The Personal MA TESOL: Learning Theories

One of the best courses I ever took during my master’s degree program was called “Learning and Cognition”, taught by Dr. Curtis Bonk (you can even view the current syllabus here). We focused on the different theories of how we learn. And we looked at learning from behaviorist, biological, cognitive, and social aspects. What made this class great, besides the creatively taught content, was the actual power of understanding how we learn. This information had a profound effect on my teaching.

Although there are a mix of competing and contradictory theories, you come away from a course like this understanding the essential ingredients or requirements of learning. Understanding the theories translates surprisingly well to practice in the classroom. In addition, it gives one’s instruction a sense of validity, especially when you begin to root instruction in different learning theories or are able to refer to a group of theories to explain why something is beneficial.

The book “Psychology of Learning for Instruction” by Mary Driscoll was our main text. It was a great read. How many times can you say this about a book on theory? She explored all major learning theories from radical behaviorism in the 1940s to more recent ideas about constructivism. She also covered some of the rock stars of the field, including Skinner, Ausubel, Gagné, Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky, and more. And she did this all while giving examples of these learning theories in action, presenting them at as real world situations at the beginning of each chapter as well as showing their applications at the end of each chapter. This is why it is called “Psychology of Learning for Instruction“. She also includes mind maps of each learning theory to see how their constitute parts fit together. The book is obviously written with learning in mind, taking a cue from constructivism (presenting things in context, concretizing), schema theory (relating things to what we already know), and informational processing (the mind maps).

Finally, at the end of a well-researched tome on learning theories, she gives the reader room to breathe by suggesting that they create their own, informed personal theory of teaching and learning which can “serve as an improved guide to your own instructional practices…[a]nd as you gain experience, your practical knowledge will serve to temper your theoretical understandings to enable you to make instruction as good as it can be” (pp. 399-404).

Not only did this book give me a way of using theory to improve my instruction but it also help to contribute to my ever-changing personal theory of teaching and learning – something every teacher should have.

Another related resource is the POLT (Practice of Learning Theories) wikibook, which focuses on learning theories in practice. It also has an emphasis on language learning. It serves as a quick reference for learning theories, as well as a guide to their practical applications. It’s a great complement to the Driscoll book.