Philosophy of Education: Learners
The single most important actor in education is the learner. As education seeks to educate learners, any set of beliefs about education must naturally begin with a discussion about learners. We must first establish who learners are, though this is not a straightforward prospect. Like any group of people, learners are diverse, and this diversity has many educational ramifications. After discussing learners themselves, can begin to understand the role of learners in education. Essentially, I see learners as being active agents in their own learning. All these ideas culminate in my desire to create a learner-centred classroom.
The Diversity of Learners
Learning cannot occur without learners. Thus, the first question that must be addressed is “who exactly are my students?” and “what are their needs?” Part of what makes teaching an exciting profession is that there is no simple answer. Indeed, the closest we can come to a rule is to say that learners are diverse in their developmental stages, learning styles, and social backgrounds. It is only by first accepting this and getting to know individual learners that teachers can design appropriate learning experiences.
Of the different variables, perhaps the one with biggest impact is a student's developmental stage in different domains. Cognitive maturity is perhaps the most obviously applicable to curricular design: Piaget's theory clearly implies one does not teach a concrete-operational 8 year old algebra, we save that for high school when most students are in the formal operational stage (Piaget, 1953). As a high school teacher, most of my students will be adolescents, hence I will need to be sensitive to the fact that my students are in the process of developing their identities (Erikson, 1968). The key word so far has been “most”. For any theory addressing any developmental domain, there will exist exceptional learners who will require accommodation. Furthermore, a student's developmental stage in one domain is not necessarily indicative of their development in another. In order to accommodate the variation that is present in any classroom, good teaching must be differentiated.
Learners have a variety of different learning styles and intelligences (Gardner, 1983). As a result good lessons incorporate a variety of learning styles and intelligences. For instance, rather than simply having Mathematics 8 students do practice problems to review their algebra (involving only logical-mathematical thinking), I may have students work through the following multiphase activity1:
Finally, Canada is socially heterogeneous. Young people come from a wide variety of social backgrounds and this influences their outlook on and performance in school. Of special note are Aboriginal students who may be coming from cultures with epidemiologies quite unlike my own (Benham & Cooper, 2000). Again, the key word is “may”. It is important not to make assumptions, instead as a teacher I need to seek out information from Aboriginal education workers and other experts. As a general rule, I must be accepting and welcoming to students from cultural backgrounds unlike my own.
Learners are diverse. Therefore, teachers must make a point of getting to know their learners and must tailor their teaching accordingly. This is not to say that a teacher should construct a special lesson for every student, rather they should choose teaching practices that are as inclusive as possible.
The Role of Learners
I believe that learners actively construct their own learning by gathering information through new experiences and making modifications of their existing knowledge base (Piaget, 1953). This is analogous to how a scientist experiments to test and revise scientific theories. Ultimately, a constructivist view encourages learners to take ownership over their own learning and eventually enables to learner to learn independently.
Just as science is a collaborative effort, so too is learning. Social learning theory tells us that one of the ways that people learn is by modelling the actions of others (Bandura, 1977, 1986). Humans are social animals, so it is unsurprising that learning is a social act. Besides, if learning were asocial, one would be right to question the need for teachers!
I truly believe that learners ultimately take an active role in their learning and in the learning of other learners. Furthermore, education should strive to help students achieve active freedom and social responsibility. I agree with Freire, that this cannot be achieved through a system which views students as passive objects whose behaviours are modified by educators (1970). The terrible social impact of Canada's residential school system is a clear reminder of the destructive power of an educational system which strips its learners of agency. By contrast, in an educational system which grants agency to learners, education can be a means to achieve freedom rather than a means of oppressive control.
1I actually did activities of both types during my recent practicum. The students clearly preferred the second lesson. It was also far more fun to teach!