For some reason I’ve always loved philosophy and the practice of reasoning. I took Philosophy 100 as an elective in my first year of university. The idea of thinking about the way we think is somehow very appealing to me. From Plato to Descartes, being able to talk about metacognition is a fascinating insight into the power of the human brain. Although the questions may seem somewhat existential, there is a very real link between philosophy and education. Questions like “how do we learn?” and “when do we know something?” must be considered foundational pedagogical questions for any practitioner. The answers to these questions are, in reality, the driving force behind how and why we teach the way we do. It is why some teachers tend to lean toward lecture vs. hands-on teaching or inductive vs deductive reasoning assignments. Even the way we assess students or have them interact with information is affected by the way we view learning/knowledge. Of the major views on knowledge and learning I would say that I tend toward the Constructivist paradigm, although I have been more and more intrigued by the ideas of Connectivism and and Rizhomatic Learning. I believe strongly that learning is a social construct and that we form ideas through interactions with others. Building communities of learning with others helps challenge our preconceived ideas and build strong cognitive processes. In an increasingly digital world, social/digital interactions are becoming a key piece of every young person’s life. We need only to look at some of the connections that exist already between Canadian classrooms and students all over the world to know that this way of interacting and learning will be crucial in the 21st century.
Although there are so many variables involved in looking at the way kids learn, I believe there are certain things we can observe about how students process information. I don’t think we can discount what Maslow has posited that there needs to be a certain set of conditions present. During my time working in a community school, this became very evident. If students lack basics like food, proper clothing or the feeling of significance, they are not in a mental space to concentrate/learn. Once these basics are met, the question becomes, how does this student learn? In other words, do all students learn in the same way? According to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory, we can not apply a one-size-fits-all teaching method to our students. There are some students who may display better retention of material through audio/visual methods, others may profit from hands-on tactile learning methods. Even though differences in learning styles may be very evident, teachers need to be able to think about not only how information is taken up, but also how students analyze and process information. For example, are experiences remembered in the same way as pictures or video? Are students really constructing knowledge sets built of experiences? Does the mind really work like a processor of information? Can the mind be explored to understand true thought? Or, are we simply reacting to what goes on in the world around us? Perhaps it’s beneficial to take a cross-cultural view of knowledge and how we learn.
For example, in Africa, age is an important determining factor and prerequisite for certain social tasks. Everything is taught through doing. Boys accompany their fathers or grandfathers to learn to hunt, collect honey, herd cattle, plant/harvest, or pick mangoes. Girls follow their mothers or grandmothers as they thresh grain, cook, gather firewood, make fires, milk goats or make peanut butter. The cycle goes as follows; observation of the skill performed by the older practitioner, skill practiced with help or close supervision, and then skill practiced independently until mastered. These skills are needed for the well being of the family unit and so are given a high priority. These are in many ways similar to the ways of knowing that are traditional among First Nations in Canada as well.
In this short video by Dr. Martin Brokenleg, the Circle of Courage is explained as a philosophy of learning that is central to the ethos of First Nations life and culture. The circle can be used to enhance learning in a different way. The student consists of a mind, body, heart and spirit. In order to have a complete and healthy person, he/she must have a complete circle made up of Belonging, Mastery, Independence, and Generosity. I believe looking at learning from a more wholistic perspective definitely has some benefits. We cannot simplify learning into a purely cognitive brain function. To do so would be to say that emotion, interest or engagement plays no role in learning. This is simply not true and we can often see that when students are engaged or are given some autonomy in the learning process, they flourish. Building a sense of belonging, independence, mastery or generosity during the learning process will not only help students become lifelong learners, it will also help them become confident and capable members of our global community. Isn’t that why we are educators?
After looking into the various learning theories, I have to say that I lean more significantly toward Social Constructivism. I believe that human beings are social creatures and that we learn through constructing meaning from interactions and experiences. I love the mentorship model that many native cultures around the world espouse. I find it sad that we here in North America have forgotten what it means for a ‘village to raise a child’. It takes a community of invested and trusting adults to raise up a child who has a complete circle of courage. In the digital age, Connectivism is simply a continuation of this same theory. Growing and learning together whether face to face or online. It was Orange Shirt day yesterday and I was discussing with my Grade 9 class what reconciliation meant to them in the wake of residential schools. I asked students to write down words that came to mind when they thought of reconciliation. This is the list according to frequency that we came up with. I think this is a good example of the ways in which knowledge and learning are enhanced by connection, support and community. It is the only way to move forward in the face of difficulty.