Learning Theorists

People have been trying to understand the learning process for over 2000 years. It was discussed and debated at great length by the Greek philosophers such as Socrates (469 – 399 BC), Plato (427 – 347 BC) and Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) (Hammond et al, 2001). This debate has carried on through the ages and still goes on today with a multitude of viewpoints on the purpose of education and how best to encourage learning to eventuate.

Plato and his disciple Aristotle were inaugural in this debate and asked if truth and knowledge were to be found inside of us, or whether they would be learned from outside by using our senses. Plato believed the truth would be found from within through reasoning, deduction and self-reflection and so brought about rationalism. On the other hand Aristotle believed the truth would be found through experience and founded the idea of empiricism and so these antithetical views were born. Aristotle’s approach was far more scientific compared to Socrates’ dialectic method of discovery through conversations with fellow citizens.

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An approach that calls for discussion and reflection, as tools for developing thinking, owe much to Socrates and Plato (Hammond et al, 2001). Learning theory is about learning as a process and how it may take place. It is about how information can be absorbed, processed and retained and the influence that emotions, environment and mental processes can have on acquiring, augmenting and modifying knowledge and skills. Having knowledge of learning theory equips teachers to better understand the multitudinous categories of learners they will encounter and the numerous strategies they can employ to create an effective learning environment.

Although the Greek philosophers are considered to be some of the earliest thinkers on learning, it was not until the mid 1800’s when psychology emerged as a separate discipline that any new learning theories emerged. The first of these was behaviourism, which was brought to prominence by Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936) who won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for his experiments on digestive glands for which he experimented with dogs. Behaviourists are of the opinion that learners are passive and respond to stimuli and do not take in to account internal mental states or consciousness.

Gestaltism came to prominence in Germany in 1910 when there was social turmoil in Europe but had moved to the US by the 1930’s to avoid persecution. The lead figures in this movement were Wertheimer, Kofka and Kohler who utilised a holistic approach that sought to reject the mechanistic perspectives of the behaviourists. Considered to be the first educational psychologist, Edward Thorndike continued with the behaviourist theory believing learning was incremental and achieved through a trial and error approach with B. F.

Skinner, considered by many to be the father of modern behaviourism, developing this theory further with programmed learning (Ashworth et al, 2004). Behaviourist learning theory had a substantial influence in education but there was a growing body of evidence that more complex tasks requiring a higher level of thinking were not well learned this way with Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) being the first to state that learning was a developmental cognitive process. Russian teacher Lev Vygotsky expanded Piaget’s developmental theory of cognitive abilities to go beyond the individual and implicate the concept of social cultural cognition.

They were both leaders in the cognitivist approach that sees the mind as a “black box” and this box should be opened and understood. This paradigm did not really come to prominence until the early 1960’s when it replaced behaviourism as the dominant force (Anon nd). In the 1960’s we also saw the emergence of Humanist learning theory. Some of the preeminent advocates of this field were Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) and Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) who believed that learning was viewed as a personal act to fulfil one’s potential and that it is also necessary to study the person as a whole.

Humanists were the first to promote learning as being student-centred and personalised and that you should not teach, but facilitate, the learner (Anon nd). The 1970’s saw the emergence of social learning theory with its key progenitor being Albert Bandura (1925 – Present). It posits that we learn through observation, imitation and modelling and this theory is often seen as the bridge between behaviourism and cognitivism. Although the work that edifies it spans the twentieth century, Constructivism was only mainstreamed through practice in the latter part of the century.

Many of the theorists that are drawn upon are linked with other learning ideologies; these theorists include Vygotsky, Lave and Wenger, Bruner and Piaget. This theory posits that learning is an active constructive process where the learner creates his or her own subjective representations of objective reality. They do not come along as a blank slate (Ashworth, 2004) but rather bring along their past experiences and cultural perspective. The first theorist I am going to look at is Abraham Maslow who was a prominent Humanist.

Early in his career he worked with rhesus monkeys and one of the interesting things he noticed was the way that some needs took precedence over others. For example, if you were hungry and thirsty you would tend to deal with the thirst first, as you can go without food for weeks but thirst will kill you after just days. Maslow felt that the conditioning theories did not, to his satisfaction, capture the complexities of human behaviour and was of the opinion that human actions were driven toward goal attainment. He stated that human motivation is based on people seeking fulfilment and change through personal growth (Anon nd).

