None of the learning theories can completely define the learning process in its entirety. Rather depending on the context in which learning is occurring and the goal of learning, a theory takes predominance.
Instructors will have to become adept at using tools and techniques which flow from each learning theory and use it to their advantage.
To quickly recap the Learning Theories:
Behaviorism where learning is the change in overt, observable behavior is based on stimulus response and key concepts are reinforcement of desired responses and the discouraging of undesirable responses. Colloquially, student as wet clay and instructor as potter.
Cognivitism where learning is the change in the internal mental processes of a learner and it focuses on the cognitive processes and unobservable constructs. Focus is on acquiring knowledge. These two theories are on opposite ends of a spectrum.
Constructivism where learning is an active, constructive, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it. Here the learner is not thought of as a clean slate but as a person who has a preformed world view and needs to integrate the new learning in that. When I studied consumer behavior we discussed selective perception, selective attention and selective retention. The thought there was that a person is most receptive to information that matches his/her current ideas and tends not to retain ideas that fly in the face of current ideas. In HR we studied cognitive dissonance wherein, if a person’s current beliefs clashed with current action he/she had to either change the action or the belief. In my view these are examples of constructivism. Constructivism and Cognitivism are on different ends of the spectrum.
Social learning proposes that learning is a social process. (Colloquially, monkey see monkey do). It believes that internal structures and processes mediate learning quite the same as the cognitive. It also believes in reinforcement and environmental influence (same as the behaviorists.) The main focus is on the impact of people on people.
Humanism believes that the purpose of learning is to fulfill one’s potential (In Maslow’s words – Self Actualization). It also believes that learners will want and tend towards it. Experience is the main source of learning.
So If I was to represent the various theories and their relationship to the learner I would draw it like a circle with the learner at the centre and the 5 theories as pieces of a pie. Learning design would be like an amoeba that changes depending on the learning context, the learner and the specific goal.
To give an example from my work scenario: As L&D professional’s contracted by companies to train their employees, the HR community wants an immediate change in overt behavior (behaviorism), however we are sensitive to the fact that there is a context to the learning (social and organizational structures and cultures) and that our learners are constructing their own unique knowledge based on their past experience and our inputs (constructivism?). Another focus is to get people to learn from their interactions with one another and therefore we emphasize mentoring, peer learning, OJT’s (on the job training), shadowing, buddy systems (social learning?). In some areas, acquisition of knowledge is essential and therefore learners need to be motivated to acquire that knowledge and process it (cognivitism?) which then needs to be demonstrated through observable skill sets (behaviorism?). Lastly my goal is to help inspire each individual to become the best he/she can through our interaction (humanism?)
- Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘Learning theory’, the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm, Last update:
Contributed by Lovely Kumar Chief-Projects Larks Learning
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