Go Back to Your Happy Place

Go Back to Your Happy Place

Originally posted 6/10/2014

As an instructional designer I help faculty with their courses. The faculty member is the content expert; I’m a support person. I want to help them make the course easy to navigate, engaging to the student–learning can be fun–and, whenever possible, inspire or remind the teacher why he or she loves doing this. This last week, in part due to recent reading, I asked a faculty member to remember his favorite assignment from when he was in school. His face lit up immediately; he got excited and told me all about it. Then there was a pause… “Okay,” I said. “Now let’s see if we can make one of those experiences for your students.” Score! We’re on the same page; he’s invested. We’ve a shared experience to go on; we are both energized. Let’s begin.

Recall a learning experience that you found personally effective and identify the underlying methodology. Describe ways in which behaviorist, cognitivist, or constructivist techniques were employed.

The first experience that comes to mind is a personal learning experience.


In 8th grade I met Jan Slater; she was my Spanish teacher. She changed my life. Before many weeks had passed she understood that I could not read well enough to succeed. I had an incredible grasp of the language–I was thirsty to learn. I took notes, I listened. I didn’t read the text; I turned in my homework based off of my understanding of her verbal instructions.

In 6th grade I had a first grade reading level. Not much changed in 7th grade. Jan Slater could see my voracious desire I to learn. She just had to get me to crack a book.

Over the course of that year this amazing woman would bump into me in the hallway or dining area and ask me innocent questions like if I had read “Black Beauty”? She went from books for early readers right up to age-appropriate texts. She’d ask me at a later date about different books, always ending the conversation with a new recommendation.

”If you liked that book, I bet you’d like…”

At one point she asked me a question—perhaps whether I’d liked a certain author—and I burst into tears. A few weeks prior, not realized I was listening, she mentioned “The Grapes of Wrath.” I promptly went and checked out this classic.

No… no… it wasn’t for me. I was crushed. She asked me why I was crying and I told her I hadn’t made it past the first few chapters, I just couldn’t do it. With an understanding smile she let me know that some seniors in her advanced literature class couldn’t either. Then she recommended another book she just knew I would love.

Jan Slater is still my hero to this day. I don’t recall her ever saying I wasn’t supposed to have attempted to read The Grapes of Wrath, just that it might have been a bit hard. Not even adding or couching it in phrasing like ‘a bit hard for me.’

By the 10th grade I was a lover of all things print… my favorites were Marvel comics and anything by Anne McCaffrey. Perhaps she employed behaviorist techniques; she certainly ascertained that there was a reason I was not reading the Spanish I textbook. She also determined that I had a will to learn by observing me. She then chose to put me through my paces and see if I would improve by methodically making pointed suggestions. Of course, I may be attributing too much to her behavior. This is a reflection that is from 34 years ago.

Instead let’s consider that she was following the cognitivist school of thought. She set me a goal, whether I knew it or not; at a later date she asked about said goal in an lateral fashion. In this case I would be seen as the field dependent. I looked to her as a mentor and blossomed under her tutelage. “Field-dependent individuals have a great social orientation compared to field-independent personalities.” (Ally, 2008, p 28)

It is likely without her intervention that I would have fallen further and further behind. She motivated me to learn largely just by speaking to me. It may sound unusual to us as adults, but I believe that any instructor who takes a genuine interest in his or her students is opening up pathways for success. They both learn more, do more, achieve more.

As the connectivist theory did not exist at the time I’m certain she wasn’t attempting to employ it. In fact, I have written this as if I knew even one of her reasons for what she did. I do not. Perhaps she was applying associative or conditioning learning theory to reinforce my behavior. Read a book, answer a few questions, get both attention and praise.

My favorite of all the theories I’ve read to date is the situated learning theory. By doing something over and over again you gain a level of mastery. Was Jan Slater activity engaging my need for attention, one that I was unaware of, and directing my activities in a subversive way simply to improve my reading level? Or, was she being a hero? We should all strive to be as awesome.

Author’s note: While I am unaware of whether or not I’ve been anyone’s hero (since beginning my teaching journey in 1993) I do try to “allow learners to apply what they learn in real life so that they can contextualize the information.” (p. 33) I am not a fan of busy work. I like breaking things up into activities prior to larger assignments. Allowing one assignment to build upon another where the student has had time to reflect on what they are doing surely seems to generate greater interest and better overall deliverables. In my current class, I try to have students build portfolio pieces that they can use in the future.

By the 10th grade I was a lover of all things print… my favorites were Marvel comics and anything by Anne McCaffrey that I could get my hands on.

Ally, M. (2008). Foundations of educational theory for online learning. In Anderson, T., & Elloumi, F. (Eds.). The theory and practice of online learning (2nd ed.) (pp. 15–44). Athabasca, AB, Canada: Athabasca University.