ideas ∙ thinkers ∙ practice

learning theory
What is learning? Is it a change in behaviour or understanding? Is it a process? Here we survey some common models.
contents: introduction · learning as a product · task-conscious or acquisition learning, and learningconscious or formalized learning ·learning as a process · the behaviourist orientation to learning · the cognitive orientation to learning · the humanistic orientation to learning · the social/situational orientation to learning · further reading · how to cite this article

I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING - the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his 'cruiser'. I am talking about the student who says, "I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me." I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: "No, no, that's not what I want"; "Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need"; "Ah, here it is! Now I'm grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!" Carl Rogers 1983: 18-19 For all the talk of learning amongst educational policymakers and practitioners, there is a surprising lack of attention to what it entails. In Britain and Northern Ireland, for example, theories of learning do not figure strongly in professional education programmes for teachers and those within different arenas of informal education. It is almost as if it is something is unproblematic and that can be taken for granted. Get the instructional regime right, the message seems to be, and learning (as measured by tests and assessment regimes) will follow. This lack of attention to the nature of learning inevitably leads to an impoverishment of education. It isn't simply that the process is less effective as a result, but what passes for education can actually diminish well-being. Here we begin by examining learning as a product and as a process. The latter takes us into the arena of competing learning theories - ideas about how learning may happen. We also look at Alan Roger's (2003) helpful discussion of task-conscious or acquisition learning, and learning-conscious or formalized learning. Learning as a product Pick up a standard psychology textbook - especially from the 1960s and 1970s and you will probably find learning defined as a change in behaviour. In other words, learning is

Learning as acquiring facts. is gaining knowledge or ability through the use of experience. Learning involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge. or experience. 2. thus. skills. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world. The last two conceptions look to the 'internal' or personal aspect of learning. The focus for them. He asked a number of adult students what they understood by learning. It's apparent clarity may also make some sense when conducting experiments. 5. (quoted in Ramsden 1992: 26) As Paul Ramsden comments.change. It would seem fair to expect that if we are to say that learning has taken place. or conceptualize the world around them' (Ramsden 1992: 4) (see cognitivism below). Learning is acquiring information or ‘knowing a lot’. many theorists have. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. we can see immediately that conceptions 4 and 5 in are qualitatively different from the first three. Learning is something external to the learner. 4. The depth or nature of the changes involved are likely to be different. Not surprisingly. it is rather a blunt instrument. In a way learning becomes a bit like shopping. been less concerned with overt behaviour but with changes in the ways in which people 'understand.the end product of some process. Learning is seen as something that you do in order to understand the real world. For example: Does a person need to perform in order for learning to have happened? Are there other factors that may cause behaviour to change? Can the change involved include the potential for change? (Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 124) Questions such as these have led to qualification. and methods that can be retained and used as necessary. However. However. 3. Their responses fell into five main categories: 1. but the change may not involved drawing upon experience to generate new knowledge. Conceptions 1 to 3 imply a less complex view of learning. This approach has the virtue of highlighting a crucial aspect of learning . People go out and buy knowledge . Some years ago Säljö (1979) carried out a simple. Some have looked to identifying relatively permanent changes in behaviour (or potential for change) as a result of experiences (see behaviourism below).it becomes their possession. Conditioning may result in a change in behaviour. It can be recognized or seen. 'knowing that' and 'knowing how' . but very useful piece of research. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. It may even be something that just happens or is done to you by teachers (as in conception 1). not all changes in behaviour resulting from experience involve learning.approached as an outcome . Learning as memorising. experience should have been used in some way. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.

Truths can be imparted. In this way. for example. and while inculcation is a gradual process. 'In other words. in debates around the rather confusing notion of 'informal learning'. or by his own inductions and observations. a great number of truths. It is 'concrete. Drawing especially on the work of those who study the learning of language (for example. suggests that it might be better to speak of it as having a consciousness of the task. procedures can only be inculcated. Rogers (2003: 21). Are they aware that they are engaged in learning . The surgeon must indeed have learned from instruction. As we move through the third we see that alongside 'knowing that' there is growing emphasis on 'knowing how'. it is not concerned with general principles' (Rogers 2003: 18).A man knowing little or nothing of medical science could not be a good surgeon. they are usually aware of the specific task in hand. learning could be thought of as 'a process by which behaviour changes as a result of experience' (Maples and Webster 1980 quoted in Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 124). however. Learning-conscious or formalized learning. whilst the learner may not be conscious of learning. In other words. but not to ask at what moment someone acquired a skill. The first two categories mostly involve 'knowing that'. One of the significant questions that arises is the extent to which people are conscious of what is going on. Rogers sets out two contrasting approaches: task-conscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalized learning. One particularly helpful way of approaching the area has been formulated by Alan Rogers (2003). immediate and confined to a specific activity.and have surfaced. Task-conscious or acquisition learning. It is 'educative learning' rather than the accumulation of . students who conceive of learning as understanding reality are also able to see it as increasing their knowledge' (Ramsden 1992: 27). Learning as a process . Krashen 1982). This system of categories is hierarchical . It makes sense to ask at what moment someone became apprised of a truth. Acquisition learning is seen as going on all the time.each higher conception implies all the rest beneath it. imparting is relatively sudden. but excellence at surgery is not the same thing as knowledge of medical science. not is it a simple product of it.and what significance does it have if they are? Such questions have appeared in various guises over the years . but he must also have learned by practice a great number of aptitudes. Examples include much of the learning involved in parenting or with running a home. (Ryle 1949: 58) In some ways the difference here involves what Gilbert Ryle (1949) has termed 'knowing that' and 'knowing how'. Some have referred to this kind of learning as unconscious or implicit. Formalized learning arises from the process of facilitating learning. (Ryle 1949: 48-49) Learning how or improving an ability is not like learning that or acquiring information.task-conscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalized learning In the five categories that Säljö identified we can see learning appearing as a process there is a concern with what happens when the learning takes place.

