Educational Learning Theory Research Paper

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1. Introduction

There are distinct traditions in education that derive from differing perspectives on the phenomena of the domain. We organize our discussion around three general perspectives that have developed in educational research. We recognize that other organizing principles could be chosen, and that many of our colleagues would characterize the field in different terms. Our version groups together many research contributions that could be distinguished in important ways. We have arrived at this grouping in our own effort to understand broad trends in educational research.

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The perspectives correspond to three general views of knowing and learning, which following Case (1992) we refer to as empiricist, rationalist, and pragmatist– sociohistoric. (Case used the simpler term ‘sociohistoric.’) Empiricism, typified by Locke and Thorndike, emphasizes consistency of knowledge with experience. Rationalism, typified by Descartes and Piaget, emphasizes conceptual coherence and formal criteria of truth. Pragmatism, typified by Dewey and Mead, and sociohistoricism, typified by Vygotsky, emphasize that knowledge is constructed in practical activities of people as they interact with each other and their material environments. Current manifestations of these three perspectives are the behaviorist perspective, the cognitive perspective, and the situative perspective.

All three of these perspectives have contributed, and continue to contribute, important insights to fundamental scientific knowledge and understanding of cognition and learning, and have influenced educational practices significantly. While each perspective is valuable, they frame theoretical and practical issues in distinctive and complementary ways, somewhat in the way that physics, chemistry, and biology frame issues surrounding genetic replication in different ways. This essay is drawn from an extended discussion of the three perspectives in Greeno et al. (1996).

2. Overview Of The Three Theoretical Perspectives

There are three thematic issues that characterize the perspectives:

(a) The nature of knowing.

(b) The nature of learning and transfer.

(c) The nature of motivation and engagement.

In the behaviorist empiricist view, knowing is an organized accumulation of associations and components of skills. Learning is the process in which association and skills are acquired, and transfer occurs to the extent that behaviors learned in one situation are utilized in another situation. Motivation is a state of the learner that favors formation of new associations and skills, primarily involving incentives for attending to relevant aspects of the situation and for responding appropriately. There are three traditions that we consider contributed to this view. Associationism, which goes back to Locke and David Hume, viewed knowing as the associations between ideas, and learning as building new associations. Behaviorism took the position that knowing could be characterized only in terms of observable connections between stimuli and responses, and learning in terms of forming and strengthening or weakening and extinguishing those connections through reinforcement or non-reinforcement. Connectionism (or neural networks) treats knowledge as the pattern of connections be- tween neuron-like elements, and learning as the strengthening or weakening of those connections.

The cognitive/rationalist perspective on knowledge emphasizes understanding of concepts and theories in different subject matter domains and general cognitive abilities, such as reasoning, planning, solving problems, and comprehending language. There are three traditions of research that we consider to be branches of the rationalist perspective. The oldest of these is gestalt psychology, which emphasized the structural nature of knowledge and the importance of insight in learning. A second tradition, constructivism, was originally developed by Piaget and is focused on characterizing the cognitive growth of children, especially their growth in conceptual understanding. The third tradition, symbolic information processing, was developed in cognitive science by Chomsky, Simon, Newell, and others, and is focused on characterizing processes of language understanding, reasoning, and problem solving. All three traditions emphasize the importance of organized patterns in cognitive activities. The constructivist and information-processing traditions also focus on procedures and operations for representing and reasoning about information. Learning is understood as a constructive process of conceptual growth, often involving reorganization of concepts in the learner’s understanding, and growth in general cognitive abilities, such as problem solving strategies and metacognitive processes. Discussions of motivation often emphasize that much learning occurs without the need for extrinsic incentives, as in the case of learning one’s first language, and focus on ways to foster the intrinsic interest of learners in ideas and concepts.

