10.1 Foundations--Theories of Learning

Learning is one of those difficult-to-define concepts that most people claim to know the meaning of, but few are able to explain. There are a variety of theories proposed by educators and psychologists as paradigms for the learning process. For a detailed discussion, the reader is invited to consult a text on educational psychology; what follows is only a brief summary of these by certain major categories in a form that will be found useful in the remainder of the chapter.

Behavioral Approaches

Behavioral theories hold that all learning involves (or perhaps consists solely of) a change in the learners' behaviour--either externally and in an easily observable fashion, or internally, but no less physically real and quantifiable. They depend heavily on assumptions that there is nothing extra-material about the human spirit, mind, or consciousness but that all these can be explained entirely in terms of quantifiable responses to changes in the environment, that is, in physical terms. Learning is supposed to be achieved when new electrical patterns are established in the brain, and to be entirely objective and scientific in nature. Complex Behaviours are learned a piece at a time, with connections being made in the brain in order to build up the whole pattern

The techniques that are supposed to achieve the desired change of behaviour vary according to different members of this school. They include:

o Classical conditioning, which involves the introduction of a stimulus designed to evoke a particular response. These theories grew out of the work of Pavlov and his experiments with dogs. His subjects were presented with an unconditioned stimulus (food) along with a neutral one (a bell) and their salivation was observed. Once this had been done many times, the dogs became conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell; they had "learned" its connection with food. In a like manner, this theory holds, children can be conditioned to make certain connections with what they already know, and all their learning can be explained by this process.

o Operant conditioning, which is similar to classical conditioning except that the animals were required to operate some apparatus such as a lever in order to have the food dispensed. Here, learned behaviour is self-selected rather than simply reflexive. That is, the learner actively participates in acquiring the conditioned behaviour.

o Environmental shaping, which holds that control of the environment is the principal tool to behaviourally engineer learners into any desired pattern. In particular, heredity is regarded as relatively unimportant either to the ability to learn or to the final outcome of the process.

o Contingent reinforcement, which reverses the order of classical conditioning and supposes that reinforcing stimuli ought best to follow a learned behaviour. Thus, the likelihood of some behaviour is increased or decreased depending on whether it is followed by a reward or a punishment. One would view the dog's salivation at the sound of a bell as the learned behaviour, and the provision of food as the reward. Here, all teaching methods, whether using reward or punishment, are evaluated for their ability to produce the desired behaviour, and not for any intrinsic value they might have. Practical techniques based on this theory, which was developed by B.F. Skinner, include scientifically scheduled and programmed learning and the use of a variety of teaching machines.

o Social learning theories, which hold that new potential Behaviours are acquired by the observation and imitation or modelling of others, and that these are stored for use on appropriate occasions, the suitability of which are also learned by imitation.

These behavioural theories have the advantage that they are end-result focused on the actual physical or brain activity of the learner that results from the process. They have two disadvantages: First, they do not attempt to explain what thinking is or offer a context in which to evaluate ideas--that is, they are useful only for outcomes. Second, they do not provide an ethical framework within which to judge techniques of teaching and learning, except for the end result of changed behaviour. Together, these mean that the means are divorced from the ends, except as cause-and-effect, and that could be hazardous indeed for the participants in learning processes.

Cognitive-Discovery Approaches

Cognitive-discovery approaches concentrate on thinking patterns in the learner, without the behaviourist stress on objective physical changes achieved in the learners' overt activities or brain patterns. The whole of learning is held to be greater than the sum of its parts, that is, the mind assigns meaning to patterns that transcends the original data. In this view, learning takes place not just by adding up the facts and physical associations of the stimuli, but by grasping the relationships between them. The learner does not merely respond, but perceives. That is, something new is mentally synthesized from the raw data that was not present in any physical sense, but that is a result of classification, organization, and insight taking place as mental activities within the learner. Some variations within the theme include:

o Gestalt theory, which emphasizes the high level pattern of the whole as opposed to the low level details of the structure. Perception is dynamic and at any one moment concentrates on one pattern or "figure" against a background of detail, much of it not actively being perceived. Another way of putting this concept is to say that perception involves the making of abstractions, while learning is the acquisition of or assent to new abstractions.

