Synthesis of Learning Strategies

Everyone is unique. Patterns of thinking, culture, socio-economic status, experiences, and expectations combine with learning conditions and purposes in an infinite variety. There are many ways to teach or learn, but there are five general theories of education: behaviorist, humanist, cognitivist, social cognitivist, and constructivist (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). Some of them have served me better than others.

My Experience With the Five Theories of Education

Ineffective Theories

First, behaviorists seek to modify how people act in response to a certain situation. The teacher gives either positive feedback to encourage the response or negative feedback to prevent it (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). As an adult, I encountered this one in the college setting. The college I attended first was Texas A&M University, a school with more traditions than degree programs. Students and staff regarded those who participated in all the traditions more highly than those who did not. Some professors offered incentives to students who brought evidence that they had been to one of the events. One dorm roommate demanded to be moved to another room after she found out I was one of those few students who did not care about the traditions.

Ultimately, the effort to encourage my participation in the traditions had no effect. I scored well enough on my assignments that the bonus points for bringing back a game ticket meant nothing to me, and being popular has never been one of my goals. I was there for a purpose, and it was not to attend pep rallies, watch sports events, or build the tallest bonfire ever.

The second theory is the humanist one, which holds that education is for the purpose of making people the best they can be. Humanists also suggest that people are generally good and will work for the best of others while directing their own futures (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). My religious beliefs run contrary to this theory because humans are not inherently good. A quick check of daily headlines will bear that out. People do not control the future. God does. Everything happens according to His will either because He permitted it or because He orchestrated it. The humanist theory is flawed in its basic tenets.

Effective Theories

The other three theories describe situations in which I learn.

With the cognitivist theory, students make connections between current and past events. Problem-solving happens by gathering information and reorganizing it until everything falls in to place (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). My brain does seem to work like that. Whether I am engaged in studies or just in a random conversation, I find myself relating the material to other things I know. Sometimes the connection is useful, such as when I was trying to learn Renaissance fencing and recalled basic parries from a college fencing class. Sometimes the connection is silly. Recently, a friend of mine on a social networking site posted a picture a pot of beans cooking on an outdoor firepit she had just built. I started making connections to things like cattle drives, camping trips, and a weird cartoon in which the characters kept running into people in the mall who wanted them to take a survey about eating beans. That was not a terribly useful connection, but it did provide a laugh or two when I replied with a link to a video of that cartoon.

The social cognitivist theory works on a mentoring model. People learn by watching the experts and doing what they do (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). I learned how to fence using a Renaissance Italian style by working closely with other fencers who were much more skilled than I was.

I can also trace my experience with social cognitivism back to my efforts in technical support. When I was hired on at a company called Power Computing, I already had some experience as a technical support representative, and a little familiarity with the type of computer the company made. My training consisted of a little direct instruction, a lot of reading, and shadowing an experienced person. I listened in as that person took calls and demonstrated how to handle different types of questions. When he thought I was ready, he listened in on a few of my calls and provided feedback until I was ready to go alone.

The last theory is constructivist, which suggests that we learn by using our experiences through working with others (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). The constructivist theory came into play while I learned a different Renaissance fencing form, the Spanish style called La Destreza. Again, I worked closely with another fencer who had more experience with fencing in general, but neither of us had experience with the Spanish style. We had to rely on difficult-to-translate resources, drawings, and our own wits to figure out what to do.

Another situation would be my critique groups. As a writer, I improve my craft by working with other writers. We trade manuscripts on a fixed schedule to provide feedback on things that we see as weaknesses. Although we are not experts yet, we each have different perspectives on writing that we can use to work together and improve our work.

How These Experiences Affect My Teaching

I have been an educator for fourteen years. Although the bulk of my work has been with elementary-aged children, I also taught adults during teacher inservice trainings and at churches.

Ironically, the theories that have proved most useful to me as a student are not the ones that I use most often as a teacher. In teaching children, I do use a behaviorist model frequently, especially when dealing with behavioral problems in the class. I set up reward and consequence systems to encourage the behavior I want to see and discourage the rest.

I wonder, though, if that might be a product of the times. The younger generations, and often their parents, have an attitude of entitlement. They want to know in concrete terms what they can expect to get as a result of their behavior or performance. Did I fall into that mode because I find it agreeable or because it was the only one that gave me a favorable result? I do not use the same sort of incentive programs when I teach adults.

When I teach adults, I find that I fall most often into the social cognitivist realm. I perceive myself as a mentor, the expert with the experience the student needs to be successful. That may be a result of my dominant educational philosophy. I tend to think in terms of a liberal educator, in which the teacher is the subject matter expert responsible for directing the learning of the student (Zinn, 2004).

As I start heading into a new career, I should try to extend myself beyond what I am familiar with. Perhaps I should try to rely more upon the theories of education that more closely relate to how I learn most effectively. If they work for me, they might work well for others.

Realistically, though, the techniques used and the philosophies and theories that support them will depend at least in part on where I land when I finish this phase of my education. Employers often have a very definite set of expectations that they want from someone in a given position. Another factor will be the students themselves. Students learn in different ways, so I will need to be able to adapt to them.

Having a familiarity with the different theories of education will enable me to recognize what skills I need to draw upon to help the student.


Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Zinn, L. M. (2004). Exploring your philosophical orientation. In M. Galbraith (Ed.), Adult learning methods: A guide for effective instruction (3rd ed.) (pp. 39–74). Malabar, FL: Krieger.


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