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The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice

How People Learn: Introduction to Learning Theory

This program introduces the main themes of the course. Teacher interviews and classroom footage illustrate why learning theory is at the core of good classroom instruction and demonstrate the broad spectrum of theoretical knowledge available for use in classroom practice.

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Kendra Hearn: I refer to them as writers and then when they’re talking with me, it’s just as a coach of a writer and we talk quite frankly again about what problems they’re having in their writing, and what sort of strategies we might use to overcome those.

Don Johnson: I teach them that science is not a body of unconnected facts and figures to memorize, more it’s the study of anything.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Learning is a constant throughout our lives – from the moment we’re born, we never stop processing information and developing new ideas.

How do we do it? What happens inside our minds that makes one fact stick and another one fade? That causes those “eureka” moments of discovery? Or that allows us to invent something entirely new?

Start with yourself.

How do you do it? You’ve been a learner a long time, and now you’re a teacher.

What have other teachers done to help you learn?

Welcome to The Learning Classroom.  I’m Linda Darling-Hammond, and we will be spending the next 13 sessions exploring these ideas together.

Knowing how people learn is at the heart of teaching.  If you know what enables your students to understand and apply new ideas, you can organize your classroom to support much greater success for all of them.

Our thirteen sessions are grouped into four major areas that influence learning:  first, the learner, him or herself, second,  the environment for learning, third, the teaching and learning process, and fourth, the interactions among these that produce motivation to learn and that build strong learning communities.

The first sessions look at students as learners: how they develop, process information, and use their multiple intelligences.

We have several teachers from southeastern Michigan in the studio with us today.

Fe MacLean is a first grade teacher at Paddock Elementary School in Milan. Kathleen Hayes-Parvin teaches sixth grade at Birney Middle School in Southfield. Kendra Hearn was teaching  at West Bloomfield High School when we taped her.  She is now a professional development consultant with the Macomb Intermediate School District. And Donald Johnson teaches eighth grade at Columbus Middle School here in Detroit.

Welcome to all of you.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Fe, your lessons are like carefully polished stones.  It looks like you’re thinking of everything: the development of the students, the kind of content you’re trying to teach.  Tell me a little about what you were thinking when you were planning this lesson that we’re about to see on mass and momentum.

Fe MacLean:  First of all, I had to keep in mind, for first and foremost, the goal, the conceptual goal I have for the students.  And then I consider their experiences.

I consider their capacity to attend, what kind of equipment I will need to have for them to handle so that they’re really, they will believe that this, it’s their work, they’re doing these activities for themselves, by themselves, and decided by themselves somehow.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  It’s really masterful to watch.  Let’s take a look.

(classroom scene)
Boy: We went in my sled together down the hill.
Fe: Oh, you used one sled?
Boy: Yeah!
Fe: Oh, okay.
Fe: Is there anyone else sledding with an adult  in a separate sled?… So who got there first to the bottom?
Both of us.
Fe: Really? Oh, okay, well, this is interesting, class. ‘Cause I have a book here. What does it say Colby?
Colby: Sledding on a Hill. Rolling down a Ramp.
Fe: Rolling down a Ramp. So our story starts with a child and a grown up.  And they’re gonna go down the hill. How do you think they’re going to get down the hill?
 I think the littler kid will go down first because it probably has more, much more energy.
Fe: Ok, any other thought?
Boy: I think the grown up will get down first because more weight makes the sled go faster.
Fe: So we have all these different ideas, look what happens in the story. They go down and go Swoosh!
Students: Whoa.
Fe: They get to the bottom of the hill together. That’s what the story says.
Fe: We’ll call this the ramp, okay? Now, how are we going to know or how are we going to remember how long it takes for a ball to go down?  Remember? We can’t just keep it in our heads cause everybody forgets especially after recess.  We want to make sure we remember.
 Write it down?
Fe: Write it down.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Fe, I loved the way that you used the sledding story to tap into the kids’ prior knowledge and their experiences.  I guess it’s something they do a lot here in Michigan, so they had a lot of ideas about that.  And then you used that big book as sort of a visualization to help them think about and hypothesize about what might be happening with this concept.  What are some of the other things that you do when you’re trying to make these complex ideas accessible to young children?

Fe MacLean:  I try to visualize myself as a kid and with the, for example, with the ramp, it took me a long time to decide how long they would have to be because if you time it, there is a, their capacity to time it and also their knowledge of numbers.  It has to be long enough so they will count one, two, three seconds later. Not, rather than a fraction of a second and that sort of thing.  So, I really consider a lot of whatever is their developmental level and plan accordingly, and what also is coming, where are they going, and try to devise a way for them to get there.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Let’s take a look at how the lesson plays out.

(classroom scene)
Boy: Ready?
Fe: Wait, wait.  Look at this.  Make sure they are all in the same line.

Fe Maclean: From my experience children are not going to be able look at the data using numbers of measurement to really understand the concept in this context of the level of the ramp relative to the momentum, and that is how far the can will move…

(classroom scene)
 Come to Papa, ball! Come to papa!

