21. Relating Epistemology, Learning Theories and Teaching Methods


Pragmatism Trumps Ideology in Teaching

Although there is often a direct relationship between a method of teaching, learning theory and an epistemological position, this is by no means always the case. It is tempting to try to put together a table and neatly fit each teaching method into a particular learning theory, and each theory into a particular epistemology, but unfortunately, education is not as tidy as computer science, so it would be misleading to try to do a direct ontological classification. For instance, a transmissive lecture might be structured so as to further a cognitivist rather than a behaviourist approach to learning, or a lecture session may combine several elements, such as the transmission of information, learning by doing, and discussion.

Purists may argue that it is logically inconsistent for a teacher to use methods that cross epistemological boundaries (and it may certainly be confusing for students) but teaching is essentially a pragmatic profession and teachers will do what it takes to get the job done. If students need to learn facts, principles, standard procedures or ways of doing things, before they can start an informed discussion about their meaning, or before they can start solving problems, then a teacher may well consider behaviourist methods to lay this foundation before moving to more constructivist approaches later in a course or program.

Teaching Methods are Not Determined by Technology

Secondly technology applications such as MOOCs or video recorded lectures may replicate exactly a particular teaching method or approach to learning used in the classroom. In many ways methods of teaching, theories of learning and epistemologies are independent of a particular technology or medium of delivery, the technologies can be used to transform teaching and a particular technology will in some cases further one method of teaching more easily than other methods, depending on the characteristics or ‘affordances’ of that technology.

Thus, teachers who are aware of not only a wide array of teaching methods but also of learning theories and their epistemological foundation will be in a far better position to make appropriate decisions about how to teach in a particular context. Also, as we shall see, having this kind of understanding will also facilitate an appropriate choice of technology for a particular learning task or context.

Relating Teaching Methods to the Knowledge and Skills Needed in a Digital Age

The main purpose of this lesson has been to enable you as a teacher to identify the classroom teaching methods that are most likely to support the development of the knowledge and skills that students or learners will need in a digital age. We still have a way to go before we have all the information and tools needed to make this decision, but we can at least have a stab at it from here while recognizing that such decisions will depend on a wide variety of factors, such as the nature of the learners and their prior knowledge and experience, the demands of particular subject areas, the institutional context in which teachers and learners find themselves, and the likely employment context for learners.

First, we can identify a number of different types of skills needed:

  • Conceptual skills, such as knowledge management, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, problem-solving, creativity/innovation, experimental design.
  • Developmental or personal skills, such as independent learning, communications skills, ethics, networking, responsibility, and teamwork.
  • Digital skills, embedded within and related to a particular subject or professional domain.
  • Manual and practical skills, such as machine or equipment operation, safety procedures, observation and recognition of data, patterns, and spatial factors.

We can also identify that in terms of content, we need teaching methods that enable students to manage information or knowledge, rather than methods that merely transmit information to students.

There are several key points for a teacher or instructor to note:

  • The teacher needs to be able to identify/recognize the skills they are hoping to develop in their students.
  • These skills are often not easily separated but tend to be contextually based and often integrated.
  • Teachers need to identify appropriate methods and contexts that will enable students to develop these skills.
  • Students will need the practice to develop such skills.
  • Students will need feedback and intervention from the teacher and other students to ensure a high level of competence or mastery in the skill.
  • An assessment of the strategy needs to be developed that recognizes and rewards students’ competency and mastery of such skills.

In a digital age, just choosing a particular teaching method such as seminars or apprenticeship is not going to be sufficient. It is unlikely that one method, such as transmissive lectures, or seminars, will provide a rich enough learning environment for a full range of skills to be developed within the subject area. It is necessary to provide a rich learning environment for students to develop such skills that include contextual relevance, and opportunities for practice, discussion, and feedback. As a result, we are likely to combine different methods of teaching.

Secondly, this lesson has focused mainly on classroom or campus-based approaches to teaching. In the next lesson, a range of teaching methods that incorporate online/digital technologies will be examined. So it would be foolish at this stage to say that any single method, such as seminars, or apprenticeship, or nurturing, is the best method for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. At the same time, the limitations of transmissive lectures, especially if they are used as the main method for teaching, are becoming more apparent.