Edev_502 Hand-in Assignment 2

Learning theories contrasted: More than an exercise in rebranding

EdD Module 2 Hand-in Assignment 2


That humans learn is a trivial fact. Non-trivial are the questions surrounding how we learn, which are problematic because decisions about learning deeply affect the lives of learners and the constructs of learning become embedded in both individual and social consciousness throughout life. These constructs may be tools for social reproduction, mass control of individuals and maintenance of hegemonic systems, or tools of social transformation, subversion and individual liberty; a change in perspective of the same pedagogic action can result in the exercise of control or freedom. The current dominant rhetoric in education argues for the empowerment of the individual by breaking away from industrial metaphors of the recent past. This rhetoric found its voice as a reaction to and a development from historical positions. As the purpose of rhetoric is to persuade and not necessarily to promote truth, new pedagogic theories often rebrand prior educational notions with different terminologies, obscuring universally held questions about the nature of learning. Yet the questions function to ground theories in their ultimate practical utility. It would be surprising if the fundamental questions answerable by each theory had little overlap. This essay centres on four core questions and contrasts them against some main pedagogic theories. In doing so, when the veneer of rebranding is lifted, the true extent of knowledge of learning may become more apparent. The future knowledge of learning risks conflating the new with the different. Emerging theories may only herald a fashion in learning rather than an essentially distinctive perspective on learning. Separating the truly new from the disguised old presents many challenges as often the new predicates itself on attacks on the unspoken assumptions of the old. This essay presents an exploratory discourse of the possible differences.

Methodology and Four Questions

Viewing human experience through three lenses: the individual, the society and the environment, I present a concept map that explores inter-relationships between main learning theories. The totality of learning is a vast field of inquiry. To reduce the complexity, I developed four questions, which were based on an analysis of the EdD Module 2 syllabus: Learners and Learning. These questions aim to encapsulate the principle issues allowing for a comparison of some main theories.

Table 1 shows the four questions and the scope of their investigation. All questions are phrased as ‘how’ in order to limit the discussion to those aspects of theories that can be demonstrated at the propositional level.

Table 1

Questions and questions’ purpose

Question Purpose of Question
1 How does the mind or body learn? looks at the basic mechanisms of learning as described by the theory
2 How is expertise developed? focuses on curriculum and syllabus elements, including issues of sequencing and content selection
3 How are conceptual difficulties overcome? concentrates on how knowledge is restructured
4 How does the environment shape learning? questions the role that the environment has in the learning process

I selected four theories for examination while recognising that these labels represent approximations rather than definitive categorisations. For simplicity’s sake as a starting point, I adopt the description of each theory following Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) to avoid complicating the discussion with alternate views of these theories. Furthermore, the descriptions in this four-element division are arbitrary as within each theory there are many competing perspectives. Furthermore, I label each theory either ‘internal’ or ‘external’ depending on whether they primary locus of activity is within or outside the individual. Table 2 outlines the four theories and their main learning characteristics.

Table 2

Learning theories, perspectives and their primary characteristics

Theory Perspectives of Learning Characteristics
Behaviourism External stimulus-response, environmentally imposed, learning is an observable change in behaviour
Humanism Internal affective aspects of learning, internal mechanisms of change, humans’ need to learn
Cognitivism Internal mental processes, information-processing, environment assimilated or accommodated, individual holds knowledge
Social constructivism External distributed knowledge, situated learning, sociocultural aspects influence knowledge

Question 1: How does the mind or body learn?

Merriam, Caffarella and Baumgartner (2007) define learning as;

“… a process that brings together cognitive, emotional, and environmental influences and experiences for acquiring, enhancing, or making changes in one’s knowledge” (p. 277).

