Learning is a long time interest I never realised I had. Not just a desire to learn things myself, but a curiosity about how learning and education works. I guess it makes sense; after spending 18 years in education myself, I worked for The University of Sheffield for four years, then left to study a Masters. My final undergraduate degree project was a learning tool that explained the history and structure of the music industry, and I remember at the time I was particularly interested in making learning resources for installations, like in a museum or gallery. I’d studied Graphic Design, but I’ve never been keen on going into marketing, so educational design seemed like an obvious choice.

While I was working for The University of Sheffield, I worked closely with a few Learning Technologists; I almost applied to be a Certified Memeber of the Association for Learning Technology at one point (but I didn’t fancy the membership fee). I produced animations that explained different ideas in career planning, and even helped produce MOOCs on the same subjects.

So when I was offered an option on my Masters to study either live television or Technology Enhanced Learning Environments (TELE), it was a pretty easy decision.

Learning theories

One of my favourite elements of this module was learning about the psychology of learning, and the evolution of learning theories. I’ve seen so many examples of learning environments that took no consideration to the actual psychology of learning, and the result is often something that looks good, but doesn’t actually aid in learning.

Behaviourism is the go-to learning theory for so many TELEs, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Behaviourism is the oldest idea of learning; it’s Pavlov’s drooling dogs, it’s Skinner’s pigeons turning in circles in a cage, and it’s every damn job induction training exercise you’ve ever done. Absorb the instruction, carry out the action, receive the reward, learn that carrying out the action is good and develop the behaviour. It’s a fundamental part of school education; think back to those long evenings of maths homework, completing sum after sum of long division so that you could get that mark, or pass the exam. But how do you feel about long division now? I wouldn’t even know where to start.

Later, as psychologists started to look at what actually goes on in the brain during learning, we developed the theory of cognitivism; the idea that we learn things through interactions with our environment, even without reward or motivation — otherwise known as Latent Learning. Tolman, who coined the phrase, challenged the idea that learning requires stimulation. He placed rats in a maze with a reward at the end. But some didn’t get the reward in the first 10 days of the experiment — they had no motivation (other than to get out of the maze). When a reward was put in place, they were much quicker to the end of the maze, proving that they had learned their way around the maze beforehand, when there was no reward.

From cognitivism came constructivism; the idea that we learn through experience and social interaction. Piaget’s cognitive constructivism specifically focused on children, and demonstrated that children are born with some mental structure that allows them to understand the world around them, and this develops through exposure to their environment. Vygotsky looked at how social interactions influenced learning, and his idea of social constructivism suggested that social and cultural context plays a huge role in development. He explained that we learn from our peers, and that we have a “Zone of Proximal Development” — an area of skills just outside of our reach without support from others. It is within this ZPD that learning is most effective.

Constructivism — and constructionism; the idea that we learn through making things — suggest that we learn through others, and that we learn through experiences that are adjusted to suit our own skills and abilities. Learning should be adaptive, personal. It makes the behaviourist ways of teaching seem dated, strict and soulless. In the seminars, we had some great discussions about learning experiences; one student learned English through Haynes Manuals as he built a moped. He learned English because it was part of the environment he was in.

But when it comes to learning technology, it’s hard to find good examples of constructivist learning. Search “learn programming” or “learn languages” on the app store and virtually everything is behaviourist; do the thing right, earn points, move up a level. This is a huge problem, especially with learning coding. Things like Codecademy are hugely popular, but they really don’t teach you much. You complete a course and then you’re left wondering what you even learned. You don’t really feel like you could build an app by the end of it.

So what’s the best way to learn?

Obviously this is a ridiculously broad question with no single answer. But for me, I find learning comes best when you don’t even notice it happening. Projects that require you to actually challenge yourself, opportunities to learn from peers and chances to reflect are all, in my view, vital for learning.

For example, just after I graduated from my first degree, I worked in a call centre for a telecoms company, helping customers get their broadband connected in a new house. I learned all about how phone lines work, how location affects speed, and how to get the damn thing working. I wasn’t interested in it at first, but I had to learn it for the job. We had some basic training of course, but I really started to learn it when I was on the phones, speaking to customers, analysing problems and trying to find solutions. By working through various problems, and of course getting help from my manager, I was able to develop a deeper understanding, until I was able to solve my own problems.

Developing a learning environment

For the TELE module, we were of course expected to develop our own learning environment. I wanted to apply constructivist (particuarly social constructivist) learning theories to a new environment, which is how I developed the idea for Pathfinder. And I’ll explain all about that in my next post.

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