Learning Theories – Overview and Synthesis (#MSLFM11)

What is a Learning Theory?

How do humans construct meaning and what motivates us to learn is what learning theories postulate. As our understanding of ourselves changes, be it because of advances in neural science, psychology, sociology, or changes in the environment like availability of abundant information or threat to our very survival, our view of ‘why’ and ‘how’ of learning also changes, leading to new learning theories being postulated.

Why is it important to understand Learning Theories?

Understanding of evolution of our thinking on ‘why’ and ‘how’ we learn prepares us to better adapt to the changing environment and can help us make the world a better place, while living a more fulfilled life ourselves.

In his book ‘Maps of Time’, David Christian argues that one way to adapt to the changing environment is natural selection, but it takes many lifetimes. Learning helps species with brains to adapt to the changing environment by sharing experiences. But for most species such learning does not pass to the next generation (as happens in natural selection) and hence does not benefit them.

However, in the case of humans, advent of language, which through symbols allows fine, detailed and even abstract ideas to be conveyed to fellow members of our species, and advent of writing, which allows knowledge to be stored and shared across space and time, has given Homo Sapiens an edge over all other species, in terms of adapting to the changing environment. Christian calls this ‘Collective Learning’.

Advent of printing press further enhanced our ability to store and distribute knowledge. Cost-effective computing power (because of Moore’s law) and Internet has now made ‘mass participation’ in knowledge creation possible, along with its instant temporal and spatial dissemination of knowledge.

Language, writing and printing press were ‘phase change’ events, which led to ‘paradigm shift’ (a term coined by Thomas Kuhn) because they significantly changed human life. (The idea of Phase Change leading to Paradigm Shifts is explored in Douglas Robertson’s book ‘Phase Change’).

Ubiquitous and growing pervasiveness of computing power (in the form of computers, tablets, mobile phones and other devices) has placed us in midst of the next ‘phase change’ which is unfolding in our lifetime.

The massive knowledge flows now occurring and burgeoning computing power that is shifting the emphasis from memorization and analysis, to synthesis and creation; an epoch where every human being can potentially learn from and contribute to ‘collective learning’, instantly; along with the dire need to deal with global challenges like poverty and environment, may lead to the next ‘paradigm shift’.

Do we need new theories of learning to deal with this phase change? Will a deeper understanding of how learning theories have evolved help us determine this? Let’s start with a survey.

Survey of Learning Theories

The key milestones in the story of western education start with the Greeks, who needed an education system suitable for the free citizens (which did not include women, slaves and foreigners) participating in a democracy, so they emphasized liberal arts, a ‘trivium’ consisting of logic, rhetoric and grammar.

The next milestone in this story is what Peter Watson, in his seminal book ‘Ideas’, describes as, “seats of learning in the eleventh century western world, comprising mostly the monasteries”, fulfilling what was then considered the purpose of education – “to be able to read the scriptures and make critical interpretations.”

Fast-forward to the industrial revolution and the two world wars, the need shifted to imparting basic skills to masses of people, either the soldiers or the factory workers, and this formed the genesis of the Behavioural Theory of Learning, based on the work of Watson, Pavlov, Thorndike and Skinner.

According to the Behaviourists, human behaviour is influenced by positive or negative stimulus and hence role of instructor is to arrange the learning environment, selecting stimuli and positive and negative reinforcement to get desired behaviour and discourage undesirable responses.

Behaviourists believe that learners are passive recipients, who start with a ‘clean slate’ (tabula rasa) and drill and practice with appropriate stimuli leads to desired outcomes. Learning is largely based on trial and error and it is incremental, not insightful.

Proponents of Cognitivist Theory of Learning, like Sweller, believe that learners do not start with a ‘clean slate’ and have existing knowledge based on prior experience, called schema or symbolic mental constructions, and learning is a change in learner’s ‘schemata’.

Focus is on thinking process and unobservable constructs like meaning, knowledge, intention, concepts, beliefs, expectations and creativity. The purpose of learning is acquisition of knowledge.

Role of instructors is to develop capacity and skills to learn, so that knowledge can be acquired and retained, through efficient transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory. Instructors also ‘structure information’ by chunking it, to facilitate learners assimilate and understand knowledge.

Learners are active participants (and not passive recipients) in the learning journey and need to ‘think and learn’.

