When I was 10 years old, I was a Cub Scout, and for Christmas my parents gave me a copy of the Boy Scout Handbook, to prepare me for moving on to the next level of Scouting. There were all kinds of interesting things in the book: identifying edible plants, first aid techniques, folding a neckerchief, etc. Of all the topics presented, one section that stuck with me was the section on firestarting. Not because I actually learned the skill; I can barely get a fire going in a fireplace. The reason that section stuck with me is that it began with an almost offhand example of a teaching philosophy that blew my young mind with its simplicity. The book is long gone from my shelf, but I can paraphrase at the very least. Its point was to the effect that “When someone asks you to teach them something, your first instinct will probably be to say ‘Sure!’ But your answer should be, ‘No, I can’t. But I’ll help you learn for yourself!”
This shifted my thinking in an immediate and permanent way. I never made it into the Boy Scouts, but those brief sentences have informed my ideas on teaching and learning ever since. As an instrumental music teacher, I am acutely aware that I cannot really teach my students how to play their instruments. I can’t train their nerves and muscles to move their fingers in the correct way. I can’t pour the concepts of musical notation and literacy into their brains. What I can do for them is illuminate the paths that can lead them to acquiring those skills, and I can help them determine how to use those tools to create music that is meaningful to them.
I believe that we learn by examining the world around us, filtering what we find through knowledge we have previously acquired, and expanding that knowledge at a manageable rate, either on our own or with the help of others. I believe we learn most deeply when we have a personal investment in what we are learning, and when we are able to translate that personal investment into action. Finally, I believe that, in spite of the importance of deeper learning and of personal investment and examination, we can condition ourselves to certain actions and behaviors and use them to our advantage in the learning environment. In my own learning experience, I see this most clearly when I think about how I learned about two of the most important things in my life: playing guitar and woodworking.
When I was 13, I decided to teach myself guitar. I had some prior musical education, so I picked up an old guitar and method book that my father had, and gamely tried for a few weeks to learn to play the chords to things like “Skip To My Lou” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” I didn’t get far. It wasn’t until a few months later, when I resolved to learn some Beatles songs (honestly, for the purpose of trying to impress a particular person), that I made any progress. I got a book of Beatles songs, sat on my couch, and figured out how to play the chords that I needed for the songs that I wanted to learn. After struggling through those chords until they became automatic, adding more chords and other skills became progressively easier, until I was able to play and write my own songs, perform in bands, and eventually earn a degree in music education as a guitarist.
I learned most of what I know about woodworking not from the classes I took every day in 7th and 8th grade, but from making simple toys with my grandfather in his garage, and from turning to books and online forums when I decided I wanted to build my own guitar. My first guitar was barely functional, but it led me to my second, and then my third, which I use in a professional capacity almost every day. It also led to the bookcases and entertainment center in my living room, and the mobile guitar racks in my classroom, and the recording workstation in my home studio, all of which I designed and built myself. I was able to parlay the things I learned while building a guitar from a set of templates and instructions in a book into the ability to design and build things that were solutions for problems relevant to me.
These are two of the areas of deepest learning in my life (although they have led to learning in other areas), and in my approaches to them I see many elements of constructivist learning theory, which holds that “learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it” (David 2015), and that “individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state” (Bates 2014). In this type of learning situation, the learner is the driving force behind the educational experience, and the teacher is a tool the learner makes use of, rather than being the focus of the learning environment.
To learn to play guitar, I took knowledge of music that I had already acquired–names of notes on the musical staff, counting rhythms, etc.–and applied it to understanding a guitar method book. I took songs that I was familiar with and studied the chords in them so that I could play them in a way that sounded correct in the context of the song. In terms of Piaget’s notions of cognitive development, I took the schemata of songs I had heard, and tried to accommodate the new challenge of playing the guitar chords in those songs.
My approach to learning woodworking brings to mind the work of Vygotsky, namely the concepts of the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD, and the More Knowledgeable Other, or MKO (1978). In my woodworking efforts, I have consistently sought out projects that are just outside of my current capabilities, but are within the realm of things I can achieve with the help of others (the ZPD). In attempting to meet these goals, I have sought the help of people with more experience than I possess (MKOs)–either my grandfather, in the case of my very early efforts, or online communities in the case of my instrument and furniture projects. In all cases, I have been able to struggle just enough to expand my abilities without reaching a point of such great frustration that I give up. It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if such social networking options had been readily available in the late 1980s when I began learning guitar.
