Learning Theories And Educational Paradigms Research Paper

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Theories of learning changed dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s. New ways of thinking about learning and knowledge have emerged to challenge traditional views of what learning is and how people acquire new knowledge and skills. The various theories, however, are not necessarily incompatible with one another. Rather, they provide different perspectives on the complex phenomena of learning and, in general, are relevant to different situations in which learning occurs.

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Traditional theories of learning focus on changes in behavior. During the 1970s and 1980s, these theories gave way to cognitive theories that focus on mental processes and the understanding of complex material. In the 1990s, these cognitive theories were challenged by theories emphasizing social interaction and the sociocultural context. Many psychologists and educators no longer consider learning to be a process that occurs strictly within an individual. Rather, they see learning as something distributed among several individuals (and/or environmental affordances—e.g., tools such as calculators) or existing within a ‘community of practice’ or a community of learners.

This evolution from behavioral to cognitive to social theories of learning was accompanied by new conceptions of knowledge, and how it is acquired. Traditional theories conceive of knowledge as a commodity that is transmitted, more-or-less intact, to individuals who learn it in a manner that permits them to reproduce the knowledge. According to these theories, knowledge is something an individual acquires.

More recent theories, however, view knowledge as something the learner constructs rather than assimilates. Thus, each person’s knowledge is, to some extent, unique. According to these theories, truly objective knowledge, as we normally think of it, does not exist. Rather, knowledge resides in the community of learners (individuals) that creates it. This knowledge is distributed among members of that community and various environmental characteristics that support it.

The various theories of learning can be summarized in several ways. The most common is to classify the theories with regard to the type of theoretical explanation each provides: i.e., behavioral, cognitive, and social. Each of these three general views of learning and knowing is associated with a particular philosophical and methodological perspective: empirical, rational, and pragmatic-socio-historical, respectively (Greeno et al. 1996).

These and other theoretical approaches to learning are discussed in more detail below. First, however, the meaning (definition) of ‘learning’ and several general issues will be considered.

1. Definitions Of Learning

Understanding any theory requires a clear idea of what the theory is trying to explain. As new theories of learning emerged, the conception of learning changed. In short, ‘learning’ was defined in new ways. These fresh perspectives add to our understanding of learning, but to the extent the theories explain different aspects of the learning process, fitting the pieces together is not a simple task.

Traditionally, learning has been defined in terms of a change in a person’s behavior, knowledge, or ability to perform some task (including intellectual tasks). These definitions usually stipulate that the change must result from the learner interacting with his or her environment, although most researchers would include the mental, as well as the physical, environment.

Change is the main criteria in these definitions, although changes that result from physiological maturation and temporary changes (e.g., those that result from drugs or fatigue) are explicitly excluded from the definition. This definition remained pretty much the same with cognitive theories, although as might be expected, the focus shifted to changes in mental processes, knowledge structures, and understanding.

With the advent of constructivism and sociocultural theories of learning, knowledge no longer was seen as a commodity to be transmitted. Knowledge was now seen as being distributed among several individuals and ‘affordances’ (tools, artifacts, etc.) provided by the environment. The definition of learning changed to interacting with other learners (including individuals with more experience) on a meaningful task. Some psychologists might question whether this is truly a definition of ‘learning,’ but it does describe the phenomena in which these investigators are interested.

Lave and Wenger (1991), for example, are explicit about redefining learning, thinking, and knowing as ‘relations among people in Activity in, with, and arising from the socially and culturally structured world’ (p. 51). From this perspective, learning is largely a matter of becoming attuned to both the constraints and affordances (what the situation makes possible) of participating (learning) in this social setting (Greeno et al. 1996, 1998). As Greeno et al. (1996) suggest, ‘When knowing is viewed as practices of communities and the abilities of individuals to participate in those practices, then learning is the strengthening of those practices and participatory abilities’ (p. 23).