For the following reasons, I include the body as a meaning-making system separate from the cognitive, conscious mind. Kegan, in his discussion of Piaget’s impact on learning theory, notes that sensorimotor newborn children do their “thinking by moving and sensing” (1982, p. 30, original emphasis). Lundin and Jakobson (2014) demonstrate through their study of children’s drawing that young children’s knowledge is greater than their verbal ability, supporting Wright’s (2007) observations that children’s “meaning-making is a synthesis of thought, body and emotion” (p. 48). However, the role of the body in learning generally loses its significance in formal education in which cognitive development is prioritised, and I will focus only on the mental aspects of learning from here onwards.

Behaviourist theories of learning stipulate that organisms learn through the repetitive process of associating responses with appropriate stimuli (Merriam et al., 2007). Habit formation is unproblematic when viewed through a behaviourist lens as notions of punishment-reward, goal setting and environmental cue triggering rely on stimulus-responses (Duhigg, 2014). So too, are many other learning actions. For example, daily scale practice in music and repetitive sports training promotes muscle memory, or long-term procedural memory (Levitin, 2002; Shusterman, 2011). Behaviourism becomes problematic when trying describe how higher level mental processes occur (Faruji, 2012).

Cognitivism rejected behaviourism and looked at the computer as a model of human mental architecture in order to answer questions relating to the mechanism of cognition (Smith, 2001). Learning occurs when cognitive structures develop (Merriam et al., 2007) through the expansion of semantic networks (Smith, 2001), and through processes that involve many kinds of information mapping across cognitive architectural networks (Reed, 2011). The initial focus on the computer led to the ironic repositioning of the individual as agentive in the learning situation. However, it was the recognition of the individual as the main actor in learning that inspired humanist writers to refocus learning away from behaviourism (Merriam et al., 2007). In contrast with behaviourism, which understands learning as additive, humanism “holds that people are more than the sum of their parts” (Gregory & Levy, 2013, p. 286). Arguably, though, humanism speaks more to the conditions for successful learning than to the processes of learning.

Being essentially internalist, cognitivism does not describe the influence of the environment on learning. The externalist perspective of social cognitivism offers more insights. Bandura (1999) recognised that humans are dynamically shaped by and dynamically shape three elements: “cognitive, affective and biological events; behavioural patterns, and environmental events” (p. 23) in a triadic reciprocal causation. At this juncture, a categorical shift is implied. Bandura writes about both ‘social learning theory’ (Bandura, 1971), in which he outlines neo-behaviourist learning methods such as stimulus-response theory, and ‘social cognitive theory’ (Bandura, 1991). His recognition that the environment and the individual “influence one another bidirectionally” (p. 23) indicates the understanding that social effects are agentive in the construction of the individual.

Constructivism has its roots in stage-based theories of Piaget and Vygotsky among others (Merriam et al., 2007). It is arguable at this point if these theories are internalist or externalist. Certainly for Piaget, the case is stronger for the psychological internalist position (p. 292), but the environment shapes the Vygotskian child’s learning. When he claims that “the linkage between tool use and speech affects several psychological functions” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 31), Vygotsky explicitly draws attention to the power of the environment to form cognitive conceptual development. He then proceeds to show how memory may be distributed in coloured cards, which serve not as a mnemonic but as a repository for later knowledge retrieval (p. 41). This acknowledgment of the environment’s externalist constructive role, and social constructivism allowed for perspectives of learning that included not only tools (i.e. ANT theory [Latour, 2005]) but also—and especially—the interaction with other people, as evidenced by Dewey’s assertion that “education is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession” (Dewey, 1915, p. 11).

Social constructivism, social cognition, constructivism and cognition theories see the mechanics of learning in similar ways. Wenger concedes much to earlier studies that made “biological, neurophysiological, cultural, linguistic, and historical developments that have made our human experience possible” in his description of social learning theory (Wenger, 2009, p. 216). Similar to the distinction between behaviourism and humanism, these latter four can be separated by the different conditions of learning they imply. All four rely on Piagetian notions of assimilate, accommodate, or other similar theories that describe the evolution of concept formation (e.g. Kelly’s personal construct theory [Walker & Winter, 2007], an evolution activated “when the learner is confronted by cognitive dissonance” [Golding, 2011, p. 468], and the earlier descriptions of semantic network expansion and architectural network building). There is no space here to describe how teaching situations are set up based on the differences between these theories. However, it is worth noting that the curriculum can be significantly dissimilar between ‘social’ and ‘non-social’ theories. Non-social curricula often utilise instructional design theorists’ dissection of concepts into components before the subsequent presentation of those components in an organised and testable format (e.g. Branch, 2009; Gagne, 1984). Social-based curricula can have less directed learning outcomes, if any, and rely more on the individual social groups themselves for the curriculum content, sequencing and testing in a process-oriented model (White, 1988).

