Thursday, June 22, 2023

Techniques of Teaching: The Golden Triangle of Learning Theories


Before we begin, let me preface this by saying that this is a somewhat complex article. However, if you take the time to read it carefully and thoroughly understand its concepts, it will have a fundamental impact on your future instructional design. It's an insight and perspective I discovered while writing this book.

As you read through this article, I recommend pairing it with the introductions to the three major learning theories:

1. Behaviorism Learning Theory - Theoretical Overview:

2. Cognitive Learning Theory - Theoretical Overview:

3. Constructivism Learning Theory - Theoretical Overview:

(Note: While we have theoretical overviews, we will also have practical applications in the future, which will be included in the book.)

The Core and Application of the Three Major Learning Theories

In our previous discussions, we explored the three major learning theories: behaviorism, cognitive learning theory, and constructivism. The core of behaviorism lies in the connection between stimuli and responses. By reinforcing correct responses through various means, stimuli can elicit the desired responses. Cognitive learning theory focuses on individuals' cognitive structures and how to improve learning through processes such as information input, processing, and output. Constructivism, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of learners' exploration and experiences in constructing their own knowledge. These are the fundamental principles underlying the three major learning theories. We provided more detailed explanations of these theories in the respective theoretical overviews.

Now, how can these learning theories be applied in practice and connected to instructional methods? We mentioned that traditional lecture-style teaching leans towards the application of behaviorism, where the teacher speaks and the students listen, aiming to elicit the correct responses through the teacher's stimuli. The quality of the lecture determines the quality of student responses. However, using question-and-answer techniques introduces some changes. Apart from the teacher asking and students answering (leaning towards behaviorism), it stimulates students' thinking and captures their attention, incorporating elements of cognitive learning theory. Activities such as group discussions not only tap into students' existing knowledge (cognitive learning theory) but also encourage them to construct their own understanding (constructivism). Role-playing exercises allow participants to have first-hand experiences, aligning with the principles of constructivism. Other methods, such as videos (stimulus or knowledge construction) and case discussions (knowledge construction), each have different learning theories supporting them. We explored these applications of the three major learning theories in the respective practical overviews.

Which Learning Theory is Better?

So, have you ever wondered which learning theory is better? In the past, many scholars conducted various studies, and some preferred supporting certain learning theories exclusively. For example, older generations often emphasized phrases like "practice makes perfect" or "listen more, talk less," which align with the principles of behaviorism. Constructivist teaching approaches were also frequently discussed and debated for a while, and you might have some recollection of that. There are also those who take a more moderate stance, believing that there is no absolute right or wrong theory but rather a matter of suitability for different circumstances. For instance, they might argue that behaviorism is more appropriate for teaching simple knowledge, where repetition and practice are essential until the task is performed correctly. On the other hand, for higher-order thinking skills, constructivist approaches are better suited, such as Harvard-style case discussions or project-based learning. Many studies have been conducted on these related topics.

The Golden Triangle of Learning Theories

While I was simultaneously engaged in corporate training, studying academic theories, and writing articles for "The Techniques of Teaching," a sudden idea struck me.

"Learning theories aren't about one being better than the other or which one to use, but rather three interconnected theories that appear in different stages of learning!"

And then, it dawned on me that these three core learning theories could be combined into a golden triangle! As I reflected on my past teaching experiences and observed various teaching methods, I realized that every excellent course must have gone through this golden triangle of instructional theories!

Ha! Why didn't I think of something so simple before? After understanding it, I seemed to have entered a whole new realm! When assessing my own courses and those of other teachers, I now have a simple yet powerful analytical tool at my disposal!

Example of Golden Triangle

Let me provide a few examples to help you grasp the concept:

In my "Professional Presentation Skills" course, there is a section on opening structure (please refer to "The Techniques of Teaching"). First, I present five different opening methods (behaviorism) through lecture. Next, I combine these five methods into a memorable formula using the 1-2-3 approach (cognitivism). Then, I ask the participants to practice with their own topics (constructivism). To assist them in improving their practice, I provide reference demos and structures (constructivism's Zone of Proximal Development theory). The entire process progresses from behaviorism to cognitivism to constructivism. Did you notice the pattern?

Let's take another example, using the teaching approach of renowned speaker, MJ. He begins by introducing an analysis framework and process called "The Nine Sword," which helps with easier memorization (cognitivism). Next, he explains the analytical details of the process (behaviorism) and then presents real financial statements for participants to analyze using the learned methods (constructivism). Did you notice? In this teaching stage, he incorporates the three different learning theories: cognitivism, behaviorism, and constructivism.

In essence, these three major learning theories are not about one being better than the others. Instead, it is about incorporating each theory into the teaching process at different stages. By traversing these three learning theories individually within a single teaching stage, students can achieve more comprehensive and effective learning outcomes.

Where to Start?

As for which learning theory to start with, there is no definitive answer. Many people might begin with behaviorism, which emphasizes instruction and lecturing. However, it is also possible to start with a cognitive approach. For example, providing a memorable framework or process and then explaining the content using behaviorist methods, followed by employing constructivist techniques for digestion and absorption.

Is it possible to start directly with constructivist teaching methods? Absolutely! For instance, observing the instructional practices of innovation teaching expert Adam in top-tier companies. In a segment teaching process transformation, Adam initially refrains from teaching and asks participants to watch a video. Following that, he engages them in a discussion, prompting them to identify different observations and innovative ideas from the video (constructivist learning through personal observation and discovery). Subsequently, Adam proceeds to explain the key points from the video (behaviorist lecturing approach). At this stage, the instruction is already quite clear, theoretically concluding the teaching segment.

Wait a moment, astute readers may have noticed something missing: the segment on cognitive learning! Indeed, it is not omitted by Teacher Adam . After the explanation, he summarizes the entire process into five major steps, making it easier for participants to grasp a structured framework. To deepen the impression, he presents another topic, challenging participants to apply the just-learned framework to a new subject. Did you notice? This initiates another cycle of the golden triangle.

My dear partner, renowned workplace coach Louis, in his well-known course "Developing Capable Assistants," essentially applies the "I tell you"(behaviorism),"I show you"(which includes organizing into mnemonics and leans toward cognitive learning), and "Let you do it"(constructivist learning) approach. This way, the golden triangle of learning theories continuously cycles and progresses.


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