Thus, several different definitions of learning are apparent in the literature. If a phenomenon is defined in different ways, it is reasonable to expect that substantial and qualitative differences will exist in the theories proposed to explain the phenomenon. It sometimes seems as if a single theory should be able to explain learning in all situations. The various theories of learning often compete with one another as to which is ‘best,’ but actually they complement rather than contradict one another. One theory may provide a better explanation than another theory for a particular type or aspect of learning, but there is plenty of room for more than one theory, for learning is multifaceted.

2. General Issues

Several general issues provide a context for interpreting what is presently understood about the nature of learning, how it occurs, and how it can be facilitated.

2.1 More Than One Type Of Learning

As noted previously, there are several different types of learning. Those working within a particular theoretical perspective often ignore (occasionally deny) the importance or existence of other types of learning. To fully understand learning, one must realize that a particular theory may provide a good explanation of learning in one situation but a poor explanation of learning in a different situation.

There is little agreement on exactly how many different types of learning exist. Nevertheless, several different kinds of learning are evident in the following examples: (a) learning to tie one’s shoes; (b) becoming fearful of the dark after being scared by a loud clap of thunder after the lights went out during a storm; (c) explaining the causes of World War II; and (d) negotiating the meaning of ‘learning’ with a person holding a different theoretical perspective. Different theories are good at explaining each type.

When evaluating the validity of a particular theory, it is wise to consider what the person is learning and what is taken as evidence that learning has occurred. For example, a teacher might assume that a student has gained an understanding of a topic when he or she has only memorized certain facts.

2.2 What Is Learned? Learning vs. Understanding vs. Participation

Theories of learning differ with regard to what they assume a person is learning. Traditional theories suggest that individuals acquire associations between stimuli and responses. These associations are reflected in specific behaviors, including verbal behavior (words), and various skills.

Cognitive theories, on the other hand, emphasize the acquisition of knowledge and mental processes rather than behavior. Highly organized knowledge structures, rather than isolated facts, are seen as the outcomes of learning. The focus of these theories is on understanding, problem solving and conceptual change rather than the memorization of inert knowledge.

‘Understanding’ is difficult to define in a rigorous manner. Nevertheless, certain characteristics of the concept can be identified. Knowledge must be structured and organized in order for it to be meaningful and capable of being understood. Few people would suggest, for example, that one could understand a particular telephone number, although most would agree it is possible to learn, know, or remember one. Understanding a body of knowledge involves establishing relationships among the concepts and facts that comprise that body of knowledge. Such understandings can be assessed through paraphrasing, summarizing, or answering questions about the material and/or by performing a transfer task.

Situated and sociocultural theories are concerned with individuals participating in a community of learners. Thus, rather than acquiring behavior or knowledge, learners are seen as developing social practices appropriate for functioning in such communities, as well as the ability to use tools (such as computers and calculators) that enhance one’s ‘intelligence.’

3. Traditional Approaches To Learning

Traditional theories of learning view learning within a stimulus-response framework—that is, as something that happens to the learner from the outside in. A stimulus occurs in the environment (perhaps something done or said by another person), and the individual responds. Depending on what happens next (the occurrence of reinforcement or punishment), the probability that the learner will make the same response in the future either increases or decreases. For instance, the frequency of a student’s hand raising either increases due to the teacher’s positive statement following a correct response or decreases due to the teacher consistently calling on other students or the embarrassment that results from providing an incorrect answer.

These theories provide good explanations for certain kinds of behavior, especially the acquisition of factual information, skills, and behavior patterns. In these cases, the focus is on the performance of behavioral tasks rather than adding components to the learner’s cognitive structure. Behavioral theories, however, provide poor explanations for the way individuals come to understand complex ideas and phenomena. The importance of classical conditioning is frequently dismissed as relevant only to dogs salivating (Pavlov’s initial research paradigm). This type of learning, however, provides by far the best explanation of how and why humans respond emotionally to a large variety of stimuli and situations. Fear of the dark (or water), a strong dislike (or hatred) for a particular person or group of people, phobias of various kinds, and infatuation with another person are only a few examples of the types of emotional reactions acquired through classical conditioning.