The situative/pragmatist–sociohistoric perspective views knowledge as distributed among people and their environments, including the objects, artifacts, tools, books, and the communities of which they are a part. Analyses of activity focus on processes of interaction of individuals with other people and with physical and technological systems. Several research traditions have contributed to the situative perspective. The best established of these is ethnography, including the study of cultural practices and patterns of social interactions, as well as discourse analysis and conversation analysis in activity theory, sociolinguistics, anthropology, and sociology. Another research tradition is ecological psychology, which studies behavior as physical interaction in which animals, including people, participate in physical and technological systems. A third research tradition is situation theory, in logic and philosophy, which analyzes meaning and action as relational systems and is developing a reformulation of logic to support these relational analyses. Knowing in this perspective is both an attribute of groups that carry out cooperative activities and an attribute of individuals who participate in the groups. Learning by a group or individual involves becoming attuned to constraints and affordances of the material and social systems with which they interact. Discussions of motivation in this perspective often emphasize engagement of individuals with the functions and goals of the community, including interpersonal commitments and ways in which individuals’ identities are enhanced or diminished by their participation.

3. Acquiring And Applying Associations: The Behaviorist Empiricist View

When people’s knowledge is viewed as having associations between ideas or stimuli and responses, learning is the formation, strengthening, and adjustment of those associations. The research on basic associative processes of learning has important implications for teaching and learning. One is the importance of individual students having opportunities to give responses of the kind that they are to learn, and of feedback that is contingent on the individual student’s responses.

Researchers in behavioral conditioning also found that effective learning usually requires significant preparation, or shaping, in which the learner becomes oriented to the general conditions where learning will occur. In conditioning experiments with animals, shaping involves a period in which the trainer attends carefully to the animal’s activity in the learning environment, first providing reinforcement for being near the goal (e.g., a disk that a pigeon can peck), then for orienting toward the goal, then for touching it, and finally only for pecking it; the response that is desired. This kind of instruction by approximation has clear parallels in school learning, where skilled teachers attend to students’ progress and provide encouragement for students’ efforts as they achieve better approximations to the behaviors they need to succeed.

Analysis of complex tasks into learning hierarchies (Gagne 1968) has been used in designing instruction sequences and computer-based systems for learning routine skills. The hypothesis that smaller units of behavior need to be mastered as prerequisites for more complex units provides a basis for arranging sequences of instruction in which students are able to succeed by learning in small steps. This decomposition hypothesis is currently being questioned by many in the cognitive community (e.g., Resnick and Resnick 1991), based on a concern that instruction limited to components can result in mechanical knowledge without sufficient development of the conceptual basis for procedures that are learned.

In the view that knowing is having associations, learning in a new situation depends on how many, and which kinds of, associations needed in the new situation have already been acquired in the previous situation. The idea of transfer in conditioning involves gradients of similarity along stimulus dimensions, so that a response learned as an association to one stimulus generalizes more strongly to other stimuli that are similar to it in all respects, and less strongly to stimuli that differ from it in one or more dimensions. Thorndike (1903) expressed this as a theory of transfer based on common elements.

4. Acquiring And Using Conceptual And Cognitive Structures: The Cognitive Rationalist View

Research on children’s learning has been a significant topic in developmental psychology. Piaget’s influence on educational practice has been considerable, especially informing efforts to organize science learning in a way that involves students’ discovery of principles and concepts. Current research is developing accounts of the rich intuitive conceptual understanding by children, which undergoes significant change as they grow older. The research emphasizes that children’s learning must be viewed as transforming significant understanding that they already have, rather than as simple acquisitions written on blank slates.

Information-processing models characterize learning in terms of procedures that represent task information, set goals, and transform symbolic expressions to satisfy the main problem goal. As an example, Anderson (1983) simulates three kinds of learning processes: proceduralization, tuning, and automization. Researchers have also investigated reasoning and understanding that depends on mental representations, called mental models, that provide a kind of simulation of events, rather than descriptions of events (Gentner and Stevens 1983). In reasoning with a mental simulation, a model represents properties of the system, and operating on the model changes some of those properties in ways that correspond to changes in properties of the system.

An important theme in the cognitive view of learning is the concept of metacognition, the capacity to reflect upon one’s own thinking, and thereby to monitor and manage it. These strategies have been studied under many labels, all pointing to the importance of self-conscious management of one’s own learning and thinking processes. This theme was introduced by developmental psychologists (e.g., Brown 1978, Flavell and Wellman 1977) who noted that a reflective, self-monitoring capacity discriminated developmentally advanced children from their less advanced peers.

In the cognitive perspective, transfer is assumed to depend on acquiring an abstract mental representation that is invariant across situations. A large body of research has found that students often fail to transfer their learning. Brown (1989) pointed out that in research about children’s ability to transfer, the deck is stacked in favor of finding that transfer does not occur. Children are asked to solve a problem, then a new problem is presented, and the experimenter observes whether the new problem is solved in a way that uses the initial solution. Usually, experimenters do their best to hide the relation between the two problems when the second problem is presented, so that if children do transfer, we can be sure they did so spontaneously. More importantly, for Brown, the potential generality of the initial solution is not made clear. When Brown and Kane (1988) taught solutions of problems and asked children to explain why the solutions were examples of general themes, thus calling attention to their potential generality, the children in their experiments transferred much more successfully.

There is an important theoretical and educational principle in these results about transfer. The manner in which solutions of problems are presented can make a major difference for the generality of what is learned. If students understand the solution as an example of a general method, and if they understand the general features of the learning situation that are relevant to use of the method, the abilities they learn are more likely to apply generally.

5. Becoming Attuned To Constraints And Affordances Through Participation: The Situative Pragmatist–Sociohistoric View

When knowing is viewed as practices of communities and of the abilities of individuals to participate in those practices, then learning is the strengthening of those practices and participatory abilities. Systems in which individuals learn to participate in social practices are very common, and include apprenticeship and other forms of being initiated into the practices of a group. Lave and Wenger (1991) reviewed several studies of learning involving apprenticeship and concluded that a crucial factor in the success of such a system is that learners must be afforded legitimate peripheral participation, which involves access to the practices that they are expected to learn and genuine participation in the activities and concerns of the group. Lave and Wenger characterized learning of practices as processes of participation in which beginners are relatively peripheral in the activities of a community, and as they become more experienced and adept, their participation becomes more central. A crucial issue in the nature of learning is whether, and in what ways, the peripheral participation of beginners is legitimate. For an environment of apprenticeship to be a productive environment of learning, learners need to have opportunities to observe and practice activities in order to progress toward more central participation.

The view that learning occurs through participation is at the root of the practices of apprenticeship, where apprentices are guided and supervised by masters. In successful apprenticeship learning, masters teach by showing apprentices how to do a task (modeling), and then helping them as they try to do it on their own (coaching and fading). Lave and Wenger (1991) emphasized how an apprentice’s identity derives from becoming part of the community of workers. The motive for becoming a more central participant in a community of practice can provide a powerful motivation for learning. Of course, what is learned in apprenticeship may not generalize easily to other contexts. Collins et al. (1989) attempted to characterize how the modeling, coaching, and fading paradigm of apprenticeship might be applied to learning the cognitive subjects of school, in an approach they called ‘cognitive apprenticeship.’

A major goal of educational reform is to have students participate more actively in learning com- munities, including participation in formulating and evaluating questions and problems, and constructing and evaluating hypotheses, evidence, arguments, and conclusions (Brown and Campione 1996). Abilities for participating in these activities have to be learned, and the research literature on that kind of learning is sparse. Several projects have focused on creating classroom practices of discussion and inquiry, and the investigators in those projects have discussed some aspects of the process of establishing norms and expectations by the students that support productive collaborative learning (Cohen 1986, Lampert 1990, Slavin 1983).

In the view of learning as coming to participate in a community of practice, transfer becomes a problematic issue. The question is whether transfer applies to new practices within the community (e.g., for school communities this might mean working new problems or accomplishing new kinds of tasks) or to practices outside the community (e.g., for school these might be work environments). Many of the resources and supports that occur within a community of practice do not carry over to a different community, and so the problem of transfer becomes one of marshalling the resources needed to be successful in a new environment. This requires sophisticated social and information-processing skills: the kinds of skills that businesses think they will need in the future.

For transfer to be possible, there must be some constraints and/or affordances that are invariant under the transformations that change the learning situation into the transfer situation. For transfer to occur, learners must become attuned to those invariants in their initial learning. One of the ways to be attuned is to have an abstract representation that can apply in the new situation, but this is only one possible way for attunement to occur, and may not be the typical way for many learned activities to generalize (Greeno et al. 1993).


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