Learning Theories: They are Only as Good as the Latest Research [ID Blog]

Learning theories seem to come and go all the time. Sometimes they build on each other, other times they reject previous theories, and a few just come about on their own, not at all linked to any others. What surprises me is the research used to reinforce some of the theories. For example, I understand when researchers use all women in a study to see if the information from a previous study based on all men, has the same results. But why in the world would they use a homogeneous group in the first place? That, to me, makes no sense.

If researchers begin with two conflicting  positions on the origins of knowledge (empiricism and rationalism) of course there is already a tension between what some believe is the definition of learning. Empiricism begins with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and posits the idea that learning and knowledge come from what we continuously experience in sensory perception, until the individual is able to put it all together in meaningful, complex ideas. According to Schunk (1991), Empiricism is the view that experience is the primary source of knowledge.” On the other hand, rationalism originated with Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.) and his belief that what was already in our minds (i.e. experiences) is the source of learning and does not rely on our sensory input. Again, Schunk (1991), boils it down for us to “Rationalism is the view that knowledge derives from reason without the aid of the senses.” What we experience, we come to know and understand from what is already in our minds. We are able to recall memories in order to make sense of this new information and store it in our brains accordingly.

The first major learning theory, originally from Watson but turned into a theory by Skinner, is behaviorism. Behaviorism is soundly based on empiricism and it’s belief that sensory input is an integral part of learning. The famous Pavlovian experiment with the dog and the bell – ringing a bell every time the dog was given food which resulted in the dog salivating upon hearing the bell, is behaviorism. It is “a change in observable behavior that determines that learning has occurred” (Skinner, 1971). But such a wide open statement can envelop situations as learning situations when, in fact, they aren’t. True, behaviorists believe that the stimuli in the learner’s environment must be arranged in order to bring about a change in behavior, it can’t just be happenstance. Personally I think of clicker training with dogs when I think of this theory. You give the dog a command and each time the dog responds correctly you give them a treat while simultaneously clicking the training clicker in your hand. The dog begins to associate the clicker sound with praise and slowly you stop giving the food treats and just use the clicker to reward the dog. However, if I were the dog, I would think, OK, it’s been about 10 days since the last treat came with the clicker sound, what’s up? and perhaps I’d stop being so happy about the clicker. But I’m not a dog. However, it is this association in my mind that makes me think behaviorism, while it has some good points, is not the right basis for learning in humans. Of course, for less complex instruction, such as mastering a skill, this reward type of training works well.

Humanismthe next major learning theory, seems to fly to the opposite end of the spectrum from “all you have to show is an observable change in behavior” as a sign that learning has occurred, all the way to self-actualization or becoming a fully functioning person. Quite the leap there. Carl Rogers (1983) started the student-centered learning approach with the teacher no longer “banking” knowledge into empty student vessels but rather working more as a guide or facilitator-helping the students discover the learning themselves. His five principles of significant learning: (a) has a quality of personal involvement (b) is self-initiated (c) is pervasive (d) is evaluated by the learner and (e) its essence is meaning, are major thoughts behind instructional design models. Even though Gagné and his theory of instructional design came out of the cognitivist theory. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs posits that the learner needs to take care of the basic physiological needs, then safety issues, needs to feel love and belonging, and have good self-esteem before moving to the final place of self actualization. In Maslow’s view, the learning process takes the whole person, from the molecular level of basic scientific needs, through emotional and spiritual happiness, to the freeing of the mind to absorb the knowledge. At least that’s the impression that I got (in a much simplified version). But sometimes you can move back and forth between the levels of the triangle and you may need to repeat some levels as you face life’s challenges, so who is to say if it’s a linear move up the triangle?

Although based in humanism, Knowles theories of andragogy are much more, dare I say, logical. His belief that:

  1. People are more open to learning when they are respected
  2. It is important for participants to be placed in a sharing relationship at the outset
  3. People learn more from those they trust than from those they mistrust, so it is important to establish a climate of mutual trust.
  4. People learn better when they feel supported rather than judged or threatened.
  5. A climate of openness and authenticity is also essential. When people feel free to be open and natural, to say what they really think and feel, they are more likely to be willing to examine new ideas.

The rules above are one of those times where I think to myself “Well, that is so obvious, why did they have to write it out?”  Which reminds me of a story my pastor once told. While in seminary he would see different preachers of mega churches on TV. Mixed in with their scriptural teaching was an overabundance of telling audience members things such as “you are a good person”, “you have the ability to do this”, “you can, and will succeed”. He couldn’t understand why people would tune into these shows week after week unless they were vain. Then one day he realized, not everyone comes from a happy home; sometimes people’s childhood’s are filled with stress and disappointment, they don’t do well in school, they don’t have a support system at home. What these TV preachers do is fill that void, that emptiness in them that these folks need for their own self-esteem. He realized also that you can’t come to learn about scriptures or anything else if you don’t see yourself as someone who can succeed, as someone who can do anything, if you don’t believe in your worth.  To me, that incorporates Knowles 5 principles as well as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Mezirow’s Theory of Transformational Learning (1991) is based on development. Along humanist lines this means that as we age and go through life’s experiences, we change and we learn. The learning is continuous. In my paper, I proposed that the adult learner is every adult, because whether our training and/or instruction is formal or not, we are constantly being placed in life’s situations which cause us to make choices from which we learn. Sometimes the outcome teaches us that we should have made the other choice, sometimes it reinforces the choice we did make. This goes along with Mezirow’s (1978) point “transformation can lead developmentally toward a more inclusive, differentiated, permeable, and integrated perspective and that, insofar as it is possible, we all naturally move toward such an orientation. This is what development means in adulthood….”

Although the next theory out the gate, cognitivism, once again shifted the focus of learning. The behaviorists were using stimuli in the environment, the humanists were using the whole person, but cognitivism moved toward the process within the mind: what goes on inside our heads that allows knowledge to enter. Probably the most famous of early cognitivists is Piaget and his 4 stage model of development:

  1. Sensory-motor response to stimuli (infancy)
  2. Representing real objects via symbols and words (preoperational)
  3. Understanding concepts and relationships (concrete operational)
  4. Abstract thinking and hypothetical reasoning (formal operational)

Like any theory, Piaget’s was built upon and changed. Others came along with more steps or different steps, others focused on one of his stages, yet all remained within the cognitivist realm. According to Driscoll (2005, p.74), “When learning occurs, information is input from the environment, processed, and stored in memory, and output in the form of some learned capability”. This is represented in the summational evaluation of instructional design models. It also incorporates Knowles humanist view of respecting the memory and experience that adult learners bring with them to the point of instruction.

Social cognitive theory built upon cognitive theory but added the idea that much of what we learn comes from social contexts. Whether it is a hobby class, formal schooling, at a craft store demonstration, etc. we are not isolated during our learning experience. We learn and at the same time we are able to observe others. Through this observation we are able to better our skills by watching others and also, we are able to observe and learn the behavioral norms of the group or community in which we find ourselves.

Finally we move to the most often used theory nowadays, constructivism. According to Ertmer & Newby (2013), “Constructivists do not deny the existence of the real world but contend that what we know of the world stems from our own interpretations of our experiences. Humans create meaning as opposed to acquiring it.” Learning takes place within a context and that idea is used in instructional design. Constructivist instruction can help when learners already have knowledge of a subject and their memories of how to proceed in that domain may be wrong or biased. Constructivism acknowledges this prior understanding in the learner’s memory and can help to set it right and build from there.