Learning today is supported and made complex by ubiquitous technologies such as personal computers, open educational resources, autonomous networks, rapid-prototyping tools, and experience-augmenting gadgetry. To stay apace with the ever-evolving environments of teaching and learning, I subscribe to a combination of two epistemological theories in my pedagogy, namely social constructionism (Papert + Vygotsky) and connectivism (Downes & Siemens).
I embrace Seymour Papert’s (1980, 1993) constructionism as a theory of learning that suggests that the internal construction of knowledge is most readily achieved when the student is also engaged in the active construction of a personally meaningful and tangible product. In my teaching, emphasis is put on creating and discovering, and tapping into the learner’s natural inclinations toward problem solving. Thus, in all of my classes, students are encouraged to work with tangible objects, be it a traditional text or a new technology. And they don’t do it alone. Lev Vygotsky (1978a, 1978b) maintained that learning happens in the individual’s mind but is also a result of social interactions with other individuals. The social dimension of constructionism, as explicated by Vygotsky, guides my design of lesson materials and learning activities such that students are often given the opportunity to collaborate with one another. To achieve this, I insist that students work in teams. I find that students tend to participate in learning better when they could listen to and understand the perspectives of others. (Picture below: Two students tinkering with Google Cardboard as part of discovery.)
As digital and networked technologies advance and evolve, learning is afforded with new communicative and informational capacity. George Siemens (2005, 2006) and Stephen Downes (2007, 2011) introduced connectivism as a new perspective on knowledge acquisition in networked environments. While the starting point of connectivist learning is the individual, learning happens when the individual connects with specialized nodes or information sources. So, I encourage students to identify connections between fields, ideas, and concepts, and I value the students’ capacity to know more than what they currently know. Personal knowledge management is thus central to my pedagogy, and I design learning activities to teach students how to foster a learning ecology that creates, preserves, and utilizes information flow for specific learning goals. An example of such activity is the Personal Learning Network (PLN) assignment, where students identify and develop their own map of learning resources using networked technologies. In the sample course syllabus I provide later, I have built in PLN development, review, and presentation opportunities where students work to showcase their own networks while giving their peers ideas to expand and maintain theirs.
Papert, Vygotsky, Siemens, and Downes provide the foundation where I build my key tenets in teaching rhetoric, composition, and technical communication. These tenets are design thinking, collaborative learning, and action-driven problem solving.
By design thinking I mean focusing on the issue at hand and the subjects involved, embracing empathy, diversity, and ambiguity, and then ideating solutions that tackle the problem by prototyping and testing the solutions through iterative processes. My pedagogy motivates students to consider new strategies to address communication issues by understanding human and sociotechnological factors, and generating creative ideas. More importantly, I encourage them to turn these ideas into action by requiring students to design and develop tangible items.
To acculturate students into their future work environments, where collaboration and cross-functional teams are already commonplace, I teach with collaborative learning in mind. In all of my classes, I give students the opportunity to communicate and work with others in the class (and sometimes outside the class) to share ideas and tackle complex communicative issues together. I hold fast to the mantra that goes, “No one knows everything; everyone knows something,” and encourage students to create a community of learning that helps one another succeed through collaboration. (Picture below: A student-led discussion.)
Both design thinking and collaborative learning are ideals of an active-driven pedagogy. I believe in igniting students’ motivation to drive their own learning through action-based inquiry and problem solving. Whether in first-year composition or upper-division technical communication courses, I design research activities for students to identify and define problems, develop strategic methodology for data collection, observation, and analysis, and create recommendations based on their findings. In my current research, I am developing a framework that expands such problem-solving process where students may use tools that support rapid prototyping and low-cost fabrication to create quick mock-ups of their recommended solutions without the constraints due to commercial manufacturing costs.
Above all, I manifest a “can-do” attitude in teaching and learning. I often encourage myself to aim for deliverables that are sometimes outside my comfortable territory or expertise, and motivate students to do the same when approaching problems that might seem too challenging to address at first. Over and again, this attitude has helped me and my students to arrive at unexpected, positive results that would not have otherwise achieved if we gave up in the face of early challenges. Combined with the learning theories that inform my pedagogy and key tenets in teaching writing and communication––design thinking, collaborative learning, and action-driven inquiry––this attitude guides me in creating a productive environment that is conducive for creative, collaborative, and connected learning.
Downes, S. (2007). What connectivism is. Retrieved from http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html
Downes, S. (2011). Week 1: What Is Connectivism? Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011. Retrieved from http://cck11.mooc.ca/week1.htm
Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), n.p. Retrieved from http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/jan_05.pdf
Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge. Retrieved from http://www.elearnspace.org/KnowingKnowledge_LowRes.pdf
Vygotsky, L. (1978a). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vygotsky, L. (1978b). Interactions between learning and development. In Mary Gauvain & Michael Cole (Eds.) Readings on the development of children (pp. 34-40). New York, NY: Scientific American Books.
Cover photo by Christopher James Scheller on Unsplash.