Looking at Learning Through Different Lenses

This post is based upon a couple of blog posts I wrote about Learning Theories on my original blog. What is funny about this, is that until I searched my blog, I had not realized that I had the same ah-ha moment back in 2007 and then again in 2011! This post is a combination of the posts An ah-ha moment – Learning Theories (July 31, 2007) and Learning Theories (September 24, 2011).

Back when I was studying learning theories, as part of the Master of Arts in Distributed Learning program in 2002-2005, I had a hard time grasping the relationship between the different theories. I was trying to analyze learning theories as a “natural scientist” rather than a “social scientist”. With a background in computer science and physics, I suppose that isn’t too surprising … however, a paradigms shift was definitely necessary for me to grasp learning theories.

One of the struggles I’ve had with learning theories is how the relate to one other. I think this challenge is compounded by the fact that they are always presented in a time linear model. We always start with behaviourism, then cognitivism, followed by constructivism. Each is described as an “advancement” on the other – that is, cognitivism came about because behaviourism didn’t describe everything. The problem is, that although one was created after the other in order to describe something the previous thing missed, it didn’t always describe things that the previous did. The creation of cognitivism didn’t wipe out the concept of behaviourism, it just provided another view.

In a sociology class we explored the different ways in which socialists attempt to describe culture (specifically western culture). Each of the sociologists do their analysis using a different theoretical framework. It is within the confines of their frameworks that they are able to describe how people interact with the society. Reasons for a given behavior can be describe in many different ways, based upon the framework used for the description.

This concept also applies to learning theories. For example, behaviorist learning theory is not an attempt to describe absolutely how everyone learns: rather, it is an attempt to describe how learning occurs within the constraints of the framework. In the case of behaviorist learning theory, the constraint is the stimulus-response framework. The cognitive learning theories use the framework of the brain as an empty vessel, and learning is the process of filling the vessel. The constructivist learning theories use the framework of building learning through social interactions.

Each learning theory is an attempt to describe how learning occurs given the specific framework. Further, all learning theories describe “some” ways in which we learn, but not “all” ways in which we learning. Learning is such a complex concept, that it isn’t really fair to expect a single theory to explain it all. This idea of some versus all helped me understand why I could relate to aspects of behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism and how I felt that one did not necessary exclude the other.

To help visualize, I think of learning as a large square, and within the square are circles, each representing a learning theory. Some overlap, others do not. There are hundreds of learning theory circles, and yet not “all” of learning is described by these circles. The round circles will never completely fill the square space. There will always be room left for new theories of learning. Learning is so complex, that the sum of all theories will never describe the whole.

In summary, I had two ah-ha moments:

  1. The each learning theory is using a lens to look at a portion of learning.
  2. That all the theories together will not describe all of learning.

How do you make sense of learning theories?

I'd love to hear your thoughts

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