Fe Maclean: The tracing is more pictorial and is more appropriate to their age.

(classroom scene)
Fe: Now, can you look at it and think about the speed of the balls as they went down the ramp? And look at our picture. Actually people would call that a graph, a line graph.  I’d like to have you make a picture of it, though.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  So, Fe, at the end of this process, we see them going off to engage in a wide variety of activities.  You have them writing and drawing and making presentations of various kinds.  How does that allow them to find their developmental level of performance and use their different intelligences?

Fe MacLean:  During our discussions some of the children were more articulate than others.  But when they went to drawing, they could show a lot of what they were thinking with their drawing.  They could show me if they understood or not the concept of what causes momentum, what causes speed, why they’re drawing.  Some of them write.  They describe what they saw.  Those are the more they’re more linguistically able, or they can write, but they don’t talk very, very much, but they can write very well.  Some of them just, are just plain drawing.  Some act them out.  You know, they’re going down or sliding down themselves, pretending they’re sliding down with their drawing.

Whatever will let me show, will let them show that they understood the concept that we are trying  to learn.

Linda Darling-Hammond: The next set of episodes looks at how teachers construct a productive environment for learning.  There are several important aspects of the learning environment: first, feelings count when it comes to learning – they affect how we process information and how much we understand.

Second, culture is the reflection of our families, our geography, religion, language, ethnic or racial heritage.

Culture is the root of our experience and it influences everything we do, including how we learn.

And third, learning is essentially social – it occurs much more productively when students have the opportunity to learn from one another as well as the teacher.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin has been teaching at Birney Middle School for 12 years.  And Kathleen, in this tape that we’re going to see of your teaching, you’re engaged in drawing out children’s family histories in this memoir project.  Tell us a little about this project and why you do it.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin:  Okay.  It’s part of our curriculum to study the genre of memoir.  But I also feel it’s very important to develop a partnership with parents, students, and teachers, so we co-write together our family histories.  We do some research and turn those pieces into memoir.  And that’s what we’re about to see.

Linda Darling-Hammond:   Let’s take a look.

(classroom scene)
Actually, the kids oftentimes translate if they’re bilingual.  We have a very wonderful ESL department here in the building.  In fact my para-pro, Mr. Hendi, we work together.  He speaks six different languages.
 Why couldn’t they just vote on him to be off the ballots?
Hendi:  There is no democracy, that’s what the dictatorship is.  There is no democracy.  People they don’t vote their mind.
Thomas: When I got the computer my mom was like, how do you use this thing. And my dad came over and he was like, you wanna learn how to use the computer, and he was like, yeah, and then he just started typing. And then I was like, you wanna play solitaire?  He was like I don’t know how to play that.  Then we started playing this Arabic game and I learned how to play.
Thomas:  Kenny, this is a game called Dama and it’s an Arabic game and this is how you play, see?
Kenny:  How, how do all these pieces move?  Like which direction?
Thomas:  Like they could move like this and they could move like this.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  So, Kathleen, as the families bring their stories into the classroom, there’s some pretty powerful material that comes out of this.  How do you create an emotionally safe place within which that kind of conversation can take place?

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin:  From the first days we’re learning to be real writers together and w…I just establish very firmly that we have to have a safe environment in order to share our writing.  When the parents come in and read their writing and model literacy for us, there’s a deep respect within the classroom for each other by this time and for parents who come in.  We work hard at that throughout the year together.  But we do, we get to the point where we can share some personal stories and really develop a tolerance for each other’s cultures and an awareness of each other’s lives.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Well it’s, it’s extremely exciting to see how it plays out.  Let’s take a look at what else happens.

(classroom scene)
Carlson’s Mom:  This is a picture of Nillie, she was from Turkey and was brought over to this country at the age of seven.  She married and his name is Luke. He was, he was just recently freed from slavery and he married her……
Carlson: My mom once told me that, uh, that, uh, my, I think it was great-great-uncle or cousin, he’s, he was the first black person to go to school with white kids, or something.
Carlson’s Mom:  She was a part of the Little Rock Nine…and the Little Rock Nine was…She helped those students, there was a few of them but the Little Rock Nine was nine black students entering or integrating an all-white school. And during that time that was not heard of, so this really was history.
Carlson: I like the idea that I’m in school with everybody and all different kinda races and everything and I feel good that, um, my, one of my relatives was one of the first people to go to school with white people. And, and it’s just nice to just be all together.
Carlson’s Mom: 
We are carpenters, doctors, lawyers, painters, ah educators, plumbers, scientists, journalists, ministers and adventurers.  Wherever we go we will always remember and honor our ancestry.

Linda Darling-Hammond: So, Kathleen, in that segment it was so clear that you had brought the families in and created a bond between them and really got an understanding of these cultures in your classroom.  What do you find that you’re able to do in the classroom as a result of having done all of that?

