tb00605.x
Papert, S. and Harel, I. (1991). Constructionism. Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Harvard University Press.
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