Concepts and Theories to Support Teaching and Learning


Concepts and Theories to Support Teaching and Learning

I would imagine that most of today’s faculty have spent countless hours sitting in classrooms taking notes as the teacher lectured. This was the teaching method du jour for decades. Online education has provided an opportunity to change that. However, we cannot simply upload our lectures and call it “online education.” What this change has afforded is the opportunity to combine how adults learn with appropriate teaching methods and assessment strategies to support learning. This chapter discusses adult learning theory and educational theories and models appropriate for the online environment. Combining this material with what we discussed in Chapter 1, the reader should have the necessary theoretical and practical knowledge foundational for online course development and design.


Educators have intuitively known for centuries, dating back to the time of Plato, that teaching adults is fundamentally different from teaching children (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2015). According to Knowles et al. (2015), pedagogy dates back to the 12th century in religious schools in Europe. Pedagogical methods were used exclusively in public schools and higher education in 19th-century Europe and the United States until the past decade, when adult education theory became more mainstream.


According to Knowles (1980), pedagogy can be defined as the “art and science of teaching children” (p. 40). Although the original leaning was that of educating children, the term continues to be used in the broader context 28when referring to the elements of teaching. Pedagogy is a teacher-centered and teacher-driven theory of teaching in which the students have a passive and dependent role in their education (McAuliffe, Hargreaves, Winter, & Chadwick, 2009). Although this approach is quite appropriate for young children, as children age and become less dependent, efforts should be made to adjust teaching methods to meet their maturation. However, many educators continued to depend on this model when teaching in higher education because it was efficient and basically the only teaching method they knew; it was the way they were taught.

Andragogy or Adult Learning Theory

Although the term andragogy was first explored in the early 19th century in Germany, it was unknown in the United States until Knowles’s seminal article was published in the early 1970s (Knowles, 1973). And, although Knowles began his lifelong passion with adult education over 40 years ago, widespread discussion of the differences between educating children and educating adults, adoption of the adult learning model in higher education, and the implications for teaching and learning that arose from the assumptions of andragogy are fairly recent events.

Just as pedagogy refers to the art and science of educating children, the term andragogy refers to that of helping adults learn. It is more of a model of learning, whereas pedagogy is a model of teaching (McAuliffe et al., 2009). Knowles concept of andragogy was based on a set of assumptions that grew from four to six as he refined his model over a period of 20 years (Knowles et al., 2015), which explains the disparity in the number of assumptions published during this time and even after (Forrest & Peterson, 2006; McAuliffe et al., 2009; Merriam, 2001). The assumptions of andragogy and pedagogy emanate from six related constructs, namely, “(a) the learner’s need to know, (b) self-concept of the learner, (c) prior experience of the learner, (d) readiness to learn, (e) orientation to learning, and (f) motivation to learn” (Knowles et al., 2015, pp. 4–5).

In terms of the assumptions of andragogy, the adult learner is one (a) whose need to know is driven by personal goals; (b) who has an independent self-concept and is self-directed; (c) who brings a variety of experiences to the educational setting; (d) whose identified need to learn is based on changing social roles; (e) whose learning is focused on problem solving; and (f) who is intrinsically motivated for the most part, although increased earning potential may be part of the reason for returning to school.

Criticism of the descriptions of pedagogy and andragogy has focused on whether these two constructs were antithetical, as originally conceived by Knowles, or at opposite ends of a continuum of learning, as he later came 29to understand (Merriam, 2001). As Norman (1999) so adroitly surmised, the difference between andragogy and pedagogy must be made on the basis of either nature or nurture, that is, mental development versus sociological phenomenon. Thus, allowing these assumptions to drive course design without question may prove problematic. Unfamiliarity with course content, limited professional experience, and well-ingrained generational characteristics, such as millennials expecting helicopter professors (Fang, 2015) to perform just like their helicopter parents, can drive an adult to be less self-directed and more dependent on the teacher for guidance and support (Knowles et al., 2015). So instead of defining the approach to teaching along dimensions of age and experience, evaluating each learning situation from the perspective of newness and complexity of content and of learners’ prior experience would be more prudent.