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin: Well, one of things…First of all we only saw a few parents.  They continue to trickle in over our days together and read and, and explain their lives to our kids.  It helps me to understand the home environment.  It helps me to know each child better and we bond.  And it helps me to know how to approach them in terms of their own personal literacy.

And I think that helps the kids to know who they are.  It gives me an idea of who they are, very deeply.  And you can’t get this kind of rich teaching from an anthology.

Linda Darling-HammondThat’s for sure.  I wonder how you sort of manage the social context in the classroom, the social interactions among the kids so that they kind of learn how to learn from each other, ’cause that doesn’t necessarily come naturally.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin: We spend a lot of time teaching kids how to conference together, how to be in response groups together, so that they become articulate about their work.  And these things really begin to translate and take a hold of, um, and they internalize them so that they learn to be real writers together.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Thank you!

As teachers are thinking about their learners and cultivating a productive learning environment, they are also, of course, worrying about how to help them master the content and develop the skills they’ll need in life.

In the series, we discuss four big ideas regarding the process of teaching and learning: the first is the idea of cognitive apprenticeship, which describes how teachers can support the process of learning to think just as masters guided their apprentices in learning their trades.

The second is metacognition – that is, teaching students to reflect on their own thinking and guide their own learning. This is made easier when we understand the structure of the disciplines – what the major concepts and kinds of inquiry are that guide experts in each field: what it means to think like a mathematician, a scientist, a writer, or a historian.

And finally, transfer – applying the knowledge and skills that are learned in one setting to other situations.

When we videotaped Kendra Hearn she was teaching a high school writing class.

Her class created an apprenticeship for teaching them how to write, and used a wide range of metacognitive strategies for helping them to understand how writers think and how to improve their own work.

Kendra, in your classroom, which was wonderful to watch, you use a lot of these strategies to get the students to reflect on their learning and then to revise their work.  How did you decide to do that and why?

Kendra Hearn: It was particularly important for me as a high school teacher – and many of my students after their experience with me in a classroom would then be going off into the real world or college – that they be able to think on their own and independently.

And it was sort of by chance that I discovered the whole notion of metacognition in some advanced studies.  And it seemed to me the key that if I kept teaching them strategies, but not empowering them and showing them how to know when on their own to engage those strategies for the tasks that were lying in front of them or for their own learning abilities and styles, then I was really failing them and shortchanging them as a teacher.  So I really built it into my repertoire to make sure that they knew a lot about their own thinking processes.

Linda Darling-Hammond: And we are gonna watch them as they’re thinking about their thinking and revising their writing.  Let’s take a look.

(classroom scene)
Kendra: Any of you feel like I need to make adjustments from your original thoughts? Or there was something that you left out? David?
David: Well, when you have your mind map, you have, like every idea that you wanna talk about, and when you write out, you know, your rough draft, and you read it to your group, but a lot of times they have ideas for you, so you can help improve on the things that you felt were the most important and maybe didn’t come across as well as you hoped for in your rough draft.
Kendra: Good. That’s a good point. I think that is THE point. Again, it’s whether or not you convey what you intended. And your mind map is a record of what you intended.

Kendra Hearn: We focus, particularly in the, in terms of composition and, and writing, on the notion of what works for me as a writer.  So I realize and I honor the fact that an outline may work for some and we’ve learned outlining strategies, and a mind map may work for others.  And they’ve had plenty of opportunities to do that.  And again, along the lines of metacognition, is for them to begin to make some conscious choices about which of these sorts of strategies will actually work for the task that they’re being asked to do, given what they know about themselves as a thinker, a learner, and a writer.

(classroom scene)
Kendra: Let’s look at this one. ‘Cause you’ve come a long way in your thinking. What’s different now in your thinking about this essay, than the mind map that you started with?
Girl: It’s not a box anymore.
Kendra: It’s not a box, you had boxes for this essay that we’re working on? No, you didn’t.
Girl: Oh, how it’s different. I made it more specific and more to the, um, rubric.
Kendra:  Okay.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Kendra, it’s clear in your classroom that you’ve got the kids really thinking like writers and acting like real writers.  And they’re taking a lot of responsibility for that process.  At the same time I know that you’ve done a lot of scaffolding to get them where they are with their understanding of the writing process.  How do you decide, sort of, what you need to do to get them supported in this process and when to step out and let them try things on their own?

Kendra Hearn: I refer to them as writers, and then when they’re talking with me, it’s just as a coach of a writer, and we talk quite frankly again about what problems they’re having in their writing and what sort of strategies we might use to overcome those.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Thank you.

One of the most important cross-cutting influences on learning is motivation – something that happens when the learner’s interests are mobilized by the environment and the teachers’ strategies.

Our last two segments focus on motivating students and creating a school culture that supports learning in everything the school does.

Donald Johnson was teaching an elective class designed to give students an introduction to the profession of engineering when we videotaped his work with students.

Don, it’s an exciting excerpt that we’re about to see from your classroom.  And in this we’re about to see you engaged in a toothpick…toothpick bridge project with your kids.  Why did you choose that?  What’s the premise behind this project?

