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Friday, November 17, 2006

Externalize!! Externalize!!

In recent weeks I have been grappling with learning theories and models and trying to create my own mental model of how all the theories relate to each other and how they fit into the timeline of mankind’s understanding of how we learn.

My understanding thus far is that we do learn different things in different ways. There are three well established, recognized and what I’d describe as top level theories of learning that can explain the way that we learn – behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism

Steve's mental map of the development of learning theory
Steve's mental map of the development of learning theory

Although not strictly true, mankind has developed its understanding in more or less a linear fashion starting with the stimuli-response approach of behaviorism capturing the essence of lower mental order learning skills, moving through to cognitive and constructivist approaches which attempt to explain the high order mental learning that goes on in the brain.

I have read a number of articles in recent months on models and theories of learning and although I said in an earlier blog that Brenda Mergel (in praise of Brenda Mergel) had quickly and easily explained the difference away, which she did, I still find the use of the terms interchangeable in a lot of texts and I have not fully clarified the difference in my own mind. That said I feel clear that the three main learning theories that have evolved over the previous centuries are as I have stated above behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism.

Currently I am reading an excellent book, “Models
of adult learning: a literature review
” published by Niace which summarizes neatly and concisely many models/ theories of learning. I have started on models of psychology and building on our three top level theories, I have briefly looked into developmental theories, activity theory, social constructivism and situated cognition.

I see the developmental theories as a more detailed explanation of how people learn cognitively and through constructivism. The other theories are ways of learning that sit within a particular developmental theory and seem to me to follow a linear progression of mankind’s understanding of learning.

What this means to me is that it has been recognized that people go through stages of individual cognitive development, but have social and cultural influences that impact their learning. Significantly these same learning processes can happen in a classroom (decontextualised) setting and in real life settings which can alter how and what is learnt.

From initial stimuli-response behavior, learning theory has developed to the current mainstream position that learning in people happens internally inside one’s brain. Recent theories seem to be leaning towards the importance of the social aspects of learning, both in socio-cultural influences and in the social interaction and collaboration that people do. Brain Science Research also suggests that social interaction is important part of Brain development.

This leads me nicely into the possibility that a fourth top level learning theory is perhaps starting to emerge. Bang on cue as I am working my way through this material up pops good old George Siemens in his weekly elearnspace email newsletter justifying his theory that 'connectivism' is the new learning theory for the digital age.

I confess two things, one I was immediately impressed with George’s elearnspace newsletter when i first came across it. Quite simply George brings to our attention very current topical issues related to web technology and the whole area of learning. Secondly his theory of connectivism was all a bit too much for me to take in, as I was just about getting my head around the concept of learning being an internal process inside a person as outlined in cognitive and constructivist approaches to learning, when George’s theory is attempting to say that the key focus of learning is not what happens internally, but what happens externally and that the key component of learning is connecting externally with other people and technology to crystallize your learning to the outside world.
As George puts it

"We are social beings. Through language, symbols, video, images, and other means, we seek to express our thoughts. Essentially, our need to derive and express meaning, gain and share knowledge requires externalization.

We externalize ourselves in order to know and be known. As we externalize, we distribute our knowledge across a network perhaps with individuals seated around a conference, readers at a distance, or listeners to podcasts or viewers of a video clip. Most existing theories of learning assume the opposite, stating that internalization is the key function of learning (cognitivism assumes we process information internally, constructivism asserts that we assign meaning internally though the process of deriving meaning may be a function of a social network, i.e. the social dimension assists in learning, rather than the social dimension being the aim of learning).

The externalization of our knowledge is increasingly utilized as a means of coping with information overload. The growth and complexity of knowledge requires that our capacity for learning resides in the connections we form with people and information, often mediated or facilitated with technology." George Siemens (2006) elearnspace blog

Is connectivism and the idea of externalization the next significant development in mankind’s understanding of learning theory. Is it the learning theory of the digital age, of this I am not quite sure as I am not fluent in the language of learners and need to read more on the subject. What does strike me is that it fits nicely into how theories of learning have developed with the fact that socialization has grown to be an important element of recent theories of learning and that connectivism would seem a neat logical next step to describe how learning is occurring now in this modern digital world.

Being a novice in the learning theory arena, I felt that I had insufficient knowledge to think about challenging George’s views in the first place, so I just let it lie. I was delighted to hear of a critical retort to George’s connectivism theory by Bijdrage van Pl√łn Verhagen (University of Twente) 11/11/2006). I was equally delighted that George responded to the criticism.
( November 12, 2006)

I still have not fully digested the debate, only to say George’s response helped me with my understanding of learning theories and made me think, hey he may have a point here. The other thing to come across is the passion George has in defending his position. I look forward to reading more pro’s and cons of the connectivism theory.

1 comment:

Sui Fai John Mak said...

I have posted a comment here on my post

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