Creating Theory

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things [read “theories”] before breakfast” — Lewis Carroll, 1872, Through the Looking Glass

Simply defined, “a theory is a conceptual model of how the world works . . .” (Hunter-Gatherer Wiki, Anthropology Dept. Ohio State).

Granted for a theory to have legs and move beyond personal to universal that it must meet the criteria that George identified in the Oct. 8th Elluminate session, Week 4 Theories — “descriptive, predictive, and generalizable.”

In education, we have a plethora of universal learning theories – over sixty listed in TIP (Theories into Practice).

Some like Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow (btw which needs to be added to TIP) or Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences have been embraced by generations of educators.  But if you prick the skin of both, you’ll see that these theories bleed Constructivist/Connectivism (I’m opting for both-and) for it is the learner who is in charge of her learning when she is totally engrossed in a Flow experience or learning in a mode that seems most successful for her.

Constructivism and Connectivism are theories of how the world learns.  I’d call them among the “theories of everything,” theories that represent a world view and undergird or support other more specialized or focused theories like Flow and MI.

Other “theories of everything” include those that seem to be fading in relevance, behavioralism and cognitivism.  I agree with John who mentioned in a comment on Jenny’s blog that as we learn more about how the brain works and as our brains are evolving in this digital age (we shape our technology and it in turn shapes us) that research is casting more light on how we really learn. Pink’s book Drive shares research on motivation and rewards that brings much of Behaviorism into question.

My theory of learning is that we each espouse a “theory of everything” to which we connect or link additional theories that relate to various areas/types of learning including disciplinary learning.  So we all have a personal theory of learning that guides our own learning and our teaching. It becomes a lens through which we view and choose to embrace or reject new theories.

I think that we often mash-up theories to create hybrids that reflect our Personal Learning Theories (PLTs).  That’s where part of the creativity and innovation of teaching comes from.  A good example is Alberta high school English teacher Derek Keenan’s response to Vygotsky’s ZPD Zone of Proximal Development theory.  I admire the way that Derek used a tantalizing (and potentially maddening) variation on the age-old “Paper, Scissors, Rock” game now “Paper, Scissors, Rock, Lizard, Spock” to help his classmates experience the theory.

Developing PLTs is vital in teacher education.  I like to guide my students in creating their own PLTs and potentially their own theories that can be generalizable and contribute to the larger good.  One tech-mediated successful way is through a collaborative critical inquiry on learning, literacy, and literature theories.  This is our first collaborative critical inquiry and it takes place right after our week of orientation and getting acquainted.  Everyone by this time has written a brief reflection on their literacy journey and shared any particularly relevant theories that lit their way.  I simply request that each one shares a two-minute podcast on their theory in Wave 1 of the VoiceThread, listens and makes connections to the other theories in Wave 2, and pulls it all together in a beginning PLT in Wave 3.

(Sorry, embed won’t work in WordPress but here’s the link . . .).

Theories include: Creativity; Critical Literacy., Constructivism; Dual Coding; Engagement; Feminism; Information Literacy; Multiple Intelligences; Participatory Learning; Reader Response; Schema; Social Constructivism

Payoff for me is when I see young pre- or inservice teachers begin to create theory because they have been given permission and encouragement to play with theories.  An interesting phenomenon is that those students who create theory in their action learning projects are also those that earn A+.  And it makes sense because those are the ones who are truly thinking creatively and critically in response to the literature and research they are reading.  The ones who are engaging in conversation with others (be they “dead white men” or another teacher on the west coast of Canada) and making connections to create something new and different inspired by their specific context.

Examples include Lara’s exploration of Reader Response theory and her evolving theory that readers need not have a positive response to literature to be prompted to think critically and creatively about it or Michael’s theory that middle school students will find engaging with the career potential of fictional characters from young adult literature will somehow free them up to more possibilities for their own.  And Angela’s theory that the synergy generated by a class of high school students’ responses to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak can result in a school-wide effort to spotlight teen depression and ways to help.

I agree with Jenny that we shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to using theories to guide our learning and teaching but I do think that we need to use our PLEs to inform our PLTs so that we are constantly updating our understanding of how the world learns.

Can the concept of Personal Learning Theory (Dalit was first to bring this term up in the Theories conversation) serve a useful purpose?

In the Elluminate discussion on PLTs, two comments are light-emitting for me:

Glen: @cris2bWhen you examine a number of PLTs you should be able to detect larger patterns and generate a more generalizable theory.

Moderator (Stephen Downes): We all create theories – the creation of social knowledge is the conversion [later corrected to convergence] of those theories

Just in these three action learning projects and the theories behind the projects I can generalize that Lara, Michael, and Angela see literature as a way to connect with self and with others to start a conversation that maybe changes a life and possibly the world.  I do see their personal learning theories converging and can connect it to well-known English teachers who have used literature to encourage their students to change the world – Eliot Wigginton of Foxfire fame and Erin Gruwell of The Freedom Writers fame.

Finally, we all do create theories and when there is a convergence of PLTs then Stephen says there must be a strange attractor.  If an attractor can be described as “strange” because the dynamics on it are chaotic” then I can see why PLENK 2010 may be encouraging a convergence of PLTs.


About criscrissman

so serious about really blogging this time
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