o Piaget's theory of the active learner, which holds that the person learning is an active processor of the stimuli being presented, and has a built-in desire to organize and make sense of the data. Thus, understanding is not the making of a mental copy of what is seen and heard, but is the product of each individual's unique ways of knowing or transforming data. Because the drive to learn is inherent, success in doing so provides its own reward, and the learner need only be encouraged in the active process, not given external rewards or punishments. In particular, the painstaking memorization of material organized by others is discouraged, because it bypasses the learner's own ability to create patterns, and therefore carries no intrinsic reward. Piaget based his theory on two premises. First, he postulated an underlying organizational ability that enables a human to develop intellectually. Part of this is biological; that is, it is inherited genetically and is therefore variable. Another part is generic to the human race as a whole and is therefore constant. Second, he observed that the human system was capable of adapting to the environment. This is done by assimilating new data into existing behavioural patterns in view of the new data.

o Cognitive-discovery theories that hold teaching ought to be concerned with assisting students in the process of sorting data and organizing their own conclusions. The idea is that if they grasp the total idea of the subject, they learn principles that can apply to other studies at a later time. The learner is more likely to remember and, having done so, to have a good foundation for extending the study to more complex levels. Rather than making of learning the sum of many details, the discovery approach asks the learner to generalize from a few experiments and observations, and then apply the generalization to similar situations in detail. It is assumed that the student not only can reason, but also wants to, and that curriculum must be arranged so as to provide ample opportunity to explore within a broad structure. In a sense, this method could be contrasted with the technique of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who believed that knowledge was to be drawn out of the student by a series of well-designed questions posed by the teacher, the end of which was the convincing of truth by logical argument. By contrast, the discovery approach assumes that the student poses the questions, and can generate meaningful self-rewarding answers from the data. The teacher need only provide the raw materials for gathering the data, not the actual answers.

Cognitive-discovery approaches have the advantage that they consider two additional aspects beyond just outcome: the intellect and experience of the learner on the one hand, and the act of learning on the other. They do however, make assumptions about the process of learning that may not be universally applicable, and concentrate somewhat more on that process than on the results, in contrast to the behavioural approach, which does the opposite.

Humanistic Approaches

Humanistic approaches focus on the human potential of the learner. They agree to some extent with the cognitive ideas of the last section, but their emphasis is on development of the social and emotional aspects of their students' lives more than just on knowledge acquisition and new paradigms for organizing it. There are many variations on this theme, but certain characteristics that all modern humanist approaches share to a greater or lesser degree are:

o Progressivism, which is a term adopted to indicate a reaction against traditional values and techniques. This reaction involved far more than education and also included agrarian reform and changes to the status of workers in large cities. Although the "progressivist era" is thought of as having ended by the Great Depression, elements of its thinking continued to be important in education long afterwards. For these purposes, progressivism includes the principles that

i) There are no absolutes, including of moral values, but all truth is relative. John Dewey was the principal proponent of the application of relativism to education, teaching that each individual generates personal truth--including values and reality--by interacting with the environment and engaging in a transaction with the consequences of that activity. There ought therefore to be no authority, competition, or punishment involved in learning. Although many of Dewey's ideas were no longer being explicitly used after the 1950s, the notion that values are relative has survived in more modern theories. Thus, if there is any discussion of values, it is to have as its end the "clarification" of students' values, and their comparison with those of others, but certainly not the inculcation of any from a predetermined or authoritative set. This rejection of truth reached its zenith in the 1990s deconstructionism, and has the same problem in the learning arena as elsewhere--there is no difference between a solely personal and relative truth and no truth at all.

ii) There ought to be no repression of the ego, or of painful feelings or thoughts, but complete freedom of self-expression. This is supposed to produce a more open and creative learning environment. That it might simultaneously make it impossible for anyone else within range to teach or to learn is less important than unfettered self-expression.

iii) Learning should be child-centred in the sense that there ought to be as little adult influence as possible, and the child's perception of needs and interests ought to dictate both the curriculum and the methodology. All activities should be democratic, with the teacher having only one vote, along with each of the students. The drawback of this version of child-centredness is that uneducated students do not yet have the ability or the techniques to ascertain what activities and ideas are the most important.

iv) Children are naturally good, curious, energetic, and eager to learn, and one of the tasks of the teacher is to facilitate the removal of traditional societal inhibitors of these traits. Unfortunately, these assertions appear to contradict actual classroom experience, and have, therefore to be regarded as suspect.

o Existentialism, which in this context holds that learning is to be viewed as part of the learner's unique and personal struggle to find meaning in existence. Emphasis on this aspect of learning implies a corresponding de-emphasis on the potential educational demands of the society as a whole. Full realization and full actualization of the self become the most important factors in learning, and the needs of others are taken into consideration only secondarily. Curriculum is also secondary, because the way individual students feel about the subject at hand is more important than the factual information itself or the students' understanding of it. Sometimes, attempts are made to inculcate values or attitudes based on feelings. Thus, there have been curricula designed to teach young children about sexual abuse based on the child's feelings relative to the abusive activity. Attempts have also been made to teach about the environment solely on the basis of students' feelings about species extinction. The problem with such approaches is that feelings, being individual, cannot be relied on to achieve a specific curriculum outcome. Thus, far from validating the theory, this approach seems more likely to contradict it.

