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Learning theory in the 21st-century classroom

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Career-Technical Education

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Have you been in a classroom lately to see the shift to a student-centered classroom? Have you seen online, blended, hands-on or social-learning courses? If so, you know that pedagogy changes have to happen to focus on the needs of the students, and what works with one student may not work with another.

Learning theory, or its more erudite name, epistemology, forms the backbone of pedagogy that can help students learn. Of course, here in the 21st century, we want our students to be ready for the job market, so both brick-and-mortar and online educators are encouraged to incorporate skills for technology and career literacy into their classes. These skills really are not a learning theory (how people learn), but they are an important pedagogical (an application of the theory and practice of learning) tool.

First, consider an online class. Often, an assumption persists that “online” means digital worksheet completion. Not true, say online educators who have worked to develop the field. Such assumptions are based on the concept of behaviorism, where the student’s noggin is an empty bucket to be filled. External factors, like grades, adult pressure, or a need to graduate, provide the stimulus to motivate them to learn. Great classes, whether face-to-face or online, start with big ideas and certified teachers in the content area. We teach students content, helping them interact with the material and regularly reflect about ideas. It’s not about knowing facts, but about being able to use them to reach new conclusions about relevant topics.

Let’s move next to more common blended classes, which use 1:1 devices or online tools to augment hands-on learning, from industrial tech to social studies. From Dewey to Vygotsky, the learning theory of constructivism says that students need to engage with content through experiences and then reflect upon their understanding. This type of content can help students utilize simulations, models or disparate events, and also challenge misconceptions about a topic. This is where an intentional blending of technologies can set some courses apart. Compelling classes encourage students to use on-site materials, create meaning with research or online what-if scenarios, and apply new knowledge to make prototypes or presentations that can be applied to daily situations.

Effective courses of any type use regular collaboration among learners to ask tough questions and share ownership of products and projects, as part of an evolving field of social learning theory advanced by Malcolm Gladwell and Wenger-Trayner. Such powerful learning also includes adult learning opportunities such as Twitter chats and Vox, communities like CTQ, ECET2 or NSTA, or documented learning experiences (microcredentials) that advance teaching and learning.

Rounding out the learning journey includes the challenges of the non-achievers in classes, as well as the high-flying students. Hungry students, homeless kiddos, low graduation rates, and even apathetic learners in school populations highlight the need for the ideas of resilience and grit. How and when a learner is able to muster the conditions for success, whether in formal learning or in the world-at-large, forms the basis of moral development learning theory.

Finally, our learning theory backbone is enhanced through the exceptional work of cross-discipline teams. This work has expanded from a variety of contributors, adding medical tools (e.g., MRIs and pet scans) as well as psychology (Duckworth) to the efforts of Kohlberg, Maslow, and Piaget in engaging and reengaging students who are struggling. The research into cognitive learning theory has been informed over the past 25 years with an increasing focus on how the brain works, building on the work of Ausubel, Bruner, and the activation of prior knowledge.

Wherever your journey in education takes you, student-centered classrooms eventually lead to mastery, learning personalization ,and competency education as a way forward in the classroom. A mix of learning theory expertise is an oft-neglected but valuable foundation that helps form the background spectrum of pedagogy tools in online, blended, and face-to-face courses.

Marcia Powell works with curriculum and learning in online, blended and face-to-face venues. Her areas of expertise include education development in the areas of online , STEMx, cross-curriculum projects, and planning for gifted students across the spectrum in northeast Iowa. You can read more at her CTQ blog, Outside the Lines, or connect via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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This article is brought to you in collaboration with Center for Teaching Quality.