Don Johnson:  Well the program that the children are in is to expose them to engineering, and I’m a teacher, I’m not an engineer.  So, I wanted them to be engaged in something that engineers have to do, so that in the process they will learn a lot of the skills and a lot of the thought processes that engineers must undertake.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  So you’ve got them engaged in this authentic project, and in the middle of this exercise you’ve just hit them with a whole bunch of surprises.  There’s a war, and inflation is going up, the toothpick prices are skyrocketing and they have to solve all of these problems.  So let’s see what happens.  Let’s take a look.

(classroom scene)
Don: Ok, hold on.  Hold on.  Hold on.  I thought we were talking about money.  Now I see Essence coming over here with these toothpicks. What is this all about?
Girl: We agreed to it.  She give us the money, she gave us little bit of extra money, we give her the toothpicks.
Don: Ok, now I thought I was the person who gave out the toothpicks. What’s the difference between getting toothpicks from you and getting toothpicks from me?
 They haven’t got them.
Girl 2:
 You cost too much.
Girl: Trying to help them out, but we still get the money.  You see, everybody happy.
Don: Is that right? Should you be able to do that?
Girl: The only person that’s getting cheated is you. 

Don Johnson: Basically in order to help them see the connection between concepts, I try to teach them a methodical way of looking at everything. For example the classic scientific method.  I teach them that science is not a body of unconnected facts and figures to memorize, more it’s the study of anything.

(classroom scene)
Does it have to be 28 cm for each side?
 Now, can I ask you a question? Is the string going to be straight or does it swoop?

Don Johnson: They can show me that they’ve learned everything that I’ve taught by creating something.

For example, in this particular project, everything that I want them to learn I’ll know if they learned it, because I’ll see a successful bridge that meets the specifications.

It’s not even important whether the bridge wins the contest or if it holds more than one gram. Just that, visually I see proof that everybody understood. Now, because there is a group of five of them, obviously I won’t see a bridge unless there’s been some cooperation. So again it’s not something that is pencil and paper, and I’m going to mark off when they get 10% or 20%, but it’s more of an application in the real world, because in the real world, the proof is that you did it.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  So, Don, when we watch this we see the kids in this very complicated and sometimes pretty frustrating work, and you’re adding to their frustrations as they go along.  How do they stay motivated and involved even when it gets tough?

Don Johnson:  What really helps is that they’re learning these skills not by writing something down, but they’re building something.  So it’s very concrete.

Kendra Hearn:  It’s the nature of our brains to want to learn.  And with students it’s just a matter of tapping in to where their interests are, and then connecting that to the classroom.  And as was evident in Don’s lesson, is to have something really authentic for them to rally their learning around and they often don’t even realize that they’re learning some really heavy concepts in the mix of it all, but as a teacher and an expert you’re standing back, quite delighted by the learning that’s actually going on in that authentic situation.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Yeah, so it’s that skillful development of that task is one part of it.

Kendra Hearn:  That’s right.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  When you think about all of the aspects of teaching, understanding your learners and building this productive environment and then creating the tasks and the kind of scaffolding that helps kids get where we want them to go, I’m sure that you, like many of us, think about the ideal situation in which to create that kind of learning for students, where it all comes together.  And I wonder what you think about the aspects of a school or classroom setting where all of the pieces of the learning puzzle can come together.  What’s important there?  Kathleen?

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin:  One of the things that’s helped me, long after my master’s degree I took the writing project and I’ve noticed a correlation between my learning versus what I’m able to impart to kids, and the more I learn, the better they do.  So I think as lifelong learners, you know, we continue our journey and we can inspire them and keep motivated and fresh.

Linda Darling-Hammond:  Well, I am so appreciative of all of you, both for being here today and for all of your contributions to this series.  We’re gonna look forward to seeing you in the sessions to come, and thanks very much for being with us.

Teachers:  Thank you.  Your welcome.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Teaching is a process of organizing people, organizing the environment, and organizing knowledge so that they enable learning for the wide range of students who are in all of our classrooms.

If it seems to you that some of these ideas seem to overlap with other topics we’ve considered, you are absolutely right. These learning theories don’t stand in isolation.  They look at different aspects of the learning puzzle, serving as a prism that allows you to look through different lenses and see another dimension each time.

Good teaching isn’t created by having a single theory or technique that would work in every situation.  Human beings are much too complicated for that, and teachers are trying to do many things at once.  Well-tested theories provide a map of the territory through which teachers must chart their own course.

As you watch later shows you will want to reflect upon your own teaching.

Ask yourself, “How am I taking into account who my students are as learners? How am I constructing a safe and productive classroom? And how am I supporting my students in learning at a high level that will transfer to other situations?” Of course, throughout our entire teaching lives, we all ask ourselves every day, “How can I do this most important job even better?” One of the most exciting things about teaching is that children provide us with continuing mysteries, and there’s always room to grow and learn.

We are excited about exploring this territory with you, and we hope you are too. I’m Linda Darling Hammond and I’ll see you next time on The Learning Classroom.

“Teaching is not simply random, and ad-hock and haphazard; there are some ways to actually shape your work that are likely to be more effective, because they respond to what learners are actually doing, thinking, and experiencing.”

Linda Darling-Hammond

Key Questions

  • How do people learn?
  • How can learning inform teaching practice?

Learning Objectives

  1. History of learning theory – Teachers will become familiar with the central debates and major concepts in the history of learning theory.
  2. Learning processes and teaching for learning – Teachers will begin to uncover and articulate their assumptions, understandings, and questions about how students learn and the nature of teaching. Teachers will become familiar with the main themes of the video course.
  3. Theory and practice – Teachers will begin to consider learning theory and its role in their teaching practice.

Video Program

The first episode of The Learning Classroom introduces viewers to the main themes of the course. Interviews with teachers Fe MacLean, Kathleen Hayes-Parvin, Kendra Hearn, and Don Johnson and scenes from classrooms that will be visited in more depth later in the series describe why learning theory is at the core of good classroom instruction. Viewers will get a sense of the broad spectrum of theoretical knowledge they can use in their practice. Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond hosts the series and provides expert commentary.

Session Content Outline

Key Questions
How do people learn?
How can learning theory inform teaching practice?

Learning Objectives

  • History of learning theory – Teachers will become familiar with the central debates and major concepts in the history of learning theory.
  • Learning processes and teaching for learning – Teachers will begin to uncover and articulate their assumptions, understandings, and questions about how students learn and the nature of teaching. Teachers will become familiar with the main themes of the video course.
  • Theory and practice – Teachers will begin to consider learning theory and its role in their teaching practice.

Session Outline

How do we learn? What helps us learn? How can teachers assist learning? In The Learning Classroom: Theory into Practice we explore how people learn through examples of teaching and learning in practice.

History of Learning Theory

How Philosophers Have Thought of Learning
People have been trying to understand learning for over 2,000 years. A debate on how people learn began at least as far back as the Greek philosophers, Socrates (469-399 B.C.), Plato (427-347 B.C.), and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). The debates that have occurred through the ages reoccur today in a variety of viewpoints about the purposes of education and about how to encourage learning.

  • Plato and Aristotle asked, “Is truth and knowledge to be found within us (rationalism) or is it to be found by using our senses to discover what is outside of ourselves (empiricism)?”

Rationalism: Plato developed the belief that knowledge and truth can be discovered by self-reflection. Socrates believed that certain knowledge was only attainable through reason.

Empiricism: Aristotle suggested that we use our senses to look for truth and knowledge in the world outside ourselves.

  • Romans differed from the Greeks in their concept of education. They felt that the purpose of education was to develop a citizenry that could contribute to society in a practical way.
  • When the Roman Catholic Church became a strong force in European daily life (500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.), knowledge was transmitted from the priest to the people. The primary conception of the purpose of education was to transmit information.
    The Renaissance (15th to the 17th centuries) revived the Greek concept of liberal education, which stressed education as an exploration of the arts and humanities.
  • Ren? Descartes (1596 – 1704) also built upon Aristotle’s empiricism with the concept that the child’s mind is a blank tablet (tabula rasa) that gets shaped and formed by his/her own experiences.
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was one of the first philosophers to suggest that education should be shaped to the child.
  • Kant (1724 – 1804) refined and modernized Plato’s rationalist theory when he suggested that awareness of knowledge may begin with experience, but much knowledge exists prior to experience (“a priori” knowledge). Kant was one of the first to recognize the cognitive processes of the mind.

How Psychologists Have Thought of Learning
The nineteenth century brought about the scientific study of learning. The 20th century debate on how people learn has focused largely on behaviorist vs. cognitive psychology.

  • Edward Thorndike (1874–1949) believed that learning was incremental and that people learned through a trial-and-error approach.
  • B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) further developed Thorndike’s behaviorist learning theory focused on stimulus and response. He considered learning to be the production of desired behaviors and denied any influence of mental processes.
  • Jean Piaget ( 1896 – 1980) was the first to state that learning is a developmental cognitive process, that students create knowledge rather than receive knowledge from the teacher.
  • Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) extended Piaget’s developmental theory of cognitive abilities of the individual to include the notion of social-cultural cognition – that is, the idea that all learning occurs in a cultural context and involves social interactions.

Learning Theory in Practice
In the 20th century, as schooling became compulsory, more widespread and more systematic, large-scale reforms of practice were built upon these learning theories. The debate sparked by the Progressives, which continues today, is what is the proper balance of the traditional school’s focus on teacher transmission and the progressive school’s focus on the student learning from experience with guided opportunities to explore, discover, construct, and create.