o Freedom from fear, including fear of criticism, competition, punishment, and failure. This is one of the most controversial aspects of this group of theories, for others have held that one learns a great deal from all four, so they need not be feared. Other freedoms have also been proposed, including those from dependence, or from all forms of authority.

o Learning is principally a matter of experience, and that it is therefore intensely personal, and to at least some extent, non-transferable.

According to its proponents, the humanist approach to learning has the advantage that it extends the process to the whole person, and that it recognizes individual strengths and differences. Its opponents suggest that it has the disadvantage of negating all absolutes, and therefore of undermining any basis for its host society. This may be the reason why so few of the progressivist experiments last for very many years--a school by its very nature is both an organization and a society, but the progressivist models are hostile to both. As with all relativists, the progressivists are vulnerable to criticism on theoretical grounds, for their espousal of the non-uniqueness of truth also undermines the foundations of their own theories. No relativist theory can ever assert its own superiority over an absolutist one with confidence, for if it does, the very relativism it proposes becomes an absolute. The humanists also have practical critics who claim that children both need and want authority in order to know their limits in society.

Toward a Unified View of Learning

Each of the three schools of thought examined so far has something to contribute to the total understanding of what learning is. Each provides a useful paradigm for some aspect of the process--the behavioural, the mental (or cognitive), and the emotional and social, or some combination of two or more of these. Each is also open to criticism for concentrating on one or two aspects to the exclusion of others, and for the extremes to which such focusing may lead. There is, for example, no shortage of "educators" who are ready to compel all children to learn in a particular way, and to require all teachers to use a particular technique to achieve this. After all, if there does exist a universally applicable theory of learning, then it follows that there may be an optimal technique as well.

It is also important to note that these three schools of thought have an implied definition of the totality of the learner that omits important considerations that go to the heart of what it means to be human. Beliefs, values, convictions, motivations, and meaning questions also have to be considered, for it is these that provide the reasons for behaviour, the structure for cognitive filters, and the basis for engaging in experiences having emotional reactions, and being social. That is, they do not deal with the issues behind ethical and social questions, or with the meaning of what it is to be human. But, there is an aspect to humanness that is more fundamental than those dwelled upon by these schools of educational psychology, and it is necessary to consider how this aspect relates to the whole person as a learner. In keeping with the integrative and wholistic themes of this book, what follows is a suggested approach to understanding learning that attempts to combine this fourth element with those from all three of these schools of thought in a way that deliberately avoided answering the question of whether there exists an optimal technique to achieve the desired goals, but that does suggest how the process ought to work.

Learning can be elaborated in terms of certain physiological changes that take place in the brain as new information is stored there, or it can be cast in terms of the stored information itself. It has something to do with growth and development, and with the process of finding out more about the world. It depends upon ones beliefs, philosophy, commitments and religion, and it also changes the learner. It also depends on past experiences and relationships, and enables different ones for the future (i.e., learning takes place in a continuum). Learning is not just any kind of change in human capacity, for the forgetting years of advanced senility are not what one wishes to regard as learning ones. However, learning does change as one matures, so a definition must include this aspect as well. Here is an attempt to include all this in a single statement:

Learning is a process of abstraction taking place within the context of existing culture, behaviour, knowledge, and beliefs whereby the person who is the learner acquires or acquiesces to new paradigms in order to explain experiences and by so doing changes in the ability to respond to new circumstances.

Many interactions are involved in learning, even though some theorists emphasize one more than another. The following diagram may be helpful to illustrate these relationships and their mutual interaction.

Diagram 10.1--A Model for Learning

Note that although all interactions are mutual, there is a certain order of priority implied by the positioning of the elements in this diagram. Who a person is comes at the centre of all, for from beliefs and commitments flow everything else. Indeed, all the others can be thought of as aspects of being. Experiences, including the emotional, are next, at the top; then the intellect at the lower left, and finally the relational at lower right. Also, the categories are not entirely distinct. For example, inventing is not a purely relational activity, but requires the intellect as well. The diagram also indicates a mutual interaction among the elements pictured, for none of them stand alone. This description does have a comprehensiveness of its own that with some amendment could applied to machine that "learn," however, this chapter will only be concerned with learning undertaken by human beings.