4. Contemporary Approaches To Learning

Most contemporary theories of learning assume that learning arises out of the internal conditions or states of the learner (that is, from the inside out rather than the outside in). In general, these internal factors are considered more important than external environmental factors. The learner does not merely ‘record’ or remember the material to be learned. Rather, he or she constructs a unique mental representation of the material and the task to be performed, selects information perceived to be relevant, and interprets the information on the basis of his or her existing knowledge and current needs. During this process, the learner adds information not explicitly provided by an outside source, whenever he or she needs such information to make sense of the material being studied. Most of these theories, to varying degrees, share three sets of beliefs. First, meaningful learning (i.e., learning for understanding) is an active, self-regulated, constructive, cumulative, and goal-oriented process. Second, learning is dependent on (situated in) the particular context in which it occurs. Third, learning is fundamentally a social, cultural, and interpersonal process; a process governed as much by social and situational factors as by cognitive factors. Each of these characteristics will be discussed.

4.1 Learning Is Active And Self-Regulated

It often is said that traditional theories of learning view the learner as passive, although it is more accurate to say they characterize the learner as reactive—i.e., the learner reacts to a stimulus in the environment, and that response is reinforced (or punished). Although behavioral psychologists usually recognize the need for the learner to be active in practicing associative bonds of various kinds, this type of Activity is far different from the Activity suggested by more recent theorists.

Current theories of learning view the learner as mentally active, even proactive, in his or her efforts to understand, for instance, the use of metaphors or the concept of photosynthesis. The learner carries out various cognitive and metacognitive operations on the information being learned, a process that results in the material being acquired in a meaningful manner.

During this process, the learner makes many decisions about what to do next (e.g., rehearse a particular piece of information, seek an answer to a question that comes to mind, look for similarities among various pieces of information). Effective learners also monitor the learning process, making periodic checks of how well the material is understood. As learning proceeds, the learner regulates his or her activities, making any adjustments that are needed. Among the factors involved in this process of self-regulated learning are metacognition, self-efficacy, and studying.

4.2 Learning Is Constructive

The constructive, rather than reproductive, nature of learning is an integral part of most contemporary theories of learning. Understanding is achieved, according to these theories, through an active process of construction rather than by the passive assimilation of information or the memorization of facts. These theories discard the idea that knowledge is an entity that can be passed from one person (teacher, book, etc.) to another (the learner). Rather, each learner (individually or as a member of a group) perceives and interprets new information in a unique manner, based on factors such as prior knowledge, interest, motivation, and attitude toward self. The learner then elaborates this interpretation by relating it to his or her existing understanding of the topic and/or other aspects of the material being learned. As a result, the learner’s understandings are reorganized and refined, and he or she may experience growth of general cognitive abilities such as problem solving and metacognitive processes.

Since no two people interpret the same information in the same way, no two people end up with the same understanding of the concepts and facts being studied. In the final analysis, the manner in which the learner processes new material and the type of cognitive processing in which he or she engages is the single most important determiner of what the individual learns.

There is not, however, a single constructivist theory of learning. Considerable differences exist among constructivist theories with regard to the relative influence of the mind versus the environment, private versus public knowledge, and individual versus social factors (Phillips 1995, 2000). Radical constructivism, cognitive constructivism, social constructivism, and situation cognition represent different types of constructivist theories that occupy different positions on these dimensions.

4.3 Learning Is Cumulative

All learning builds upon the individual’s prior knowledge and experiences, which can either facilitate or inhibit the new learning. Research on schema theory and the difficulties involved in overcoming one’s prior conceptions (sometimes referred to as misconceptions when they differ from established conceptions in a field such as science) illustrate the potent influence that prior knowledge has on learning.