Work of Piaget and Dewey has led to the Constructivist Learning Theory where learning is not considered simply acquisition of knowledge but learners need to ‘construct’ meaning. Past experiences and cultural factors influence such ‘construction’ of meaning.

Learner is not considered a blank slate and new information needs to be linked with prior knowledge. However, these mental representations are subjective, shaped by experience, hypothesis and cultural factors, which are unique to every learner. Learning is considered an active, constructive and contextualized process.

Role of instructor is to facilitate problem-based learning by simulating real-world problems. Instructors facilitate group inquiry activities and social negotiation.

The learner has to take ownership of learning. Learners continuously test their hypothesis through social negotiations and update their mental model. They also need to reflect on the way they learn and improve their learning process (meta-cognition).

Bandura’s and Vygotsky’s work has led to the Social Theory of Learning. They consider learning to be a social process where learners learn from one another via observation, modeling, imitation and dialogue.

They believe human behaviour evolves out of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioural and environmental influences called ‘Reciprocal Determinism’. Social interaction is fundamental to the process of cognitive development because meaning is constructed through discussion.

In a social context there usually exists a ‘More Knowledgeable Other’ (MKO), someone who has better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process or concept.

Vygotsky also proposed a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD), which is the distance between ability of a learner to perform a task or solve a problem independently and do the same under adult guidance and/or peer collaboration.

Role of instructor is to model desired behaviour or expertise, provide scaffolding to learners, help learners form study groups and facilitate negotiations when students are having a dialogue to construct meaning.

Learners need to actively participate in groups where they can observe instructors and dialogue with peers.

Social Learning theories become significant in todays connected, internet-based world that allows learners to easily observe, create and share knowledge. George Siemens has proposed a new learning theory for the digital age called ‘Connectivism’.

In his paper titled ‘Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age’ Siemens argues that learning needs a coherent narrative but technologies like internet fragment knowledge. ‘Connectedness’ i.e. how one learner connects with other learners or experts helps in creating coherence in the fragmented learning space.

Tools like Wikis, Blogs and eLearning Platforms hence become tools for sense making because they are effective information interrogation systems and provide a social overlay to otherwise fragmented information. Siemens writes, “Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn are more important than our current state of knowing.”

Connections can thus be viewed as distributed cognition. The connections you have help you test your ideas. If you have a wrong belief or are construing wrong meaning your connections help you course correct. Connections provide you different perspectives and help deepen understanding. Technology today allows you to formulate wide connections, fast through tools like Facebook, Twitter, Scribd and SlideShare.

In the digital age of learning, instructors become curators and co-explorer, who bring coherence to an otherwise highly fragmented knowledge. Learners participate in learning networks and co-construct meaning with instructors and peers.

But what is the purpose of learning?

According to proponents of ‘Humanism Theory of Learning’, Maslow, Knowles, Rogers and others, learning is an active search for meaning its purpose is to fulfill one’s potential. Humanists believe that people are inherently good and possess unlimited potential for growth and development.

They believe that drivers or motivators of learning are intentionality and values (and not operant conditioning, as suggested by behaviourists). Learners naturally progress towards increased competence, autonomy, freedom, and fulfillment.

Primary purpose of learning is development of self-actualized, autonomous people.

Role of instructor is to catalyze the process of self-discovery among learners and facilitate them by creating a supportive and co-operative learning environment that addresses their affective and cognitive needs.

Learner alone knows his or her needs and goals, is self-directed, motivated and committed to self-discovery and finding meaning.

Concluding Remarks – A Synthesis

The learning theories, in my opinion, form a ‘continuum’ such that different theories are relevant at different stages in our learning journey.

To learn a skill we still need drill and practice as suggested by the behaviourists;

To be a lifelong learner we need the foundation of ‘learning to learn’ and build capacity to learn as suggested by the cognitivists;

Advent of internet and consequent ease of creating global learning networks makes social learning theories highly relevant;

Finally, now more than ever before, as a very powerful species on the planet who are also struggling to find a balance between ‘means and meaning’, we need to consider deeply the reason for learning and the humanist view forms the foundation for this.


– ‘Maps of Time’, book by David Christian

– ‘Phase Change’, book by Douglas S Robertson

– ‘Ideas’, book by Peter Watson

– Paper titled ‘Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age’ by George Siemens

– http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm

– http://www.learning-theories.com/

Share this Post