#Learning and its mirror image training is a hot topic of discussion in the whole of corporate India, as it struggles to find competent people to move the wheels of growth.
However, how people learn is a multi-disciplinary science that draws from various disciplines- psychology, anthropology, physiology, neurology etc. The result are learning theories that attempt to give an answer to the basic question – how do people learn? All techniques and methodologies flow from the learning theories. None of the 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.
The main 5 theories are behaviorism, cognivitism, constructivism, social learning and humanism.
- Behaviorism where learning is defined as 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.
- On the other hand, 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 is where learning is defined as 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. 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.
In retail the focus in training is on behaviorism and it is the right theory at the retail floor level. Here the focus is to get the retail staff comply to behavior standards, treat customers right, follow procedures etc. However the moment we go up the ladder and start dealing with the managers, we need to start looking at other learning theories. Instructors will have to become adept at using tools and techniques which flow from each learning theory and use it to their advantage.
To give an example from a typical L&D’s professional’s work environment, a successful L&D / training professional is who can balance all the learning theories and use each one appropriately. Line managers want an immediate change in overt behavior (behaviorism), however training / L&D needs to be 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 of L&D should be to get people to learn from their interactions with one another through emphasizing 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).
In the words of Anila Rattan (MD, IKH), “Every training is created with the intelligent usage of all the learning theories. It’s the facilitator’s job to know each theory and understand the context to judiciously use each theory in the design of the learning interaction.”
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.
Created by: Lovely Kumar, Chief Projects, LARKS Learning Pvt. Ltd.
This is the only way in which HR & L&D/ training can truly achieve their goal of competency building and provide corporate India with manpower that is willing and able to perform at international standards.
- Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘Learning theory’, the encyclopedia of informal education, infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm, Last update:
Contributed by: Lovely Kumar, Chief-Projects, Larks Learning