My husband and I are both teachers. I teach English while he teaches Architecture. Our content only matters because it helps to determine how we approach actually teaching it. Teaching English is a little tricky because it involves such a variety of skills that require loads of abstract thinking then turn that thinking into a physical product. Most courses do that as well, but in English, we typically start with the abstract then move to the concrete. In architecture, my husband’s students get to start with the concrete and move into the abstract. What I mean by this is, in an English class we may start with a big idea worth reflecting on like is love stronger than hate? The thinking part is abstract, the discussion part is still abstract, and then the writing part becomes the concrete version of those abstract ideas. Whereas in Architecture, students will learn how to measure, learn how to draw lines, then learn how to draw a house. All of those skills are concrete. Once the concrete skills are in place, then students are asked to design their own house using those concrete sills. Their design they have in their head is the abstract version of their concrete skills before they create the final product. Neither way of learning is right or wrong; they just make sense for the kind of content being taught. But, what happens when a student doesn’t respond to either method? We have to dig deeper.
There are 3 typical views of learning: behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. Each theory of learning determines how we approach students, content, and mastery. Behaviorism focuses on the behavior of the student. If the student behaves/responds to the curriculum in the right way, they will be more successful in learning. For example, if a student repeats their times tables over and over, they will finally know it. If a student listens quietly, they will learn whatever the teacher is teaching. This approach always shocks a teacher when a well-behaved, obedient, and respectful student falls behind or fails mastery. Cognitivism relies on what students already know to add on new knowledge. If we go back to the multiplication tables example, cognitivism would use a student’s ability to add and expand that pre-existing knowledge into multiplication. What happens though, when your student can’t add yet when they are supposed to? Finally, constructivism focuses on discovery of knowledge through social interaction. An example would be to provide those same math students with tootsie rolls in equal groups and have them figure out the fastest way to determine the totals. In this method, some students will count one at a time, some will add the groups, and some may discover their version of multiplication. The trick with constructivism is that not all students are willing to do the more complex thinking to answer the questions. They are only willing to do what is easiest.
So, how much theory and how much research can actually explain what happens in a learning experience? I don’t think I can quantify it, but I will say theory and research cannot explain everything in a learning experience. How do I know this? Experience.
I started playing World of Warcraft four or five years ago. The game has been around much longer, since 2004. When I started playing, I was part of a small group who had been playing for years. One player specifically has been playing the game for over ten years. It has been one of her hobbies for a decade, and yet playing together now is a strange experience. She doesn’t know how to quest, how to follow the map, or how to do basic troubleshooting in the game. It’s been over ten years and she still gets lost in zones she has played a million times. So, what’s going on? Behaviorally, when she is in a group she looks like she knows what’s going on. She has the right gear, the right skills set up, and picks up then turns in quests with the group. She knows the language of the game and has all the hardware to play with voice chat and no lagging. However, if she plays alone, she regularly calls for help to do basic things in the game. Cognitively, she should be able to use previous experience in the game to build on when new content is released. However, what really happens is that she Googles directions on how to do specific quests or how to get a certain pet and then forgets what she was told to do as soon as she has completed the task she was needing help on. Collaboratively, when we are in a group together, the group will answer her questions and support her sometimes confusion with the expectation that next time, she will have learned how to do things on her own. For example, just last night, she couldn’t turn in a quest that the group could. So, we waited and waited and waited. Finally someone asked what was going on. She just said she couldn’t turn it in. So she just sat there waiting on the problem to solve itself or for someone to tell her exactly what to do. The group leader told her to log out and in. No fix. Then, he just said to abandon the quest and pick it up again. She did. Then she got mad that we had to run the quest again for her to turn it in. So, the point here, is that after ten years, and with group support, this player hasn’t’ seemed to have learned anything. There is no theory listed here which has provided useful to her in created transferable skills. She functions off of directions like a recipe card for pumpkin muffins. If she can follow direction, she never has to learn anything.
This example seems isolated because I am talking about a video game experience. But, as teachers, my husband and I experience similar things with our own students. No method we practice applies to all students. There is always at least one student who does not respond to any method. There is no research or theory that can solve the problem of refusing to learn, of always taking the easy road. Learning is a struggle. You must grapple with concepts and skills in order to figure them out. There is no amount of research or theory that can force a student to do the work of learning if they can just follow directions and then forget. It is the easiest way.