It can even be argued that learning is a uniquely human activity. Actual response to stimuli--pushing a lever for food, or learning a maze--may be appropriate terminology for rats, but there is little evidence that it can be adopted uncritically for humans. Mental changes alone are of theoretical interest, but lack practicality. Likewise, there is yet no convincing evidence that terminology used to describe human cognition--words such as "perceive", "understand", "assent to", "comprehend" or "intend"--have any application either to animals or to artificially constructed devices.

Since learning involves the altered ability to change within and to respond to alterations without, and since change is partly the result of mutual interaction among motivations (ethics), society and technology, it is clear that a great deal of learning is required of all members of a civilization in transition to a new mode, just for them to remain functional. Another mutual dependence exists here: new learning creates new Behaviours and techniques, and these in turn require new learning--oftentimes even on the part of those who developed the techniques but may not understand what they have wrought until later. In addition, new techniques also require new applications of old ethical principles, and the learning of a new consensus of behaviour with respect to the new methods. Many examples of this can be drawn, say, from new medical applications, which often raise related ethical questions. Thus, the lines shown on the graph above are all two-way paths of mutual influence.

The definition also includes potentially negative changes, for people can learn Behaviours that inhibit their abilities to respond, but such "negative learning" tends to make the person less efficient and reduces the ability to pass on the behaviour in most cases. Thus, not all learning is useful either to the individual or to society, and that which is will tend to carry with it a reinforcement that adds motivation for the potential learner.

Learning is also something every human being experiences from the time of the womb on. All have to learn how to make sense of sound, to talk, to read, to write, and to operate within the myriad of common conventions that make up the bond that is society. This commonality must include:

o a knowledge of its history, or else the bond is incomplete,

o understanding of its ethical norms, or else it is impossible to exhibit behaviour appropriate for the society,

o skills in its techniques, or one cannot participate productively in it.

That is, learning that results in a potentially productive and contributing adult does not just involve the acquiring of factual knowledge and social skills; it also involves the acquisition of a set of restraints and imperatives that characterize the culture and allow it to operate, and a set of experiences that provide empirical data on which to base one's own actions.

A child growing in mind and body and acquiring more of the total cultural consensus, gradually becomes a part of it, and is enabled to enrich it in turn--this is an outward-directed relational and transformational aspect of learning. In order for all this to happen, the already functioning members of the society must organize the child's learning in order to ensure that the total cultural context is passed on efficiently and effectively; for with each generation the society that context represents is but one step away from extinction. At some stage of this process, each child must learn how to learn in order to take over this responsibility for that too is a part of the expected adult responsibility in every society. That is, this wholistic description implies that the culture and not the child sets the learning agenda until the learner has the fundamentals in place and is ready to take responsibility for carrying on.

Thus, for the sake of their own survival, hunter-gatherers had to teach their skills to their children. Likewise members of agrarian societies that followed them had, and now have, to teach plant and animal husbandry. Indeed, in many situations (including military ones), the choice is between learning or dying--such circumstances have little room to allow for those who cannot or will not learn the necessary skills; the non-learner is a non-survivor. This is as true today. On the one hand, one who does not learn effectively cannot participate in society appropriately. On the other, ideas, beliefs, and cultures, are all engaged in a variety of conflicts; those that have no means of effective transmission to the next generation all perish. And it is not the best ideas that survive, but those with the most adherents to transmit them.

A civilization is always one generation from extinction.

This is not intended to suggest that learning is a part of evolving toward some high goal, as though it were an aspect of "Progress" with its own sense of self-direction. Rather, it is simply to observe that every society has associated with it a set of attitudes, skills, techniques, and ideas that it must transmit to the next generation if it is to survive in a recognizable form.

In at least one sense, learning continues throughout life, for every day that passes brings experiences that are at least in some respects different from those of all the yesterdays. Yet, in many societies, particularly the very primitive or stable ones, substantive learning effectively stops at a very early age, except as later required in order to survive in emergent conditions. An individual can find a niche in such a society, and stay there from early adulthood until old age claims back the abilities guarded and used through a lifetime. Even in the industrial age, a worker could learn a single trade, such as automotive welding, and do nothing else until retirement. However, in a rapidly changing society, such a luxury is available to relatively few, for job descriptions and even whole industries change much faster than the passing of the generations alone can accommodate, and social survival becomes an immediate and very personal incentive for learning.

Having made a case for a wholistic and comprehensive approach to learning, it is now time to make new distinctions, this time based on the subject and goal of the learning, rather than on the process by which it takes place.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises