CCK08 – What is learning theory?

Charles Reigeluth offers a definition of what a learning theory is. He states that learning theories are descriptive, describing how learning occurs. They are descriptive in the sense that they attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the effects that result from phenomena.

In contrast, theories that are design oriented are usually prescriptive in nature offering guidelines as to what method(s) to use to achieve a particular goal. Instructional design theories are design oriented. Like George Siemens writes ” Theory informs and gives rise to practice (even legitimates it). Practice in term evaluates and extends theory”, Reigeluth comments that descriptive theories are very useful to practitioners because they provide an etiological basis for understanding why a particular design oriented theory works or provide a basis for the creation of a new design theory where none exists.

George has already provided us with Ertmer’s and Newby’s “five definitive questions to distinguish learning theory”:

a. How does learning occur?
b. What factors influence learning?
c. What is the role of memory?
d. How does transfer occur?
e. What types of learning are best explained by this theory?

The answers to these questions are descriptive in nature. For example, let us look at Stephen’s comments to each of the five points:

– learning occurs as a distributed process in a network, based on recognizing and interpreting patterns
– the learning process is influenced by the diversity of the network, strength of the ties
– memory consists of adaptive patterns of connectivity representative of current state
– transfer occurs through a process of connecting
– bets for complex learning, learning in rapidly changing domains

It is important to understand that these can guide and inform the creation of design oriented theories (such as for the current course) and specific methods. For example, aspects of a possible design theory for the course could include critical reflection, connection forming and strong motivation (whether intrinsic or extrinsic). Consequently, methods such as creating blogs and wikis could be seen as components of the learning experience that guide the learners to an end goal.

3 thoughts on “CCK08 – What is learning theory?

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  1. Psychological learning theory has traditionally been concerned with the single individual. If we want to connect our learning theory to neuroscience, then we need to stick with the individual orientation. But we can certainly have a sociological learning theory that deals with learning phenomena in groups. However, our sociological learning theory should connect to our psychological learning theory, but not necessarily reduce to it.

    Shoud learning theory relate also to memory? If by “memory” you mean the process of remembering (that is, of reconstructing an approximation to activity in neural networks which were previously activated), then learning theory should deal with memory (I prefer to call it “remembering” to make clear that it is a process). But if you mean that memory is a place or several places in the brain that store information, then no. The latter view is not consistent Edelman’s neural Darwinism, which is the most complete brain theory we have at this time.

    In an earlier post, Tom Werner defined behaviorism “as the world view that leads us to have needs assessment + objectives + content creation by experts + content delivery + evaluation.” This actually defines a cognitive approach to ISD. The behavioral approach leads us to have needs assessment + performance analysis + objectives + modelling + practice with feedback to criterion. Back in the late fifties through the mid-seventies, I was a researcher with HumRRO. This is how we thought about what we were trying to accomplish. There is no transfer problem in the behavioral approach because learners practice each skill in a job context to job standard. This is the model that Bob Mager follows in his criterion-referenced instruction (CRI). CRI is usually self-paced and involves a great deal of social learning interactions among the learners. In the mid-seventies, Gagne declared ISD to be cognitive and ISD reverted to lecture presentations in classrooms and has been there ever since. Mind you, behaviorism has problems dealing with cognitions, but not irresolvable problems especially in view of some current neuroscience theories. Panksepp notes that Skinner did not think it necessary for behaviorism to merge with the underlying brain biology. Skinner was wrong and the merger is highly feasible.

    We do need to pay attention to how the brain works. Current cognitive science did not do so and wound up with a computer metaphor cut from whole cloth. It is a fantasy science. It has misled how we interpret research finding and has often led us to ask the wrong research questions.

    Do we learn knowledge or do we learn to express knowledge in language and sensory imagery, which then leads us to act in some appropriate way in a particular context? Expressing knowledge moves us away from symbollic abstractions of cognitive science to human activities that can be specified and practiced.

    Paul Whitmore


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