In both of these areas, one of the most important factors in the depth of my learning was and is the personal investment I have in determining my learning goals. I decided which songs I wanted to play on guitar (“Skip To My Lou” is fine as it is, but it holds far less meaning to me than “Drive My Car”) and set out to acquire the knowledge and techniques needed to do so. I learned to how to make frame-and-panel doors, not because an instructor told me I should, but because I needed to do so in order to build the entertainment center I had designed. In the same vein, I studied principles of furniture design because I needed a new entertainment center and the ones that were commercially available did not meet my particular needs, and so designing my own was the next logical step. These factors align in many ways with the constructivist concepts of discovery learning described by Bruner in 1961, using real-world problem-solving to acquire knowledge. Put another way, I learned because I had no other choice.
Constructivism does not account for the entirety of my learning philosophy, however. Even though the behaviorist ideas of researchers like Pavlov have largely fallen out of favor among many modern learning theorists, elements of these ideas have their place when adopted as tools to be used in other learning methods. Pavlov’s concept of classical conditioning involves “learning in which a stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke a response that was originally evoked by another stimulus” (David 2014b). Consider the classical conditioning present in the act of guiding of a board through a cut on a table saw. Making a smooth, clean cut requires the saw operator to carefully control the feed pressure and rate on the board. If the board is forced through the blade too quickly, the saw motor will stall, the blade will build up heat and scorch the wood, and the cut will be sloppy, if not ruined. When the beginning woodworker first experiences this, he knows that his feed technique is wrong by the stalling of the motor and by a burning smell, or perhaps even smoke, from the wood (unconditioned stimuli). If he is lucky, he catches his mistake and reduces the feed pressure before too much damage is done (unconditioned response). With experience, though, the woodworker almost involuntarily detects the change in the feel of the board and the drop in pitch of the motor caused by improper feed technique (conditioned stimuli), and reflexively alters his technique before the cut is actually affected (conditioned response). Particularly in knowledge disciplines where some element of physical skill is required (for example, playing guitar chords), this kind of muscle memory development can be very useful, saving time and effort that can be devoted to higher-level learning (like organizing chords together to harmonize a melody).
If I were forced to “pick a side,” I would call myself a constructivist. When I read the work of theorists like Bruner, Vygotsky, and other champions of these ideas, my initial reaction is that these concepts sound like the very definition of learning to me. True purists are few and far between in any set of competing philosophies, but, with a few qualifications, I feel comfortable casting my lot with constructivism. These ideas align most closely with both my philosophies of learning and of teaching–I am much more comfortable and feel much more effective as a teacher when I am guiding my students on their own paths rather than steering them down mine.
Bates, A. (2014, July 29). Learning theories and online learning [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.tonybates.ca/2014/07/29/learning-theories-and-online-learning/
A good summary of the behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist theories of learning, and an exploration of how these theories can be applied in the advent of digital learning.
Bruner, J. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, pp.21-32.
A primary source for Bruner’s theories on discovery learning.
David, L. (2014a, July 23). Social development theory (Vygotsky) [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/vygotskys-social-learning-theory.html
David L, (2014b, July 24). Classical conditioning (Pavlov) [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/classical-conditioning-pavlov.html.
David, L. (2015, June 20). Constructivism [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/constructivism.html
While the learning-theories.com site is ad-heavy, each of the three articles above provides a thumbnail summary of a particular learning theory, with links to information on important theorists, more in-depth articles on key concepts, and further reading, including primary sources.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Lave and Wenger propose numerous ideas related to constructivism, particularly with regard to learning often being unintentional, and to learners moving from the periphery of a learning community as newcomers to a more central role as content experts. This can be especially relevant in online learning.
McLeod, S. A. (2018, June 06). Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html
McLeod, S. A. (2018, Aug 05). Lev Vygotsky. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html
Like the learning-theories.com site described above, this site gives summaries of the work of particular theorists, including important criticisms of their work, and lists of further sources to explore.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Primary source for Vygotsky’s theories of social development theory.