Discussion on Question 1

Merriam et al.’s discussion of Bandura is found in their section on the humanist orientation. However as noted above, he could as well be in the cognitivist and social cognitivist orientation sections, and he himself used neo-behaviourist methods. This inability to distinguish clearly the mechanics of learning is perhaps the source much confusion regarding learning. Separating the theories presented here in terms of how they describe learning lies less at the mechanical level than at the ontological level of how learning is described.

Question 2: How is expertise developed?

Behaviourist theories of learning describe the development of more advanced ability through the automation of responses (Merriam et al., 2007). Expertise progresses as an accumulation of such automated responses. Grippin and Peters emphasise “that it is the environment that controls behaviour” (1984, cited in Merriam et al., 2007, p. 280), but this problematizes a clear understanding of how true expertise is arrived at. If experts do not follow any rules (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 2005), either expertise is an emergent property of practice, or it is ironically rule-less. Either way, behaviourism has no explanatory method to describe the higher level development of expertise.

Internalist cognitive approaches view progression as the expansion and addition of increasingly higher-level schemata, concepts, procedures and skills. Externalists note the observational attention paid by learners to aspects in their environment (Merriam et al., 2007). Observational learning does not equate exactly with imitation (Bandura, 1989), and progress in learning involves “acquiring multiple subskills in selective attention, cognitive representation, symbolic transformation and anticipatory motivation” (Bandura, 1989, p. 26). Humanist ideas of motivation, self-actualisation and personal engagement and so on can be subsumed under social notions of identity formation, self-authorising and belonging.

Discussion on Question 2

An expert has vast skills, knowledge and abilities. An elaboration of the constituents of expertise does not reveal critical differences between any of the four theories. The precise methodology for attaining expertise is explicit in all but the behaviourist school.

Question 3: How are conceptual difficulties overcome?

If the metaphor of steps represents behaviourism, one of a lift stopping at consecutive floors fits cognitivism. Hardin (2003) places trial and error and response hierarchy techniques within the behaviourist learning methodology as ways of solving problems. Trial and error involves the use of different methods when approaching problems, and response hierarchy refers to the probable success of various responses to a problem. Both methods fit a ‘step’ approach. The basic epistemic origin of knowledge is concepts, reasoning and abstract representations (Murphy, 2007). Through reasoning, concepts’ abstract properties can be manipulated (or mente-pulation: i.e. rem mente pulsare) enabling understanding. Abstractions are units that may themselves be subdivided revealing simpler or more fundamental atomic units and rebuilt until understanding is reached. Information-processing as a term suggests a methodology for overcoming difficulties in cognitivism. Initially, the conceptually troublesome signified is understood via mediation of a symbol, which becomes unnecessary when non-mediated proceduralisation is achieved (Vygotsky, 1978). However, the ‘stage’ approach of cognitivism sees some problems potentially unsolvable until the appropriate stage is reached (e.g. Piaget [1969], Kegan [1982] and other stage theorists).

