Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cooperative learning in practice is one of just many strategies that embrace social learning theories - the idea that people learn best when engaged in discourse with others.  Cooperative learning can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom.  Pair-shares are a quick means of having two students dialogue about the content and check each other for understanding.  Groups of 3 works much in the same manner but can be utilized for making predictions, responding to prompts, or the like.  Jigsaws are a personal favorite of mine.  Students are members of not one but two groups (the original group and a sub-group) where they become the expert on the subject matter "teaching" their original group about the research they conducted.  The teacher's role becomes that of facilitator as opposed to the expert dispensing information.  Students can be placed in groups according to abilities, interests, diversity, or age.

Technology supports this type of learning.  Skype, blogs, wikis, GoogleDocs, Facebook and the like are all geared toward the sharing of information and understandings.  These technologies link students together in a way that is not possible in a traditional classroom.  Groups can research and post their findings with the assurance that all members have access immediately to the same information.  Edits and additions can be collaboratively agreed upon and made by any group member.

One exciting technology that is utilizing social learning theories in particular is VoiceThreads.  An individual or group can compose a VoiceThread on any topic of their choosing.  Then, once posted and shared, it is available for comment by anyone, anywhere with an internet connection.  I tried my hand at creating a problem-based VoiceThread on the Battle of Gettysberg.  Here is the URL to view and comment on it:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Constructivist Approaches to Learning

This week we looked at the idea of generating and testing hypotheses (inquiry learning) for application in classrooms beyond science.  Having students formulate questions, create a theory of how or why something is the way it is, research it, and then test these hypotheses is what inquiry learning is all about.   It is an active method engaging the student in all stages of the learning process and can be either inductive or deductive.  Critical and complex thinking skills are emphasized in this method as students inquire and formulate their findings.  This correlates to the constructionist approach to learning where students are actively engaged in the process of constructing learning within their minds (knowledge is not simply transferred from teacher to student).  The constructionist theory of learning takes inquiry learning one step further in that the learner creates an artifact of some sort with which they can share their knowledge or learning with others.  It can take many forms as each learner is unique and has different experiences to draw from (or connect the learning to).      

The constructionist classroom is student-centered where the instructor is relegated to the role of facilitator, guiding the learner on their path.  Elements of this classroom include but are not limited to:

            Rubrics that define expectations

            Projects based on the research

            Collaboration with other learners

            “Genuine” or authentic real-world tasks

The teacher must be familiar with multiple strategies to allow the students various methods of solving the problems that arise within the learning platform.  Scaffolding, or building upon what is already known, is very popular with this theory.  Feedback from the instructor throughout the entire process is critical for students to alleviate misconceptions and revise their hypotheses.  Placing the application in a real-world context, helps with the connections that are created in the mind of the learner and is a motivating factor for many.

I found this link helpful in explaining inquiry learning as applied in a regular classroom.

The book Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007) breaks down this theory into six tasks that teachers can incorporate in the classroom to assist students with their hypotheses generating and testing.  The first is system analysis where students study the parts of the system and predict what would happen if something in the senario were changed.  The second is problem solving, investigating the various possible solutions in light of the obstacles posed.  Third is the task of historical investigation where there is no definitive resolution.  A myriad of senarios could be examined and explored in this step.  Forth is invention where creative solutions are thought through to test the hypotheses.  Fifth is experimental inquiry, a process whereby students test their predictions.  Sixth is decision making, the step where students use agreed upon criteria to choose which senario is the most logical or practical.

Technology is useful in helping students collect and record data to formulate these hypotheses or inquiries.  Spreadsheets, data collecting software, and web resources (especially in the form of simulations) allow for the quick gathering or consolidating of information so that students may concentrate on construeing their hypotheses.

Works Cited

Laboratory, N. R. (2005). Research-Based Strategies. Retrieved March 21, 2012, from Focus on Effectiveness:

Orey, M. (2008, December 15). Constructionism, Learning by Design, and Project Based Learning. Retrieved March 19, 2012, from Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology:

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E. R., Kuhn, M., & Malenoski, K. (2007). Using Technology with Calssroom Instruction that Works. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cognitivist Learning Theories

Cognitivist learning theories revolve around the idea of information processing (what goes on in the mind) where each idea is considered to be connected to one another.  It is multisensory in nature and involves both the short-term and long-term memory.  Forgetting becomes merely the act of temporarily losing the connection to the information.  The primary mechanism for transferring the information from short-term to long-term memory is elaboration.   Allan Paivio postulated a dual-coding hypothesis, taking the cognitivist approach one step further, where people simultaneously store the information to be remembered in both a visual image format and as text. 

