Why Learning Theory Matters

At Bemidji State we have teacher-candidates write a comprehensive “Central Focus & Context/Rationale” with every lesson plan. This is a statement requiring students to explicitly describe the big idea or central focus of the lesson, detail the lesson’s fit in the curriculum, and then lastly, use research and learning theory to support teaching methods chosen. We recognize that “real” teachers do not do this when they write “real” lesson plans—if they even write lesson plans. So, why require this?

We recognize this is an exercise and use it to assess if the teacher-candidates can apply learning theory to their craft. Here is why that is important. Whether they are creating a new lesson from scratch or using a published curriculum, activities, or ideas from resources, they must understand how that lesson lesson fits the bigger picture of their curriculum. Otherwise, while it may be a fantastically fun activity, if it is without context and random, the important enduring understanding hoped for is most likely soon forgotten. I call this random craptastic. I have taught a lot of random craptastic lessons in my day. I hope I am a better teacher than that now.

Beyond, having a purpose and fitting into a bigger picture of understanding for the student, the method needs to align with what we know about how the brain works. If the teacher does not understand learning theory – generally the specifics of constructivism which aligns to how the human brain learns based on current brain-based learning research – they cannot properly implement the lesson resulting in enduring understanding and not just an ephemeral experience.

Would you trust an epidemiologist who did not understand bacterial reproduction and life cycles? Or an editor who does not know proper punctuation and how to use a good metaphor? You should not trust a teacher that does not know how the human brain works and how to apply learning theory. Such teachers are no different than students they might complain about who can complete a lab activity but have no idea why they did what they did or what it means. Implementing a lesson without analyzing the central focus and context/rationale is the same thing. You might get lucky and it may work. Or it may not you might not even notice.

Real teachers may not explicitly write these things out in a lesson plan, but they should at least be able to. And if they cannot, they are not competent nor fit to be a teacher. Harsh, but it is time for our profession to step up and hold ourselves to this baseline. It is especially important now as teachers are being forced to teach in entirely new ways, using new technology, in entirely impossible circumstances. We need this foundation upon which to stand.

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