How does a human being learn? That question has intrigued and stumped educators for thousands of years. We all know we learn, but how does it happen? If we knew that, then we could maximize our learning, right?
The problem is there are so many theories of learning. To make sense of this, we can classify all the theories into three categories based on the most basic act of knowing anything – the known, the process of knowing, and the knower. For example, to know a flower, the three elements are: you (the knower) observing (process of knowing) the flower (the known). I believe real education must develop the full value of each element.
However, different theories, over time, have focused on one or other of these elements. That’s the problem. If a theory focuses just on the known, or the process of knowing, or the knower, then it is leaving out the other two. The exciting thing is that Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI), with its research-based approach, actually incorporates key aspects of each. It is not focused just on one.
Let’s take a look on how different theories focus on the known, the process of knowing, or the knower.
The Known: Behaviorism
John Watson and B.F. Skinner were scientists who led the thinking in behavioral theories. They spent a lot of time in the laboratory testing rats, and then applying what they learned to human education. They said that learning is the acquisition of a new behavior through conditioning. The more reinforcement we do, the more something is learned. Behaviorism focuses on the objective, observable components of behavior. This is the “known” world around us.
Social learning, that is, learning from each other by observing and modeling, as is done in collaborative groups, etc. could also be viewed as a behavior-oriented learning. This, too, is working with the known world around us. Both conditioning and social learning are based on repetition with positive or negative reinforcement.
For example, desired behaviors in class (sitting quietly, paying attention, cooperating) can be rewarded by the addition of more recess time, special privileges, etc. Or, a negative behavior (fighting, late assignments, tardies) can be negatively reinforced or punished by removal of something (detention, lost recess).
EDI uses this theory of education through Classroom Norms, Skill Development, and Independent Practice. In both instances, lessons are designed to reinforce skill behaviors through repetition or practice. The use of Classroom Norms (such as, read with me and attention signals) provide means of reinforcing desired behavior in an EDI lesson. Also, the collaborative aspect is reinforced through pair-shares, ideally implemented throughout the lesson.
The Knowing: Cognitivism/Constructivism
These second type of theories have to do with processes – the processes of knowing. Cognitivism focuses on mental processes. It sees learning as an outcome of thinking, memory, problem-solving, etc. The learner is viewed as an information processor (like a computer). Contributors here include Merrill (Component Display Theory), Reigeluth (Elaboration Theory), and Jerome Bruner.
Constructivism sees learning as an active, constructive process. The learner constructs information or discovers it based on prior knowledge and hypotheses about the environment. Contributors to these theories include John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget.
EDI includes these types of theories in its lessons too. Cognitive mental processes are maximized through periodic review which is based on the idea of working memory vs. long-term memory. All of the strategies for EDI lesson delivery are based on brain research. EDI also uses rehearsal, elaboration, and organization as specific cognitive modalities to help students use their mental processes.
Constructivist theories would, at first glance, not seem to be used with EDI. But on closer look, it can be seen that the consistent use of pair-shares gives students the ability to use and adapt concepts in their own words. This is an element of discovery. Also, extended thinking sections of an EDI lesson give them practice in using concepts and skills in new ways, to discover how to use what they know. The difference is that with discovery lessons the result is an Aha!, while with EDI the result is “I can do it.”
The Knower: Humanism
Humanism theories believe learning is a personal act to fulfill one’s potential, also described as self-actualization. It holds that people act with intentionality and values. It focuses on the affective and emotional dimension of a person to some extent. Contributors to these theories include Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Malcolm Knowles (adult learning). This is the element of the knower – Who am I? What is my purpose? Learning is motivated by these questions. In fact, in ancient Greece The Delphic oracle urged all seekers or learners to, “Know thyself.” In this humanistic context, all learning has to be related to who one is and what one is going to do with that knowledge. It has to be relevant and engaging.
EDI approaches these humanistic theories when it emphasizes relevance and engagement. EDI doesn’t develop the full potential of the knower, but it opens the door with a relevance section in each lesson, and through constant application of engagement norms. The relevance section helps the student see how the lesson is connected to real-life activities. Engagement is achieved through the EDI approach of engaging the students every two minutes throughout a lesson. This keeps students involved; they are asked to apply the concepts and skills in pair-shares, to respond with whiteboards, or to answer in complete sentences. This builds their personal self-confidence.
How do we learn?
By pulling together the best research on learning and the brain, the founders of EDI (John Hollingsworth and Dr. Silvia Ybarra) have managed to take advantage of the best elements of the major educational theories. They have created a teaching method that helps students master the known world, develop the processes of knowing, and approach the heart of the knower. It offers hope to educators worldwide that a truly educated person can be a reality.
See research used to support EDI.