Constructivism’s approach to conceptual difficulties relies on the relationship between the individual and the environment. Dewey (1915) states that “required beliefs cannot be hammered in” (p. 13) as what is perceived as knowledge “is never a representation of the reality” (Ultanir, 2012, p. 199). Rather it is the profound processing of new information and its integration with existing schemata that produces new knowledge (Vogel-Walcutt, Gebrim, Bowers, Carper, & Nicholson, 2011). Novel information is processed either through assimilation, i.e. the information is altered, or through accommodation, i.e. the person is altered (Piaget, 1969). Troublesome concepts are approached in similar ways, although an argument can be made that peer interaction is more likely to offer techniques for assimilation and accommodation than purely cognitive techniques (M. K. Smith et al., 2009). Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” offers a further methodology for reducing cognitive dissonance as a learner’s potential ability can be drawn out “under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky S., 1978, p. 86).

Discussion on Question 3

My sense as an educator is that it is answers to this question that underpin many beliefs on the value of learning theories. With regard to question 1, very little separation is possible with regard to the ontology and mechanics of learning, and epistemological issues centre on philosophy and theories of mind. However, the question of how people overcome difficulties is both mechanical and philosophical. The result of this interaction is that varying belief systems that have fundamentally differing bases become possible. Furthermore, educators are able to conceptualise their societal and personal philosophical roles on notions of help. The concept of helping learners overcome difficulties presents educators with many opportunities for the development of curricular models, syllabus design, instructional design and so on.

Question 4: How does the environment shape learning?

Behaviourists believed that externalist shaping of the individual was the key mechanism of learning (Merriam et al., 2007). Their techniques of stimulus-response, operant conditioning and others were primarily controlled deliberate actions designed to effect change in learners. Post-modern theory has allowed for the understanding of intense relationships between individuals and their environments that go far beyond any controlled and principled behaviourist methods. I will discuss one post-modern notion, that of situated learning, and relate that to the question of how individuals learn.

Lave and Wenger introduced a new perspective of learning in their seminal work Situated Learning (1991). This perspective contained a number of critical insights into learning that forced educators to reappraise their own view of learning. The term situated is polysemic: the first meaning referring to the conditions where learning occurs; another relating to the psychological positioning of the individual to the learning object. Earlier, humanistic schools of education had focussed on aspects of the latter meaning. Although Maslow prioritised self-actualisation and Rogers’ experiential learning both discussed the psychology of the learner, both had roots in the institution and neither explained the relationship between the learner and the learning object at the level of the curriculum. Lave and Wenger’s work pointed out that the nature of what is learnt is intimately tied to holistic encapsulations of the learning object. In other words, a school teacher may construct a syllabus of academic content, but pupils learn things like the appropriacy of dress and verbal manner in the classroom, how to interact with peers in particular collaborative assignments, when to wake up and regulate bodily functions and so on as well as the target academic content. Dewey (1909) had articulated many of these points in relation to institutional learning. Lave and Wenger showed how informal learning operated linking the multiple meanings of situated as the content, volitional will and relationships in learning.

Lave (1991) positions learning within a framework of “situated social practice” (p. 67) which itself is one of three theoretical bases for situated learning. Lave, a social anthropologist, had criticised cognitive learning theories because they “dissociate cognition from its [social] contexts” (Lave, 1988, p. 43, [cited in Reed, 2011]), and developed her theory that understood knowledge as a result of socially derived environmental forces (Alexander, 2007). Wenger adds “participation shapes not only what we do, but also who we are and how we interpret what we do” (Wenger, 2009, p. 211). The internal mechanism is bypassed (see above), but Wenger offers four components of society that change learning and knowing: meaning, practice, community and identity (Wenger, 2009). By ‘meaning’ Wenger explains that humans develop meaningful lives through talk.

Concluding remarks

As a student on this EdD course, I must reflect on what I am to take away from the study of learning theories. I began this essay with the intention of investigating a few main theories’ stance on four key aspects of learning with the hope that I could, after Hume who believed that “reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions” (Hume, 1739), identify how my own sense about learning matched the literature, and see how theory answered the key questions in learning. In the end, I find myself heavily divided between the logical clarity of social cognitivism and the sheer plausibility of post-modern social constructivism, especially situated cognition. My task now is to relate my teaching to this understanding, which I now can do so with more alacrity.


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About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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