If you’re doing any type of training or education, it’s important to consider how you approach education. Maybe you weren’t formally trained as an educator, but in your current role you’re taking on new responsibilities, and teaching is one of them.
There are three main theories about how the learning process takes place. Take the time to familiarize yourself with all of them. Think about teachers you’ve had in the past that you admired or who were particularly effective — can you pick out which theory they subscribed to?
Once you know what theory of learning makes the most sense to you and what teaching approach you want to use, it will become much easier to make decisions. You’ll be able to set expectations for attendees, monitor their progress, and evaluate your educational efforts, all based on the metrics of your chosen framework. Let’s dive in!
A behaviorist educator is a teacher who believes strongly in cause and effect. Praise and reward are the primary teaching tools for those who embrace this theory. This is because behaviorism holds that all learning can be reduced to stimuli and associated responses. Positive and negative reinforcement are therefore necessary to create preferred responses and discourage undesirable responses. For an educator who identifies with behaviorism, learning does not happen until a behavior change can be observed from outside.
This teaching approach is very efficient at transferring knowledge and facts from a central source (the teacher) to a group of recipients (the students.) A limitation of this educational theory is that learners do not develop critical thinking skills, but instead are encouraged toward rote memorization. It is no doubt an effective teaching strategy in many ways, but it should rarely be used in isolation.
A cognitivist educator is a teacher who believes that learning takes place inside the learner’s cranium, and cannot be observed from outside. The change in behavior that behaviorists would label ‘learning’ is seen by the cognitivist as a mere echo or ripple of the learning that happened before the behavior change. This theory of educational and learning process includes connecting the content of the lesson to real/larger world concerns. Analogies, mnemonics, and other memory encoding techniques all fall under the umbrella of ‘cognitive information processing theory’.
The key difference between behaviorism and cognitivism is that while behaviorists see a change only in behavior, cognitivists believe there has been a change in knowledge that then causes a change in behavior. In this teaching approach, learners are constantly relating what they are learning now to things they have learned in the past.
A constructivist educator is a teacher who believes that each learner has a distinct ‘construct’ for learning, and that generalizations between learners are of limited possible use. The purpose of a constructivist educator is to prepare their students to solve problems. Of course, one cannot solve problems without a foundation of knowledge to build upon, so educators operating under this methodology are likely to be teaching students who are already well-versed in the subject matter. The main idea behind constructivist learning theory is that learners are apt to build (construct) mental models.
These mental models are preserved until the individual encounters a new experience. At that point, the learner is expected to reconstruct the mental model to accommodate and integrate the new experience. In this way, learners are in a constant cycle of reconstructing their knowledge as they evaluate how new experiences fit into their existing framework. A constructivist educator would make use of case studies, collaborative and group projects, and brainstorming activities. Problem-based learning is another educational technique that is popular with constructivist educators.
Of course, you don’t have to choose one approach and forsake all others. An important part of effective education is being flexible! Each of these theories offers insight into the learning process, and each is an effective way to create learning opportunities. An effective educator will be able to select the appropriate educational theory for the task at hand.
For instance, a highly technical process that needs to be repeated with exacting consistency might be best taught with a behaviorist approach, while leading a mission-statement drafting session might require a constructivist’s mindset. Whatever method and teaching approach you choose, knowing more about the various learning process theories is bound to be helpful as you approach your new responsibilities. Happy training!