Learning Theories 101: What they mean

Any e-learning courseware designer knows about Bloom’s Taxonomy of the cognitive domain. The taxonomy works as a theory that can directly be applied to e-learning. Others, like Multiple Intelligences, can be used to promote (or discourage) this or that learning system. Broader theories—like Humanism—look at people and learning in all their complexity, trying to arrive at How to Teach People. Why so many theories?

Well, it’s difficult to come up with an idea about learning that’s correct and useful for every person in all situations. We keep stumbling upon the names now and then, so for a basic idea of what’s been going on, let’s look at a few of the tens of theories, paradigms, and “ism”s that touch upon learning.

Whether you design, implement, or use courseware, you’ve already seen these all over the place—even if you don’t remember the names!

The word: Behaviourism
The people: Ivan Pavlov, B F Skinner, and others
The good: Gives the instructor full control
The bad: Thinks of learners as empty containers

This is the one that actually caused the problem—the problem that other learning theories try to rectify! Behaviourism as applied to learners is the idea that the learner is an empty container to be filled with “the learning”. What the learner does after learning is called his “behaviour.” The behaviour can be shaped by putting various things into the container and observing what happens. 

While talking about behaviourism, the phrase “operant conditioning” comes up often. Stripped of the details, this scientific-sounding word means: “Reward someone for doing something good, and punish him for doing something bad. He will automatically do the correct activities after some time.”

As adults, what we remember about our schoolroom is close to this. The teacher teaches by filling the students with facts they should know. The exam tests how much they know. If the student “behaves” correctly by showing that he has learnt, then he is rewarded by being promoted. If he has behaved incorrectly, he/she is demoted. Teachers hope that in this way, the student will eventually behave perfectly (that is, that he will be filled with the correct knowledge).

The word: Cognitivism
The people: Noam Chomsky, Jean Piaget, Edward Tolman, Jerome Bruner, and others
The good: It looks at people; it looks at how people think
The bad: Ignores many aspects, including the person’s social environment

Pure cognitivism treats a person’s mind like a computer. This might not sound very good, but it is definitely better than treating it like an empty vessel. In fact, the change in educators’ attitude from Behaviourism to Cognitivism was a big transformation, an event spread over many years.

What this paradigm says is that to teach effectively, one needs to look at how people’s minds work. How do people think? How do they remember things? How do they solve problems? Cognitivism says that these processes need to be understood. As a rough example: How would a teacher know whether the length of a course is just right? The factors to be considered here include human attention span, the balance of theory and practice that is optimal for a person, and so on.

In 2010, we don’t see many people saying they “believe in Cognitivism,” but it is a theoretical idea that people use quite often. When you say “You’ll understand it better when I explain it this way,” you’re being a cognitivist.

The word: Constructivism
The people: Herbert Simon, Ernst von Glaserfeld
The good: Says that the learner builds up knowledge based on the current context and on past events
The bad: Makes it difficult for teachers to design good courses

Constructivism carries a large, good set of ideas; just for that reason, it is often misunderstood. It is difficult for an educator to become a constructivist because he would need to consider many factors about the learner:

  • While learning, the learner is affected by what he already knows.
  • What the learner feels about this subject will affect how much he learns.
  • Each learner is different.
  • The learner’s social and intellectual environment make a difference.

In its essence, Constructivism says: If you try to teach a person something, he will “construct” something in his mind. What he constructs—that is, what he actually learns—depends on a lot of things, including subjective factors.

How does this fit in today? Most of us intuitively agree with the core idea of Constructivism. We see elements of the paradigm in various modern theories of learning. One practical example is “recall” or “reinforcement” exercises in courseware. These allow the person to “construct” a frame of mind where the rest of the material will make more sense.

The word: Humanism
The people: Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and others
The good: The person comes first, the learning comes second
The bad: Understanding a person is not easy

This is a broad belief, but it has also been called an approach to teaching. Humanism talks primarily about The Individual: the freedoms and responsibilities, the values and beliefs, the actions and the potential, of each person. Within learning, Humanism says that the learning that a person does is part of the set of all his actions. Learning is an activity, like some other activities, that enables a person to fulfil his potential.

This seems too obvious, so let’s ask: What is not obvious about Humanism? Well, Behaviourism says that learners are clean slates upon which knowledge can be written. Humanism is quite the opposite, saying that a person approaches learning material as a human, carrying some ideas, beliefs, and values. He goes through the material as a thinking person. After he is finished learning, he has accomplished some of his goals as a human.

The idea that courseware can be (or should be) learner-centric; the idea that the instructor should play the role of a facilitator; the idea that different learners have different needs—all these come from Humanistic beliefs.

The phrase: Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
The person: Richard Mayer
The good: Recognises that words alone are not sufficient in learning
The bad: Talks about the mind exactly as though it were a computer

All of us have seen this principle in practice right since we were a few years old. The “multimedia principle” of Richard Mayer says that people learn much more from words in combination with pictures than from words alone.

This isn’t quite the same as “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Mayer emphasises the importance of the combination of words and pictures; the words may be auditory or visual.

The multimedia principle assumes that in the human mind, there are separate channels for processing auditory and visual information, implying that when the learner is looking at an image on a screen, there is a big difference between words appearing on the same screen versus the same words being spoken aloud.

Mayer’s theory is long and detailed; it spells out how (probably) we observe, perceive, assimilate, and store information. It also explains the possible effect of old information (knowledge) on new information.

A powerful aspect of the “multimedia principle” is that there is a limit on how much information can be processed by each channel, whether auditory or visual—implying that “information overload” is physically possible!

To get into the details of the theory, one must first accept that the mind works like a computer: that it has channels, “stores” of information, and so on. Some people might have a hard time doing that.

The phrase: Experiential Learning
The person: David Kolb
The good: The “learning styles” aspect seems to reflect real life
The bad: The theory doesn’t reflect the way our mind works

“Kolb’s learning styles” is a well-known phrase in learning circles. David Kolb’s theory explains how learning happens in four stages; the learning styles are an offshoot of the theory.

The styles refer to kinds of people based on how they learn. Suppose the topic to be studied is “how computers work.” Kolb’s four kinds of learner would be:

Accommodators, who understand it best by using a computer for various tasks

Convergers, who like to learn it by being told what a computer can be used for and what it cannot be used for

Assimilators, who prefer the concepts to be spelt out

Divergers, who just need to be introduced to the topic, and then allowed to find out more on their own

Many in the e-learning industry have been enthusiastic about Kolb’s theory, but there’s a good amount of criticism as well.

The idea of learning styles comes from the “stages of learning” as Kolb specified them; in any learning process, all four stages are involved, and in a particular sequence. The stages are Observing, Thinking, Planning, and Doing.

The learning may begin at any point in the sequence, but Kolb says it always includes all four stages. This means it’s cyclical. One possibility is: Thinking >> Planning >> Doing >> Observing. Another possibility is Doing >> Observing >> Thinking >> Planning. In the latter case, a person would perform an activity, then observe its effects, then think about it, then plan to do something as a next step.

The “learning styles” correspond to the four stages in the learning process.

Much of the criticism of Kolb’s model is because it’s hard to imagine that our minds only do one thing at a time. It doesn’t seem to make sense; according to Kolb, you cannot (for example) observe something while thinking about it.

 

These are some of the main paradigms and theories. New ones are often based on existing ones, sometimes building upon them, sometimes combining the best of this and that. The Internet has had a huge effect on learning theories—because being online changes the way we absorb information, what kinds of information we expose ourselves to, even how we think!