  • John Dewey (1859 – 1952) believed that the teacher’s goal is to understand both the demands of the discipline and the needs of the child and to provide learning experiences to enable the student to uncover the curriculum.
  • Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) introduced a more liberated concept of early childhood education that provided more opportunity for free expression, moving children away from their desks, providing them with hands-on activities, and respecting children as individuals.
  • Jerome Bruner (born 1915) has further explored the notion that disciplines have certain structural elements – core ideas and approaches to knowledge and understanding – that should guide curriculum development in a manner that connects to the development of the child.

Today teachers utilize a variety of classroom practices that are based on all of these ideas of learning. Effective teachers understand that different strategies are useful for different kinds of learning. It is most production to think of these issues in terms of what kind of learning is sought in what contexts and then deliberate about what strategies may be most appropriate for those goals.

The Learning Process
Learning theorists have provided us with a set of ideas about how people learn that have practical implications for teaching. Research has found that:

  • The brain plays a role in learning,
  • The way the learning environment is constructed makes a difference,
  • Learning is based on the associations and connections we make,
  • Learning occurs in particular social and cultural environments, and, finally,
  • The different ways people think and feel about their own learning affects their development as learners.

What Teachers Can Do To Assist Learning
Teachers can be more effective in their work if they teach in ways that are compatible with the process of learning.

How can what we know about the learning process help us to think about effective teaching practices? The following points about teaching and learning are emphasized throughout the course. Effective teaching involves:

  • Organizing the environment,
  • Organizing knowledge, information, and activities, and
  • Organizing people.

The Relation of Theory to Practice
This course addresses the relationship among three fundamental aspects of the educational process: the subject matter of the curriculum, the diverse capabilities of students, and the teacher’s responsibilities to design and implement instruction. While general principles about learning can be drawn from many disciplines–such as psychology, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy–at a practical level, no two teaching situations are quite comparable. Learning to teach thus demands that we understand both the general and the particular, seek theoretical insights that give meaning to what we do, and raise skeptical questions about what we think we know.

Definition of a Theory
A theory is both an explanation and a model of how things work. Learning theories attempt to answer key questions:

  • How does learning happen?
  • What influences students’ development?
  • What motivates students to learn?

A theory is not just an idea. It is an idea that explains a set of relationships that can be tested. If the idea is supported through rigorous research, that theory is said to have empirical grounding.

  • A theory is developed from research as well as practical experience and systematic observation.
  • A theory is modified overtime on the basis of practioners’ insights as well as the work of researchers.
  • Theories are interconnected.

Applying Theory to Practice
To apply learning theories to instructional practices, we need to understand theories as principles that have been tested and that have some power to explain how things work across different situations and contexts. There is, however, no one-to-one correspondence between theory and practice. Integrating theory and practice is a process of connecting what teachers know about their own students with what they know about learning, motivation, development, cultures, and social contexts, as well as teaching. Excellent teachers use their storehouse of intersecting theories, research, and personal as well as professional knowledge to solve problems of practice that emerge in the classroom.

The Teacher as a Theorist
The teacher has the job of bringing together what the profession, researchers, and other professionals have come to know about what matters and what works under different situations. The teacher must apply theories judiciously using careful decision making informed by her own inquiry and her own understanding of the situation at hand. The theories illustrated in this course represent a sampling of what we know about learning theory today, which is constantly evolving. Teachers play an important role in building on and expanding what we know about how people learn.

Key Terms - New in this Section

  1. Advance Organizers – ideas or strategies used at the beginning of a lesson or activity to prepare students for new material.
  2. Behaviorist – a description  of theories that   suggest learning is based on practicing specific skills and receiving positive reinforcement.
  3. Constructivist – a description of theories that suggest that learning is based on making meaningful connections with the world, as well as interacting with other people.
  4. Theory – an idea that is a coherent explanation of a set of relationships. If the idea survives rigorous testing and research, that theory is said to have empirical grounding.
    • A theory is developed from practical experience as well as research.
    • A theory is modified over time based on the insights of practioners as well as the work of researchers.
    • Theories are interconnected.

Questions for Reflection Step-By-Step Instructions

Step 1. The video segments in The Learning Classroom were taped as teachers worked in their own classrooms. As you watch, jot down the questions you have about what you see the teacher do and how the students respond.

Step 2. When you’re done, click on the episode title from the list and compare your questions with the Questions for Reflection and responses that our project team has anticipated.

Step 3. Review the responses we have prepared to questions that match the ones you have asked. The expert responses are not “final answers,” they are provided to give you a starting point for your own reflection. What else might you add to the response you read?

Questions for Reflection

Question 1: Everyone in my school is talking about “brain-based” education. Where is that explored in this course?

Response 1: All learning is based on the brain and the central nervous system, so in that respect the topic is explored throughout the course. The phrase “brain-based” has received popular attention because of recent developments in brain biological research. This research holds great promise, but the hypothetical connections between the most recent discoveries in biology and classroom practices are just being tested now. Although we know that educational practices change the structure and chemistry of the brain the educational research has not progressed to a point where there is a consistent body of theory connecting it all. The topic is covered in session three, “Building on What We Know – Cognitive Processing” and mentioned elsewhere.