Nursing education, especially at the RN to bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) and graduate levels, involves a heterogeneous group of students who, although they have the same basic nursing background, differ in not only their types of experience, but also the depth and breadth of that experience. Faculty cannot expect nurses with primarily a home health nursing background to share the same experience as those with critical care experience. They may even approach problem solving differently. Consequently, although adults in every sense of the word, their ability to be self-directed, goal-oriented, problem-centered, and intrinsically motivated as they return to school after many years may be accompanied by anxiety, requiring awareness and flexibility on the part of faculty.

However, one of the benefits of online education, a text-based medium, is that most of the learning occurs in small group discussions in which all students must participate. Because the majority of students are motivated to learn and are self-directed problem solvers, they are able to combine experience with the new content being taught and participate at a high level in the discussions. When students’ posts in the discussions are not where they should be, and this is easily recognizable, faculty must discover why. Various strategies to assess this are discussed in detail in Chapter 11, but one cause may be that the student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) has been entered.


What lies between the student’s current ability and what awaits to be awakened to define his or her capability lies in the ZPD, a term that is often misunderstood. Although Vygotsky developed the concept of the ZPD in discussing the development and maturation of children, I think it applies to adults as well. When students struggle to learn, it is because the end of 30their knowledge, experience, and ability to understand the content on their own has been reached; they are stuck. This does not mean that they have not done the assigned readings or have not worked diligently to understand. It means their ability to figure it out on their own has reached its limits. However, their capacity to figure it out and learn has yet to be realized. Thus, two developmental levels must be identified: the student’s actual developmental level and the ZPD (Vygotsky, 1978). In other words, the actual developmental level describes the current ability that children have or what they are able to demonstrate without help. The involvement of someone with more knowledge and experience, such as a teacher, is needed to unmask their ZPD. Thus, the ZPD is a moving target, so to speak. According to Vygotsky (1978), “what is in the zone of proximal development today will be the actual developmental level tomorrow—that is what the child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow” (p. 87).

The interaction with a more knowledgeable teacher, parent, or child identifies the boundaries of the ZPD, and it is through this interaction that the child’s abilities manifest. Vygotsky’s (1978) perspective is that once the children come into contact with more experienced individuals, this observed higher cognitive functioning is internalized as “they grow into the intellectual life of those around them” (p. 88). Thus, learning is social before it becomes personal. However, although the process occurs within the child, the other person benefits as well, as the old saying goes—the best way to learn is to teach.

The reason Vygotsky’s (1978) work is often misunderstood is that it has been inextricably linked with the facilitative process of scaffolding (Tudge & Scrimsher, 2003). However, Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976), who first introduced the concept of scaffolding into the educational literature in the mid-1970s, did so 42 years after Vygotsky’s death. Nevertheless, you rarely hear ZDP discussed without the term scaffolding being mentioned as necessary in order for learning to occur. Vygotsky’s perspective was that a more knowledgeable individual was required to be involved without specifying the methods used to instruct. The impact of associating scaffolding with the ZPD shifted the focus from what was occurring within the child (learning) to that of what the teacher was doing (teaching), as if the active teaching itself caused the student’s expanded cognitive ability, which was not Vygotsky’s original intent. His intent was that in order for the learner to realize his or her capabilities, teaching must be aimed above the child’s actual developmental ability (or what the child was currently capable of) in order to move him or her through the ZPD, which was a radical shift in educational practices from what was occurring at the time. His perspective was that “the only good learning is that which is in advance of development” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 89).

31So, is the ZPD operational for adults? I believe it is. Although the developmental process is complete, from cognitive science research as discussed in Chapter 1, the brain’s ability to learn is endless—adults do continue to develop their cognitive abilities. However, understanding the ZPD, it seems that the potential ability or capability exists; one just needs the right information, direction, or guidance of someone more knowledgeable to move forward.

Recognizing that the student is stuck and cannot proceed without faculty intervention is a skill you will develop the more you teach online. Chapter 11 includes tips on how to recognize when the ZPD has been entered and your support is needed. Interestingly, in the online environment, scaffolding is an often-used facilitative skill to provide the needed support. However, many other options are available such as providing missing links through direct teaching or helping the student connect what is being learned to prior knowledge by asking pointed questions. Whatever the appropriate strategy, this is an opportunity to customize

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Jul 29, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Concepts and Theories to Support Teaching and Learning
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