In 1943 Maslow wrote a paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” which talked about self-actualisation. Maslow described a person who was fulfilled and doing all they were capable of as being self-actualised. Before a person can achieve this state however, there are other needs that first need to be met. These needs can be seen in Maslow’s hierarchy, this is often depicted as a pyramid as shown (Maslow,1943). This hierarchy shows that the basic physiological needs have to be met before the higher needs can be addressed. If the physiological needs are relatively well gratified then there emerges a new set of needs, in this case safety.

When a persons physiological and safety needs are satisfied the need for love and belongingness emerges. This process continues until all the needs are fulfilled and the person can achieve self-actualisation. It is important to note that Maslow’s original five stage model has been adapted by other researchers to create both seven and eight stage hierarchies but I am dealing with Maslow so will not go any further in to them. His original hierarchy of needs five-stage model includes: biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep etc. safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc. : belongingness and love needs – work group, family, affection, relationships, etc. : esteem needs – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc. : self-actualisation needs – realising personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. Through knowledge of Maslow’s hierarchy I can better understand the needs of the individual and the impact this has on their motivation and learning.

To be truly effective in its implementation I would have to appreciate the needs of every learner, which could be at different stages for each individual in the class. These individuals could also be in a state of flux from one week to another. It is unrealistic to expect to comprehend all their requirements, even with a deep understanding of this theory. I believe the best use of this theory is to inform me of their possible state so that I might be more sympathetic towards them and understand the issues they may have. The best way to help them work towards self-actualisation is for them to be self-aware and understand their own needs.

When they arrive at class they will already have had a long day at work, often without enough time to eat. They will also be tired; although my class is at least theory, so is less physically demanding than their practical lessons in the workshop. I do try to take some of these things in to account and will allow them to bring food and drink in to the class if they so desire. I am able to meet their safety needs such as protection from the elements, security, order, limits and stability. These needs are part of the College safeguarding policy so should always be in place.

If I can manage to help them feel belongingness, which I feel they do achieve, then I am also creating a more inclusive environment for them. I feel it is important to be aware of these needs to create a better learning situation for my students. A criticism I have is that Maslow made an assumption that the needs must be satisfied in order, so that the basic physiological need must be satisfied before they can achieve safety and only once safety is achieved can they go to concern themselves with belongingness and so on through the hierarchy.

This is shown to be false, for example, if you were to study large cultures where large numbers of the population live in poverty, like India or Brazil then you see that these people can still achieve higher order needs such as love and belongingness (McLeod, 2007). According to Maslow this should not occur. If we were also to look at many creative people, such as artists like Rembrandt or Van Gogh, it could be argued that they achieved self-actualisation yet lived their lives in poverty (McLeod, 2007). I will still apply this theory even with its flaws because it is not abjectly wrong and still believe it holds a lot of truth.

Another humanist that I feel bears great relevance to my current teaching post is Malcolm Knowles (1913 – 1997). He was a champion for andragogy, self-direction in learning and informal adult education (Smith, 2002). I will not talk about informal adult education, as it does not apply to my situation. The concept of andragogy had been in sporadic use since the 1830’s but it was popularised for usage in English language by Malcolm Knowles. He believed that adults learned differently from children, which caused him to enquire further.

His work on informal adult education and his charting of adult education in the United States helped him to draw conclusions about the shape and direction of adult education. He used andragogy to bring these elements together, which was premised on at least four critical presuppositions about the characteristics of adult learners that differed from child learners, on which traditional pedagogy is based. Later a fifth assumption was added. These were as follows: self concept: As a person matures his self concept moves from one of being a dependant personality toward one of being a self directed human being. experience: As a person matures they accumulate a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning. : readiness to learn: As a person matures their readiness to learn becomes increasingly orientated to the developmental tasks of their social roles. : orientation to learning: As a person matures their time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly their orientation toward learning shifts from of subject centeredness to one of problem centeredness. motivation to learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal (Knowles 1984:12). Knowles has caused considerable debate with his assertions and claims of difference between andragogy and pedagogy with useful critiques of the notion being found in Davenport (1993), Jarvis (1987) and Tennant (1996). He has taken ideas from psychologists working in two quite different and opposing traditions, that of the humanist and the behaviourist.

From the one side he has extensively used a model of relationship derived from humanistic clinical psychology, in particular drawing on the work of Carl Rogers who argued the qualities of good facilitation. He has also drawn on other elements that owe a great deal to scientific curriculum making and behaviour modification. It has been suggested that because he has used ideas from two opposing traditions that there is a lack of evidence around this model. Knowles is not clear whether he has provided us with a theory or a set of guidelines for practice (Hartree, 1984).