What impact does this have on the classroom?  Prior knowledge takes on a whole new meaning as learners attempt to connect the new learning to that which is already familiar.  Organization of materials (and presentation thereof) is critical to creating the logical pathways that make the new teachings easier for the learner to recall.  Visuals, mnemonics, concept maps, spreadsheets and the like – virtually anything that allows the learner to organize the information – are vital tools for the cognitivist teacher to not only disseminate the new information but elevate their students processing skills to Bloom’s higher level thinking orders. 

Cognitivist teachers receive a boon from the plethora of technological resources that help to both organize and visualize curriculum.  The highly informative text Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works suggests using various strategies such as cues, questions and advanced organizers along with summarizing and note taking to enhance the learners’ classroom experience.  Cues, questions, and advanced organizers focus on the students’ ability to structure the information in an orderly process for much easier retrieval and manipulation by the learner.  Examples include tables, spreadsheets, and concept maps that arrange information in a hierarchal order (from greatest to least or broadest to specific).  Summarizing and note taking delineate the ability of the learner to synthesize the new information and assemble it in a new format.  Summarizing and note taking are improved through the use of Word’s AutoSummarizing tool or the ability of the author (or teacher) to track changes to the document being developed.  Note taking, whether done individually or collaboratively, is refined through the incorporation of blogs, wikis, or again concept maps. 

An interesting website that definitively advocates for the cognitivist method of teaching is Learning Rx (  This resource delves into the various applications for brain training encompassing everything from preschoolers to students who struggle with learning disabilities.

Works Cited

Corp., L. R. (2012). Learnning Rx Cognitive Learning Styles. Retrieved March 13, 2012, from

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E. R., Kuhn, M., & Malennoski, K. (2007). Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. Denver, Colorado: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Behaviorist Theories regarding Standardized Testing

A discussion I had with my colleagues centered on the idea of rewards and punishment (in conjunction with homework and practice) regarding standardized testing.  Yes, it is that time of year again, when both teachers and students are evaluated by the efforts of their students on the merit of one set of examinations.  As we ruminated on the various attitudes of both the students and ourselves, I was transported back to the behaviorist learning theories – in particular those concentrating on rewards and punishment and their effect on our motivation (or effort). 

Stephen Covey, in his largely touted book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People addresses this issue.  The first three habits are steeped in the ideas of independence and mastery.    Being responsible for our own actions (or in this case learning), creating a plan to execute those actions, and then prioritizing how to achieve those goals are the main components of his plan.  I believe that these are central ideas when it comes to intrinsic rewards.  Habit 1, being proactive, places the responsibility for our actions on our choices, not on some conditioning response as behaviorist theory suggests.  Habit 2, begin with the end in mind, takes this one step further and has a person looking at not only where they are at but where they want to go.  If we have a grasp on where we want to be, then we become more motivated and make a conscientious effort to get there (a vested interest so to speak).  Habit 3, put first things first, looks at prioritizing ones’ efforts based on the scales of importance and urgency. Again, when we make the choices we place the control of our actions in our own hands (effort).  For a summary of the book visit the website:

What, might you ask, does this have to do with standardized testing?  As my colleagues and I (and numerous other teachers across the country) are preparing our students for this rite of passage, we are faced with the burden of having to extrinsically motivate our students to put forth their best effort.  Stickers, candy, free time, an extra recess if they do well, a pizza party, games on the computer or other technological enhancements that we have in the  classroom, and the like are just some of the rewards presented to our students to bribe them to do their best.  Why must we pursue this course to have our students demonstrate their learning?  I believe that it is because the students have no intrinsic interest in the results of the test.

So what, if any answers, do behaviorist learning theories have for educators in regards to student effort in the classroom?  In the arena of reinforcing efforts, the book Using Technology with Classroom instruction that Works suggests using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to track students progress.  When students see the cumulative results of putting forth effort in relation to the grades they earned, it creates a connection in the students mind between effort and achievement.  Technology is the catalyst that facilitates more immediate feedback for the students to track their progress.  Computer generated rubrics or online surveys are other suggestions that the authors make to encourage students to put forth their best effort.  With this thought in mind, if educators were to share the results of these standardized tests with our students (and track their progress over the series of the tests) then students would become more intrinsically motivated to do their best.

Homework and practice are the means that educators use to ready their students for this standardized testing rite of passage.  Again, behaviorist theories address this for us.  Direct instruction, rooted in behavioral theory, focuses on the interactions among teachers and students.  Technology enhances the ability to guide practice and provide feedback, both vital components of this methodology.  Online learning software such as PLATO or BrainHoney break the curriculum into units that each contain pre- and post assessment examinations, formative assessments, and integrated practice throughout.  Student progress is closely monitored and learning is tailored to meet the students’ individual educational needs.  (Check out PLATO at or BrainHoney at for more information).  Communication software is another viable method for teacher and student interaction beyond the classroom walls.

Having stated all of this on the topic of standardized testing and how to best prepare both yourself and your students, I wish all educators out there happy testing.  Here’s to exemplary results.