4. Theories of learning

To gain coherence and effect, we need to work toward shared theories of learning and particularly of learning a practice. This section is a start on that project. The website Deliberations on the Practice of Teacher Preparation offers resources for this task. Anyone can create an account in Deliberations by going to http://deliberations.educ.msu.edu. After logging in, click “Groups” in the left sidebar and, in the list of groups, join Group: Theory-guided design. At the group home page, under the page title, find the link to Book: Theory-guided design. There you can find a link to a set of summaries of theory and research. And you can contribute to it.

a. Experience and Education

Arguably, we should be interested in education through experience, as laid out by John Dewey in Experience and Education (1938). We should be interested in the habits that constitute the strong continuity in teacher’s experience as they interact in school situations first as school students, then as teaching candidates, and then as new teachers. As program designers, we are trying to design situations, the interaction with which would tend to promote teachers’ growth over time. In terms of another formulation of Dewey's, we should aim to engage teacher candidates not as "outside spectators" of classrooms but as "participants inside the natural and social scene," where "the true object of knowledge resides in the consequences of directed action…" (Dewey, 1929, p. 157).

b. Situated cognition

Situated cognition theory provides us another vocabulary. In a given community of practice with its authentic activities, interactions among experienced members and novices, mediated by the novices' mental processes and conditions, tends to produce situated (useful) knowledge (see http://deliberations.educ.msu.edu/node/153.) Several points are relevant here:
  • Authentic activity is the only way learners can gain access to the standpoint that enables practitioners to act meaningfully and purposefully. Probably, we will want to engage the program’s members in that situation, for example, by inviting them to raise and analyze problematic situations from their school classrooms.
  • Authentic activity tends to be rich in cues and clues that learners can use to help them solve problems, complete projects, and assess what they do. Work on problematic situations from their teaching can provide our members with cues and clues to potential application of the options for thought and action we want to offer them.
  • Cognitive apprenticeship supports learning in a domain by enabling learners to acquire, develop, and use cognitive tools in authentic domain activity. So, what can we choose or construct that could be employed as cognitive tools in teaching?
    • c. Case knowledge

      Walter Doyle argued that "The teacher's knowledge is organized around tasks related to solving the problems of order and learning in the classroom environment and around the events in which those tasks are accomplished" (Doyle, 1990, p.11, emphasis in original). That is, teachers' knowledge is event-structured, or case-based, knowledge. How can we help members to construct “event-structured” or case-form knowledge.

      d. Transfer theory

      Other resources are in transfer theory We want learning in our courses to transfer effectively into members’ practice as new teachers. Transfer theory offers cues:
      • Transfer is supported by the degree of similarity between the situation of learning (which we organize) and the situation of use (in teaching).
      • Transfer is better for learning with understanding than for learning to mimic fixed procedures…
      • Transfer is better for information presented in the context of problem-solving than for information presented on its own…
      • Viewing problem situations from multiple perspectives can increase flexibility in dealing with new events…
      We need to have discussions about what might be our shared theory, and about how we apply that theory in the design of the program and in the design of courses: major projects and recurring activities, options for thought and action, and the materials and media by which they are offered.