Applying education theory to ecology teaching: What does that mean?
Much of the education research we see conducted by members of ESA is applied research: designing and/or determining if an instructional approach is effective at promoting learning in either formal or informal settings. This type of research sets out to solve practical educational problems rather than to acquire knowledge to formulate theories of learning. Yet, just as applied ecology research builds on ecological theory or principles by testing its applicability within specific settings, applied education research in ecology should build on theories and principles about learning from the learning sciences community. This “disciplinary border crossing” (Coley and Tanner, 2012) can be initially challenging as we learn to navigate the vocabulary, methods, and models in the learning sciences literature; however, conducting education research without consulting some of this knowledge is akin to conducting ecosystem ecology research without drawing on theories from Odum, Elton, and Pimm. Some of the learning theories from which one can base their educational research include: constructivism, situated cognition, socioculturalism, and distributed cognition.
A theory about learning necessarily informs both a research agenda and a pedagogical approach. For example, initiated by research in cognitive development proposed by Piaget & Vygotsky, learning science researchers articulated a theory about how people learn, namely “constructivism”: that learners construct knowledge by transforming and refining their prior knowledge into more sophisticated forms. Education research grounded in the tenets of constructivism has evolved over the past 50 years. We now know that learners do not “absorb” information just because they were told, but rather, learners must actively construct an understanding of new concepts. This theory on learning informs one’s instructional design because if constructivism is to be taken at its root, then student ideas, both those that are accurate and those that are erroneous, must be seen as components of future understandings, not as impediments to learning that need to be eradicated. Research shows that social and material opportunities help strengthen learners’ understanding of new ideas, which has informed instructional frameworks (e.g., conceptual change, project-based learning, model-based reasoning, etc.). The current learning progressions research emerges directly from the constructivist theory that learning is a slow refinement of existing knowledge with relatively stable intermediate states of understanding preceding conceptual mastery. Our backgrounds in ecology should demand that we recognize the importance of building on existing theory and principles to allow the field of ecology education as a whole to advance.