The assumptions could be read as descriptions or as prescriptive statements about what the adult learner should be. Tennant (1988) made a point that there was a lack of interrogation within a coherent and consistent conceptual framework. It seems that Knowles did not temper his insights with enough analysis and interrogation of the literature of the arena. Malcolm Knowles also introduced us to self-directed learning, which is where the individual takes the initiative to realise their needs, resources and goals for learning and to evaluate the outcomes. There are three immediate reasons identified for self-directed learning.

First those who take the initiative in learning are pro-active learners and will learn better than those who wait to be taught, reactive learners. Second is that it is far more natural that as we mature we take more responsibility for our own lives and become far more self-directed. Finally the third reason is that developments in education are putting a greater emphasis on students to take the initiative for their own learning. This can also be seen as a long-term reason as the purpose of education is evolving, it is moving away from merely transmitting what is known to now developing the skills of enquiry.

Knowles then put the idea of self-direction in to packaged forms of activity and created his five step model. This involved: diagnosing learning needs. : formulating learning needs. : identifying human material resources for learning. : choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies. : evaluating learning outcomes. There is research that indicates that adults do not follow a set of steps but are far more in the hands of chance and circumstance (Smith, 2002) and I feel that this is certainly true of many of my learners.

The opportunity arose within their current life circumstances to participate in the course and if there were places available they took them. If all the places had gone they may not bother to take up a learning opportunity again, unless of course the circumstances were again in their favour. I feel that the ideas’ of Malcolm Knowles are useful to guide what I ought to term my andragogical approach to my learners. They are no longer children and should not be treated as such. His approach can inform me of what characteristics my learners may exhibit so that I may better facilitate their learning and create a more inclusive environment.

It could certainly be said that my students need to be self-directed as the qualification they are taking is equivalent to a full time course but only has part time contact hours. It requires them to do a lot a reading around the subject, being self-directed in their approach. Overall I must be critical of Knowles for his own lack of a sharp critical edge with much of his writings being more descriptive and his lack of analysis of the literature within his field. Finally, I shall examine Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) who developed the theory of situated learning, sometimes referred to as situated activity.

This has a central defining characteristic known as legitimate peripheral participation which is not itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique. It is an analytical viewpoint on learning that makes a fundamental distinction between learning and intentional instruction. Rather the process of legitimate peripheral participation is usually unintentional. Situated learning contrasts with traditional classroom learning activities where abstract knowledge is learnt out of context with intentional instruction.

This approach lends itself very well to vocational courses and especially apprenticeships where much of the learning takes place in the situation where the learning will be applied. It is not dissimilar to cognitive apprenticeship. Lave and Wenger (1991) with their model of situated learning proposed that learning involved a process known as “communities of practice”. These communities are everywhere and we are often involved in a number of them. People with a shared domain of human endeavour can engage in a process of learning by forming communities of practice. To put it more simplistically, learning takes place through social interaction.

To this end, learning in these situations does not have a beginning and an end to the process, rather we are constantly learning through experience of everyday life. Their theory can be illustrated by observation of different apprenticeships. When people initially join the community they learn at the periphery, then as they become more competent they can become more involved in the processes in that particular community. Understanding this theory is very useful in my sector as when we get the students it is their initial training and they are not always involved in the industry they are training to enter.

The situated learning will probably not play a big part in this initial training, but once they have gained the qualification and go out to work then they will be joining their community of practice. Over time, through interaction with more experienced others within the industry, they will learn and become more proficient and play a bigger role in their community. In this respect it could be argued that this is an important theory for all educators as ultimately we are educating our learners to go on and join these communities to gain knowledge and then pass it on.

I can see strong links between this and embedded learning that also takes place on vocational qualifications. I would struggle to see how this theory could be applied to more formal qualifications where much of the knowledge will often remain abstract because that is its nature. Mathematics would be an example of this; it can be contextualised, as engineering maths for example, but is not really a subject matter to be situated. In conclusion learning theories can inform us on our learners and guide us through our teaching practice.

They can be used to develop activities to bring otherwise dull subject matter to life and to create a more inclusive learning environment by applying different teaching methods based on these theories. The trouble is that the modern teacher is struggling for time, most of the time and these theories and their practice will involve some dedication for them to be implemented effectively. I am developing a greater appreciation of different viewpoints and situations to inform my own teaching and making my classroom more conducive to learning.

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