Question 2: With so many different theories to consider, how do I choose which one I should try to implement in my lesson plans?

Response 2: Good teaching isn’t created by having a single theory or technique that would work in every situation. Human beings are much too complicated for that, and teachers are trying to do many things at once. Well-tested theories provide a map of the territory through which teachers must chart their own course. If it seems to you that some of these ideas seem to overlap with other topics we’ve considered, you are absolutely right. These learning theories don’t stand in isolation. They look at different aspects of the learning puzzle, serving as a prism that allows you to sort of look through different lenses and see another dimension each time. The best practices in the classroom are usually supported by more than one theory. The assignments in the Learning Challenges section of this Web site are designed to help you analyze how different theories interact.

Question 3: Dr. Darling-Hammond noted Fe MacLean’s ability to use students’ prior-knowledge of sledding to gain their interest and build a conceptual framework for the ramp activity? What if students do not seem to have any prior knowledge regarding a planned activity?

Response 3: All students have some prior knowledge. While it may not be directly linked to the planned activity, it is likely that everyone has at least some broader relative experience that can be linked to a concept that the teacher has planned to teach. It is important to allow students an opportunity to discuss any interests, experience, or knowledge they may have about a concept before they are immersed in the activity. This will give the teacher an idea as to the level at which students will enter the learning experience knowing that will help her plan for scaffolding and for making more connections as students continue to engage in the learning task.

Question 4. Fe mentioned that she tries to visualize herself as a kid and consider their developmental level when planning learning activities. How does a teacher know where to place children on a developmental continuum, especially when they are all so different?

Response 4: Education has largely relied on Jean Piaget’s theories of developmental psychology, which describes stages of mental attributes of children through their years of growth. Teachers can identify those stages by watching their students carefully, especially since students reach developmental benchmarks at different rates. Through careful observation it becomes clear what students can do easily on their own, the types of tasks they need assistance with, and those that are long stretches. This information should then be used to devise lessons in which students can experience success, but also feel comfortably challenged.

Question 5: Dr. Darling-Hammond mentioned that after the ramp, ball, and can experiment in Fe’s class that the students then did writing, drawing, and oral presentations based on their multiple intelligences? What exactly are multiple intelligences and how does a teacher incorporate them into instruction?

Response 5: Multiple intelligences is Howard Gardner’s theory of learning which posits the idea that there is not a single way to learn, but that students have a variety of intelligences or modes of learning. According to Gardner, individuals possess varying degrees of the following eight forms of intelligence:

  • linguistic intelligence
  • musical intelligence
  • logical-mathematical intelligence
  • spatial intelligence
  • bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
  • interpersonal intelligence
  • intrapersonal intelligence
  • naturalistic intelligence

The fourth session of this course explores these concepts in depth. In brief, multiple intelligence theory suggests that more students will understand concepts and retain information if they are presented in a variety of ways, and if students have choices in the way they exhibit their understanding. The teacher needs to have clearly defined learning goals, but also acknowledge and allow for the fact that students may reach these goals in various ways. This may be accomplished by allowing students choices that appeal to the various intelligences throughout the learning activity and/or as a culminating display of understanding.

Question 6: While eliciting the students’ prior-knowledge about ramps and speeds of decline, Fe MacLean’s students came up with a variety of hypotheses and she did not correct those that seemed wrong. Why not?

Response 6: This example occurred at the onset of the lesson, when Fe was generating interest, excitement, and activating students’ prior knowledge and conceptions. During this phase of a constructivist (students constructing their own knowledge) approach, it is not necessary to tell students that they have reached the wrong conclusion, as they have not fully engaged in the learning process. In fact, it is important to give them an opportunity to divulge what should later be recognized as misconceptions. By carefully crafting the lesson, the teacher can allow them to discover on their own the most appropriate solution to the problem or answer to the question. This discovery can be emphasized by revisiting their original suppositions at the end of the learning activity and exposing to them the differences in their initial ideas and the new knowledge that they will have gained.

Question 7: Kathleen strived to use parents as models of literacy, but it was evident in her culturally diverse classroom that many of the parents have different literacy backgrounds, accomplishments, and possibly expectations. How can parental or cultural literacy be used as an example for students when it does not seem to be perfectly aligned with the school’s definition of literacy?

Response 7: Home or cultural literacy models will always vary, what is most important is that students see that literacy and learning are valued in their homes. There will always be a difference between the culture of each student’s home and the culture of the classroom. By bridging the gap that often exists between home and school, parents and students benefit by learning from each other. Likewise, it is important to honor students’ cultural traditions and literate behaviors in the classroom, when possible, to build self-esteem and motivation – fundamental elements to achieve successful classroom teaching and learning.

Question 8: How are parents and guests included seamlessly in the classroom, as it appears they are in Kathleen’s?

