Saturday, May 1, 2010

Learning Theories

As a high school teacher, I have integrated learning technology tools into almost all of my lessons.  I decided to examine five tools I have used in my lessons within the past month. 

When selecting learning technology tools, I select those that relate to the behaviorism learning theory when my intention is to reinforce a simple skill.  For example, today I wanted to create warm-up activity to reinforce my students' typing skills.  I selected Type Racer, a free online game that allows students to compete with one another.  After creating accounts, students followed my link to join our typing racetrack.  Within a few minutes, my entire room of sophomores, were competitively typing to push their car toward the finish line.  A simple challenge motivated my students to practice, correct, and improve their typing skills.  Students were encouraged to type accurately and quickly when they saw their car move forward on the racetrack.  Students were punished by watching their car barely move from the starting line.  Additionally, peer pressure contributed to the training through cheers and friendly teasing.  I further rewarded my students by posting screenshots of the finish line on our classroom blog.

As an English teacher, I rarely need to train my students to memorize simple content, so most of my lessons that relate to behaviorism are small supplemental lessons.  For example, when my students have a few minutes of free time, I encourage them to go to Free Rice.  This online quiz rewards students by donating ten grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program each time they correctly answer a question.  Quizzes are categorized into a variety of subjects, including, chemistry symbols, English grammar, and multiplication.  When using this tool, the rewards and consequences are deepened by connecting the students' learning to helping others.  Forty years ago, BF Skinner predicted that future teachers would use "'teaching machines' arrange the necessary contingencies of reinforcement (Skinner, 1964).  I doubt he envisioned online quizzes feeding people around the world and racecars fueled by teenage typists.             

Since my students come from a variety of educational backgrounds, I frequently use the constructivism learning theory within my lessons to help my students connect to the content.  To help my students compile lists of what they already know, or can easily independently access online, about a new subject, I use Wallwisher.  Before our lesson begins, I create a new wall with a simple title and description of our focus.  Then, my students access the wall via a link or an embedded gadget in a post on my blog.  By simply clicking on the wall/background, students are prompted to add their names, comments, and/or links to the form within a text box.  As the owner of the wall, I am able to rearrange and edit the stickies as they are published.  During a recent lesson examining the biographical and historical approach of a short story set in the Vietnam War, my sophomores contributed to a wall to share what they already knew or had access to.  Using Wallwisher helps my students to increase investment in their own learning and enables me to view each class as a unique set of learners.  I combine this information with data from pretests and standardized assessments in order to base my lessons on my students' previous knowledge. 

At a later point in my lessons, I employ the constructivist learning theory by encouraging my students to engage in online discussions.  Recently, I discovered Cover It Live and began using it to facilitate interactive discussions individualized for each of my classes.  Before class, I can create a file of questions, links, and surveys related to our content.  During class, my students join a live discussion embedded in the classroom blog.  From my computer, I am able to post questions and regulate responses.  My students are able to read each others' responses as they appear in the field, which allows them to compare their ideas with those of their peers.  As I view responses, I am able to add supplemental information if I notice that many of the students are struggling to understand a concept.  I also select which questions to ask based on the depth of the previous responses.  Since this is a social and fast-paced activity, my students quickly become engaged in learning that is customized to build upon what the they already know.     

Out of all of the learning technology tools I use in my classroom, the one that has most piqued the curiosity of my coworkers best exemplifies the cognitive learning theory.  Vocab Ahead is a website that contains over 1,000 vocabulary videos explaining challenging words.  Each video displays one illustration of a scene related to the definition.  During the video, a narrator defines the words, uses the word in a few example sentences, and restates the definition.  While he narrates, the simple definition and sentence appear at the bottom of the screen.  Within the website, my students and I have created a customized word list for each class.  A few times a week, my sophomores and I add three new words to add to our queue.  Then, we orally review the pronunciations and definitions of our master list, between watching new videos.  For each new video, we quietly watch the video,  write a complex sentence using the word, chorally practice pronouncing the word, share sentences in small groups, and share one sentence from each group to the whole class.  The video allow the students to use their senses to process words and images.  By providing my students quiet time to independently construct meaningful sentences in their working memory, the words begin to move into their long-term memory.  As a result, my students have strongly increased their vocabulary and begun to use these words in other writing assignments.          

As soon as I discovered Type Racer, Free Rice, Wallwisher, Cover It Live, and Vocab Ahead, I expected that using them as learning technology tools in my classroom would engage my students in learning.  I am excited that the behaviorism, constructivism, and cognitivism learning theories support what I am already seeing succeed in with my students. 

Skinner, B. (1964, May 20). New methods and new aims in teaching. New Scientist, 122, unknown. Retrieved April 29, 2010, from

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