4.3.1 Schema Theory. Schema theory, an important aspect of cognitive theories of learning, suggests learners acquire complex, organized structures of information about a topic, such as eating in a restaurant or playing music (Derry 1996, Winn and Snyder 1996). When someone encounters information (perhaps by hearing a story), it is interpreted according to a schema considered appropriate by the learner. The learner will fill in details missing from the material by making inferences based on information contained in the schema.

For example, a person hears a story about four friends having dinner in a restaurant. Unless the story mentions that the group left an unusually small or large tip, the listener will assume with considerable confidence that a normal tip was left. Leaving a tip is part of the schema for eating in a restaurant, although the amount of the tip may vary, depending on the complexity of the person’s schema with regard to tipping in different types of restaurants and different countries.

4.3.2 Prior Conceptions. When learners engage in a learning Activity, they bring with them a set of prior conceptions of the topic being studied (e.g., Rezaei and Katz 1998). These initial conceptions make sense to the learner, but frequently they are considered incorrect by the adult community. Because they are so well established, these prior conceptions are very difficult to change, probably far more difficult than most people realize.

In order to understand photosynthesis, for instance, many students must overcome erroneous conceptions about ‘food’ developed from their experiences with food for people. They ‘must abandon their assumptions about the metabolic similarities between plants and humans and restructure their thinking about the nature of food … [In this regard, they must] learn that [certain of their] beliefs about food do not generalize from humans to plants while [other beliefs must] be clarified, expanded, and given new prominence’ (Anderson and Roth 1989 p. 278).

Students who score well on classroom tests and receive high grades in a course often maintain inaccurate conceptions of key concepts they had before the topic was studied. These students’ true level of understanding is often concealed by tests and assignments that permit them to do well without understanding the material (e.g., by memorizing information). Students must be asked to apply their understandings to a wide range of problems and situations before can one have confidence that they possess an appropriate and adequate understanding of the topic.

4.4 Learning Is Goal-Oriented

Instructional goals can facilitate learning, although the use of instructional objectives is rejected by most constructivist and social theories of learning. Narrowly defined objectives are reminiscent of behavioral theories and are seen by many as stifling of meaningful learning. Yet, meaningful learning is more likely to be successful if the learner has at least a general idea of the goal being pursued and holds appropriate expectations for achieving the desired understanding.

There are many ways in which learning goals can be established. In many instructional situations, it is appropriate for students to develop or discover their own goals. Identifying appropriate learning goals (which may change as learning progresses) can become an important part of self-regulated learning and metacognitive control. In any case, it is the student’s goals that are critical for learning. The statement of objectives or goals by a teacher is not sufficient. Unless the learner adopts the goals as his or her own, they will have little if any impact on the learning process.

4.5 Learning Is Situated And Distributed

According to situated theories, knowledge and learning are situated in a particular social context and distributed across various individuals, artifacts and tools (books, calculators, etc.), and the norms and practices of the group in which the learner is participating. The interactive nature of these various systems is considerably broader and more complex than the behavior and cognitive processes of the individual learner (Greeno et al. 1998). As Greeno (1997) notes, ‘the situative view [of learning] focuses on practices in which individuals have learned to participate, rather than on knowledge that they have acquired’ (p. 6). The role of the individual learner, a hallmark of traditional theories, is no longer a central focus in many current theories.

The suggestion that knowledge and learning are distributed is readily apparent in many common situations. For instance, individuals in a class (or book club) studying ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ will have varying degrees of knowledge about (and understanding of?) the plot, the various characters, the issues addressed, etc. Discussing, analyzing, and critiquing these various perspectives increase each person’s understanding of the book and the issues that are raised. But this understanding is partial and incomplete. The individual learner will never have the full understanding that is present in the group. In fact, some of the person’s knowledge and understanding may depend on (be available only during) the interaction of various agents (people, artifacts, etc.) that are part of that particular situation.