Response 8: In authentic learning environments, students need a variety of resources to construct their knowledge, solve problems, and complete authentic tasks. These resources, as Kathleen indicated, must be more than an anthology or textbook, if for no other reason than to truly put the learning experience into a context and authenticate it. While a great deal of planning goes into selecting, organizing, and managing human, print, and digital resources in the classroom, including parents can help teachers create a true community of learners. The parental participation also encourages access to concepts through multiple intelligences when they involve presentations, storytelling, sharing artifacts, music or performance. Certainly, it decentralizes the teacher as the primary or only source of knowledge or assistance in the learning process.

As far as managing the classroom when parents arrive, Kathleen has made it appear easy by providing a structure for the sessions that lets everyone know what to expect when the day comes. She is familiar with the family stories from the students’ work on memoirs, and has given parents positive feedback through their children, so parents know that their stories are valued. As she noted, she does as much as she can to make everyone comfortable physically and emotionally, to make the parent participation successful.

Question 9: Mind mapping is mentioned as a strategy in Kendra’s classroom example. What is it, exactly?

Response 9: Mind mapping is one of a variety of visual, graphic ways that students and teachers can brainstorm and organize ideas. This strategy uses as combination of sketches, words, colors, symbols, and codes. Unlike outlining or listing, mind mapping is a way to generate and organize ideas in a non-linear fashion. Instead, ideas are mapped as they emerge from a central idea. It is noted for being a fun way to learn, especially to those who learn best visually, spatially, and linguistically.

Question 10: Kendra mentioned it’s crucial to her that her students make conscious choices in the strategies that they employ? How does a teacher facilitate and monitor these choices?

Response 10: Often, teachers mandate a strategy, forgetting the intended learning goal or result. In these instances, the teacher takes complete control over what should eventually be the learner’s responsibility – to attend to their own learning processes. In the early stages of a new learning task it may be necessary for the teacher to make choices on behalf of students. Ideally, however, the teacher should reveal her thinking to her students while making these choices and gradually relinquish these choices to her students. Of course, there must be real alternatives available. While these strategies of choice are being learned the teacher observes students carefully and talks with them to elicit their thought processes while engaging the strategy. That prepares the student for subsequent lessons, when the student, in consultation with the teacher, can decide which strategy may be most effective, given the student’s learning style and the learning task at hand.

Question 11: The toothpick bridge lesson showed students actively engaged in creating, but how is Donald certain that each of them learned the intended concepts, especially if they are working in groups?

Response 11: Cooperative learning groups are different than mere work groups. In carefully crafted cooperative learning situations, students require the contribution of each other to successfully complete a learning task. Moreover, in the toothpick bridge activity students needed to work together to employ engineering and scientific concepts they had previously learned. While the students obviously delighted in the authenticity and hands-on nature of building their bridges, Donald was observing their participation and contributions to their groups and whether or not their group decisions were aligned with previously learned scientific concepts.

Building the bridges was a learning activity and assessment at the same time – when Donald could still redirect and reaffirm students’ conceptions individually or as whole groups.

Question 12: Why did Donald add the problematic situations of war and inflation to the toothpick bridge activity – an engineering and science lesson?

Response 12: Building the bridge was a problem-based, authentic task in and of itself. By adding additional environmental factors, Donald further authenticated situations under which real engineers often work. These additional problems also further develop students’ interdisciplinary problem-solving skills and pose more challenges for those who are cognitively ready.

Contributors to the Session

Linda Darling-Hammond
Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University

Kendra Hearn
Former Teacher, West Bloomfield High School, Michigan. Currently professional development consultant Macomb Intermediate School District, Michigan

Don Johnson
Eighth Grade Teacher, Columbus Middle School, Detroit. Michigan

Fe MacLean
First Grade Teacher, Paddock Elementary School, Milan, Michigan

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin
Sixth Grade Teacher, Birney Middle School, Southfield, Michigan

Additional Resources

Web-based readings

Berliner, D. (1993). The 100-year journey of educational psychology: From interest, to disdain, to respect for practice. In T. Fagan and VandenBos (Eds.), Exploring applied psychology: Origins and critical analysis (Master Lectures in Psychology). Washington, DC; American Psychological Association. Retrieved 2/22/03.
This lengthy history of educational psychology describes the work of key figures such as Hall, Thorndike, and Dewey. The article is somewhat opinionated and not specifically written for a teacher audience, but it is reader-friendly.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). Learning: From speculation to science (Chapter 1). In How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Related links

Center for Dewey Studies
Based at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, this center provides extensive information and history about John Dewey’s life and research. Discussion groups and links are included.

Explorations in learning and instruction: The Theory into Practice Database
Entries from the learning theory sections of the online JSU Encyclopedia of Psychology. Organized by theories, domains, and concepts. Provides resources to other web sites.

About Learning
This site provides an overview of major learning theories from Funderstanding. Includes information about constructivism, behaviorism, Piaget, Vygotsky, and others.

Issues and debates: Educational theory links
A collection of links to Web sites that cover a number of topics in educational theory and history from Interactive Instructional Material Research and Resources.