Sunday, November 18, 2007

Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

Connectivism, more than cognitivism and behaviorism, places emphasis on the ability to locate and access external sources of information. As George Siemens states it:

The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity.

Lifelong learning and accessing collective intelligence is important in nearly all professional careers. Connectivism is certainly important in research and problem solving. But how does connectivism apply to the profession of teaching?

Here's my take:

I'll take an old-fashioned behaviorist in the elementary classroom anytime. The behaviorist excels in teaching phonemes, oral reading, handwriting practice, and most importantly... hardwiring the brain's ability to retain information. The stimuli-response-level learning lays the foundation for other teachers to build upon.

Cognitive theory provides a solid framework for understanding and conceptualizing mathematics but I still need the behaviorist to teach the times tables and division algorithm. Heck, I'll take the behaviorist for math and reading strategies up to age 12.

It is about the age of 11 or 12 when students become aware of the social framework of society and of their own internal (pubescent) development. At this point, I can see the importance of a cognitive or connectivist approach to learning. By puberty, students should have a firm foundation to begin the study of abstract concepts.

As children develop physically, they become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. From Algebra to Shakespeare, students must create new connections from self to culture. Cognitive theory helps the teacher make the accumulated wisdom of society "stick" in the brains of our future generation.

Technology is developing so quickly that accessing external sources of information (hello Google) is sometimes more effective than taking time to memorize something. Why bother to learn xyz fact that will change in a year? Yes, the connectivist has a place in high school and college education. But don't expect to use Google on your GRE exams.

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