4.6 Learning Is Social, Cultural, And Interpersonal

One of the most important differences between traditional and contemporary theories of learning is the role ‘participation’ plays in most current theories. Learning is seen as a social, cultural, and interpersonal Activity. A community of learners, however, does not refer only to students. Such a community might consist of professional practitioners, a religious organization, or a political enclave.

Many present-day theorists agree with Lev Vygotsky that cultural development and learning occur initially in the social (interpersonal) realm. Social interaction and language play critical roles during this phase. As ideas, understandings, and ways of interacting become established on the social plane, they begin to move to the psychological (intra-personal) plane. As Weade (1992) notes:

The structure and meaning of an evolving academic discourse is embedded within an evolving social structure. Simply put, the social structure mediates who can talk to (or act toward) whom, when, where, in what ways, for what purposes, under what conditions, and with what tangible or imagined outcomes (p. 95).

5. Mechanisms For Learning

The various theoretical perspectives differ in the way they conceptualize the factors responsible for learning to occur. Traditional theories suggest learning is the result of reinforcement or feedback. Practice also is important, although practice will not produce learning unless it is accompanied by reinforcement. In the case of classical conditioning, contiguity (proximity) of two stimuli is the primary cause of learning. Cognitive theories generally postulate that learning occurs as the result of elaboration, thinking, problem solving, and/or reflection. It is the mental processing of information, rather than external reinforcement, that produces learning. Shuell (1996) suggests that 12 ‘learning functions’ need to be engaged for meaningful learning to occur: (a) establishing expectations; (b) establishing motivation; (c) activating prior knowledge; (d) focusing attention on relevant features of the material being studied; (e) encoding information; (f) comparing information; (g) generating hypotheses about possible relationships and solutions; (h) repetition of information until it is integrated into higher-level concepts; (i) receiving feedback on adequacy of one’s understanding; (j) evaluating one’s hypotheses and the feedback received; (k) monitoring the learning/understanding process; and (l) combining, integrating, and synthesizing available information to form a new (revised) understanding of the topic being studied.

Constructivist, situated, and sociocultural theories suggest that learning results from social interaction, discourse, negotiation, and Activity (physical and/or mental) in the performance of ‘authentic’ activities. Presumably, different types of discourse and negotiation, for example, result in different types of learning, but very little research on these factors is presently available.

6. Educational Paradigms

Just as there is not a single type of learning, neither is there a single best educational paradigm or instructional practice. Schools and educational programs are far more likely to be based on philosophical presumptions than on empirical and theoretical foundations of learning. Schools differ in their philosophical beliefs about human nature, children, locus of authority, and knowledge, as well as beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning. Every educational system and instructional program contains a theory of learning, although this theoretical foundation usually is implicit.

Some of the philosophical and theoretical differences have endured for centuries, and the debate is likely to continue. For example, the ‘factory model’ of schooling, based on production and management procedures proven successful during the industrial revolution, dominated education in the USA for many years. This perspective on teaching and learning, however, stands in sharp contrast to the voices of Thoreau, Dewey, and others who advocate discovery, social reform, and freedom as the appropriate means of education (Shuell 1993).

These differences are evident in the various theories of learning discussed previously. Traditional classrooms, for example, are based on traditional theories of learning and knowledge. Knowledge is seen as an entity that can be passed from one person to another (in this case, from teacher to student). Consequently, the curriculum consists primarily of factual information. Since learning is viewed as a process of memorization and practice, an appropriate classroom is one in which the teacher tells students what they need to know through the use of expository and didactic methods. The consistency between the underlying theory of learning and instructional practices is quite apparent.

On the other hand, if one believes that knowledge is something created afresh by students and that learning occurs from working on authentic tasks in a social environment, a very different type of classroom emerges. A visit to this classroom would find students working in groups, very likely discussing how best to solve a problem in order to complete a task. Or they might be found negotiating the meaning of a particular concept in an effort to understand and perhaps apply it to the solution of some problem. Once again, consistency exists between a theory of learning and the instructional practices occurring in the classroom.

Schools and classrooms are organized in different ways, have different learning practices, and assess students in different ways. Students learn more than what they are explicitly taught. They ‘also develop patterns of participation and identities that are shaped by these different practices in which they learn’ (Greeno et al. 1998: 14). Classroom learning involves social, emotional, and participatory—as well as cognitive—factors. Several educational paradigms based on contemporary theories of learning are discussed.

6.1 Cognitive Apprenticeship

The cognitive apprenticeship model of teaching grew out of situated theories of learning. Apprenticeships (both formal and informal) are a common way of learning in non-school settings. Although there are differences between traditional models of apprenticeship and cognitive-apprenticeship models of teaching, the latter were proposed in a belief that the knowledge and skills learned in school have become too abstracted from their use in the world outside of school (Shuell 1996).

Generally, cognitive apprenticeship models of teaching involve a series of six teaching procedures. Students first observe an expert (usually the teacher) model the desired performance in an environment similar to the ones in which the performance is to occur. Second, coaching (hints, feedback, modeling, reminders, etc.) is provided. Next, conceptual scaffolding is provided with the student performing as much of the task as possible, although this external support is gradually faded as the student gains proficiency. Fourth, students are asked to articulate their knowledge and understanding of the task, followed by a request for them to reflect upon their understanding and reasoning. Sixth, students are encouraged to explore new ways in which the knowledge or skill can be used. Cognitive apprenticeship programs have been developed in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematical problem solving.

7. Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal teaching is a cognitive-apprenticeship model for teaching reading comprehension. The procedure involves a structured dialogue in which the teacher and students take turns (hence the name) leading a discussion that includes four types of strategic activities: predicting, questioning (making up a question on the main idea), summarizing (selfreview), and clarifying. Throughout the instructional session, the teacher provides guidance and feedback (scaffolding) tailored to the needs of the current student discussion leader in an attempt to improve the level of his or her performance. A more extensive summary of reciprocal teaching and a list of references are available in Shuell (1996).

7.1 Conceptual Change Teaching

A large body of literature, primarily in science and mathematics education, has evolved on overcoming the misconceptions that many students have prior to the start of classroom instruction. As noted previously, these pre-existing conceptions are difficult to change. Changing them involves more than students gaining ‘insight,’ and the process is a slow one. Four conditions are generally considered important for conceptual change to occur in students (Posner et al. 1982): (a) the student must become dissatisfied with his or her existing conceptions; (b) the new conception must be intelligible to the student; (c) the new conception must initially appear plausible and capable of solving the problems generated by its predecessor; and (d) the student must see the new conception as being useful for understanding a variety of situations.

8. Summary

New conceptions and theories have expanded our understanding of human learning by focusing on factors ignored in earlier research. As theories progressed from behavioral to cognitive to situated to sociocultural explanations of learning, the emphasis shifted from changes in behavior to acquisition of knowledge to social participation. The corresponding mechanisms for learning also changed from reinforcement and practice to thinking and other mental processes to participation in a community of learners. To a large extent, however, the various theories compliment one another, for each focus on a different aspect of the learning process or a different type of learning. Generally speaking, contemporary theories suggest that meaningful learning is an active, self-regulated, constructive, cumulative, goal-oriented, context-dependent, social, culturally, and interpersonal process. Various educational paradigms have emerged from these theories, including cognitive apprenticeships, reciprocal teaching, and teaching for conceptual change. With regard to education, these theories suggest that meaning does not reside in the material being learned or the manner in which it is presented to students. Information may possess a potential for being meaningful, but it is the learner who makes it meaningful by processing it in a meaningful manner. It is not sufficient for the teacher to explain or demonstrate how various concepts and facts are related. This Activity can occur without the occurrence of meaningful learning on the part of the student.


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