Four educational theories applied to learning to build a fire

Behaviorism:  Learning is the acquisition of new behavior through conditioning.

Cognitivism: Learning is an internal mental process.

Constructivism: Learning is a process of active construction of new ideas based on current and past knowledge or experience.

Connectivism: Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing. Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. (Siemens, 2005)

My experience…We started heating our home with wood heat in the first few weeks of living in Alaska. After 20 years of experience with this method, I’m skilled at the art of building and maintaining a fire. However, in the beginning, I had to learn the entire procedure from the beginning drawing only upon some very vague Girl Scout memories. The description of my learning process encompasses behaviorist, cognitivist, constructivist and connectivist theories.

I was cold. It was September and the snow was already starting to fly. John, my husband, left the village for a few days for a district meeting so I was home alone. While I knew how to add wood to the stove and keep the fire going, I had been depending on him to start the fire if it went out overnight. It did. I struggled for a while crumpling up paper, wedging it around large pieces of wood and lighting it with stick matches but the paper just burned up not igniting the wood and I was still cold. Behaviorist theory describes my learning at this point. I’m learning that my actions are not making me warm. I’m not being rewarded for my efforts, in fact I’m being punished with more cold. I need to change my behavior (learn).

With my best guess at fire building not successful, no prior learning to draw from and no print or electronic resource available in which to research the topic, I settled on the next best option. I called my friend, Bob. Bob was a fellow teacher at the school who had lived in the village the year prior.  He taught me how to build a fire delivering instruction via my preferred learning style, reflective observation–watching him assemble the paper, kindling and logs in the stove as he explained why he set it the way he did.  Then he helped me transfer the steps from short term to long term memory using concrete experience– he disassembled the pieces and let me put them back in the stove. Through this process, cognitivism was in play. Bob gave me information that must have been in the requisite chunk of  5-9 items because I remember the steps and his words to this day.  (“Jane, a fire needs three things– fuel, oxygen and heat…”)

The next time the wood stove was cold I drew on my memory for the steps of building a fire, demonstrating my learning as a mental process (cognitivism). But also, the reward of having a warm house has now shaped my behavior. I know if I build a fire correctly, I will be warm, demonstrating the acquisition of a new behavior based on conditioning (behaviorism).

Constructivism enters into my fire building learning as I perfect my technique. I learned that shredding the paper works better than crumpling it and stacking the kindling in a short “jenga” type tower allows for the best airflow around the wood. When the fire is completely cold I know I must choose the driest pieces of wood from the pile, split to expose the most burnable surface. When there are coals in the stove, I can choose harder wood. I’m actively constructing new ideas from past knowledge and experience. I am creating a knowledge base about fire building from my own experience and discovery. (constructivism).

More recently connectivism can be used to describe my further learning about heating with a wood stove. First, we purchased a new stove with a catalytic converter. Only natural materials should be burned in this stove to prevent damage to the catalytic converter, meaning no more paper or cardboard. I needed to unlearn old information and relearn new information–a connectivist concept tied to keeping up with new innovation. In this case, I had to unlearn how to start a fire with paper and relearn using natural materials (smaller kindling and birch bark).

Also, by reading information on the Internet, I’ve learned better techniques for splitting and aging wood. I didn’t have to discover it all through experience, the knowledge resided outside of me waiting to be accessed. We purchased a device to measure the moisture content of the wood. Previously I used the “just feel how heavy it is” method for determining wood dryness. Now the tool does the thinking for me. Connectivism emphasizes the importance of knowing how to access information rather than possess it. I can forget how to evaluate wood dryness by touch if I have access to the tool that can do it for me and I understand how to use it.

This sums up a simple, yet concrete learning experience in which all four educational theories can be applied…. just in time for winter!

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2(1).

3 thoughts on “Four educational theories applied to learning to build a fire

  1. Hi Jane,

    I really enjoyed reading your ‘to build a fire’. How appropriate for a chill and gloomy day. It is a process that I think everyone can identify with – such an easy thing and yet without learning how to do it, quite challenging. Relaying it by learning model was nicely broken down as well. I’ll probably fall back on your model if I get myself confused about which theory addresses which aspects of learning.

    What did you think, overall, of the connectivism article? I was sort of underwhelmed by certain aspects of it. I’m not sure it is a new learning theory, rather it seems to me more like sets of skills and techniques newly available or given different emphasis with changing technology. I imagine that for each aspect that an analogue existed prior to our eLearning enabled world. For instance, knowing how to access something rather than the information itself seems just like delayed or outsourced constructivism. In ancient villages, one didn’t need to know how to be the potter, the weaver, the baker, the hunter, etc… one simply needed to know where that knowledge resided. If I think back to listening to my grandfather talk to his cronies, much of their conversation was centered around who had what (these were farmers in a very rural setting), what they were doing with it and whether it was working for them or not. There was actual information exchanged, but more than anything, they were building a knowledge base about who to go to for information if they needed it. I see this occurring in other areas as well. Listening to guys talk about hunting or trapping or cars or anything with deeply refined knowledge like that. The web makes this process much more efficient, but I think the process is an ancient one and well included in the constructivist theory. That is just my thought on that paper, but not sure if my perspective is off somehow.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this and again, I enjoyed your response. I’ll think of it next time I light the woodstove…if I let it go out again before spring. :)

  2. Hi Jane, excellent experience and very well described in the context of instructional methods. Its very interesting to know how much a person learns over the process.
    The way you brought up the topic of ‘reflective learning’ is very interesting.
    While I was reading ‘Through this process, cognitivism was in play. Bob gave me information that must have been in the requisite chunk of 5-9 items because I remember the steps and his words to this day. (“Jane, a fire needs three things– fuel, oxygen and heat…”)’ I was thinking of what could be happening to ‘steps’ if you don’t use these for years together. Imagine you move to a new place and you dont have to deal with heating for a very long time that you almost forget about it and suddenly one day you might have to start heating your place, do these steps still be in a persons mind after such a long time? Would they be a short term memories or long term?

    Thanks for sharing our experience and explaining everything in a scientific perspective.

    Best wishes

  3. I appreciated the application of the learning theories to a practical lesson that many of us can relate to. Your example is a memorable one. To Tulasi’s comment, wondering whether you would remember the steps after so long a time, I suspect that you would since this was a survival skill.

    I didn’t know there was a device to measure the moisture content of wood. I could envision forgetting how to use a device like that over time, but doubt I would forget weight as a moisture indicator. I’m not sure how that relates to the learning theories, just perhaps that the tactile experience may be more memorable for me than using a gadget.

    Thanks for your concrete example!

Leave a Reply