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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Making Sense of Learning

Theories of Learning
Precisely because learning is not a universally fixed or agreed concept, learning has been defined in many different ways. In trying to make sense of learning it seems appropriate and proper to establish at the outset that there are in fact different ways of learning, and that humans choose to learn different things in different ways.

The dominant focus on how people learn throughout the 20th century has been derived from psychology where the main theories of learning include behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. Other major theories of learning are based on a humanistic perspective rather than a psychological view. The humanistic theories are concerned with emotions and feelings and to my mind, can and do work in parallel with the three main psychological theories of learning.

Many other theories of learning have been proposed over the years which predominantly fall within the scope of these four main theories. In some cases due to the complex nature of learning, aspects of many sub theories may crossover the theoretical divisions.

A strong theme that has emerged in recent years has been the influence of social and cultural aspects to the learning process, so amongst the many sub theories of learning, social learning theories are very important in the learning process of humans.

The social learning theory of Bandura emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others(Kearsley 2003)

Brian Science is a study of how physically the brain functions and I think it helps inform the debate on how people learn.

So what are you doing when you are learning? What is the result of the learning process?
Once again with this complex business of learning there are no easy answers. I venture to suggest that it would be fair to say that depending on your viewpoint and/ or what you are learning you will be acquiring or creating knowledge. In discussing Driscoll’s (2000) definition of learning Siemens (2005) states that learning as viewed by the three main theories results in a “lasting changed state (emotional, mental, physiological (i.e. skills) brought about as a result of experiences and interactions with content or other people.

Siemens (2005) highlights that all three major psychological learning theories i.e. Behaviorism, Cognivitism and Constructivism hold the notion that “knowledge is an objective (or a state) that is attainable (if not already innate) through either reasoning or experiences.

After reading the Siemens (2005) article, the key points for me in differentiating between the different theories of learning was the observation that
• Behaviorism and Cognivitism view knowledge as external to the learner and the learning process as the act of internalizing knowledge.
• Constructivism suggests that learners create knowledge as they attempt to understand their experiences (Driscoll 2000 in Siemens (2005))

Further to the points above:
• The essence of behaviorism can be captured in three assumptions about learning:
o Observable behavior is more important than understanding internal activities.
o Behavior should be focused on simple elements: specific stimuli and responses.
o Learning is about behavior change. (Gredler 2001 in Siemens (2005))
• In cognitivism, knowledge is viewed as symbolic mental constructs in the learner's mind, and the learning process is the means by which these symbolic representations are committed to memory. (Buell in Siemens (2005)))
• Constructivism assumes that learners are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Instead, learners are actively attempting to create meaning. Siemens (2005))
• Humanists, give primacy to the study of human needs and interests. A central assumption is that human beings behave out of intentionality and values. Huitt (2001)
Theories of learning can be described as explanations and descriptions of how people learn. Terry Mayes and Sara de Freitas (2004) offer the following definition

Theories of learning provide empirically-based accounts of the variables which influence the learning process, and provide explanations of the ways in which that influence occurs
What is apparent from reading the literature is that people can learn in a variety of different ways and are influenced by a number of factors. When it comes to learning material for students, awareness of the different learning theories combined with the learning objectives is essential in guiding a teacher in designing appropriate material for the subject and the objective to be learned.

Models of Learning
One of the most infuriating aspects of reading though the literature is trying to establish a clear distinction between a theory of learning and a model of learning. The difficulty lies in the fact that the word “Model” can be used to try and explain how exactly a learning theory works in a descriptive way i.e. modeling way. “Model” can also be used in a prescriptive way to suggest the best approach to take to enhance learning. In order for me to make sense of this contradiction I take the following views:
1. A theory of learning is a description of how people learn.
2. A model of learning is a prescriptive method (can be tightly or loosely prescribed) on how learning should best occur.
3. Models of learning will draw on various theories of learning and give teachers a framework in which to devise teaching strategies to ensure the maximum opportunity for student learning.
4. Models of learning are really models of teaching (see Teaching/ Learning Models)
5. Models of Learning/ Teaching will guide the Instructional Design activities developed for a program of study.

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