.experience.occasions where we set out to learn something in a more systematic way. Then come more purposeful activities . but often deliberately disregarding engagement with teachers and formal institutions of learning. Both are present in schools.people are aware that the task they are engaged in entails learning. agendas or needs. Next comes incidental learning .but in particular in key theorists such as Kurt Lewin. More formalized and generalized (and consequently less contextualized) forms of learning are the distance and open education programmes. What formalized learning does is to make learning more conscious in order to enhance it' (Rogers 2003: 27). Chris Argyris.. It is possible to think of the mix of acquisition and formalized learning as forming a continuum. 'Learning itself is the task. Both are present in families.learning theory The focus on process obviously takes us into the realm of learning theories ... At one extreme lie those unintentional and usually accidental learning events which occur continuously as we walk through life. using whatever comes to hand for that purpose. or Michael Polanyi. Donald Schön. the behaviourist orientation to learning the cognitive orientation to learning the humanistic orientation to learning the social/situational orientation to learning As with any categorization of this sort the divisions are a bit arbitrary: there could be further additions and sub-divisions to the scheme. On these pages we focus on four different orientations (the first three taken from Merriam and Caffarella 1991). experiential activities arising from immediate life-related concerns. using material common to all the learners without paying any regard to their individual preferences. Further along the continuum lie the self-directed learning projects on which there is so much literature. Then there are various activities in which we are somewhat more more conscious of learning. and there a various ways in which the . To this extent there is a consciousness of learning .. (Rogers 2003: 41-2) This distinction is echoed in different ways in the writings of many of those concerned with education ..unconscious learning through acquisition methods which occurs in the course of some other activity. There are of course no clear boundaries between each of these categories. where some elements of acquisition learning are often built into the designed learning programme. When approached in this way it becomes clear that these contrasting ways of learning can appear in the same context. It involves guided episodes of learning. though even here the focus is still on the task... Towards the further extreme lie more formalized learning programmes of highly decontextualized learning.ideas about how or why change occurs. Learning as a process .

Piaget. Manifestations in adult learning Behavioural objectives Competency based education Skill development and training Cognitive development Intelligence. Salomon View of the learning process Change in behaviour Internal mental A personal act to process (including fulfil potential. Lave and Wenger. Lewin. Tolman. Movement from the periphery to the centre of a community of practice Locus of learning Stimuli in external environment Internal cognitive structuring Affective and cognitive needs Learning is in relationship between people and environment. Pavlov. Bruner. insight. Rogers Bandura. Hull.orientations overlap and draw upon each other. learning and memory as function of age Andragogy Self-directed learning Socialization Social participation Associationalism Conversation . Purpose in education Produce behavioural change in desired direction Develop capacity and skills to learn better Become selfactualized. Ausubel. Guthrie. memory. Kohler. Watson. perception Interaction /observation in social contexts. Gagne Maslow. information processing. autonomous Full participation in communities of practice and utilization of resources Educator's role Arranges environment to elicit desired response Structures content of learning activity Facilitates Works to development of the establish whole person communities of practice in which conversation and participation can occur. The four orientations can be summed up in the following figure: Four orientations to learning (after Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 138) Aspect Behaviourist C ognitivist Humanist Social and situational Learning theorists Thorndike. Skinner Koffka.

Norman. For example. A well written and entertaining introduction to studying and learning in higher education. (2002) The Three Dimensions of Learning. these approaches involve contrasting ideas as to the purpose and process of learning and education . the emotional and the social. (1997) An Introduction to Theories of Learning 5e.and the role that educators may take. Overviews can be found in Tennant (1997). Part two looks at the predominantly functionalist theories of Thorndike. R. (1998) Learning and Studying. Further reading For this listing I have tried to bring together a selection of books that look to the main themes arising in the literature around learning (and education). B. NJ: Prentice-Hall. the cognitive orientation . Guthrie and Estes. The focus is very much on practice. Skinner and Hull. Contemporary learning theory in the tension field between the I chosen Maslow and Rogers. standard psychology text on the subject that takes an approach via ‘thinkers’. and Joyce et al (1997).Learning how to learn As can seen from the above schematic presentation and the discussion on the linked pages. Bandura.Dewey on group investigation. and part four looks at predominantly cognitive theorists: Gestalt. A concluding section examines implications for educators. Tolman. London: Routledge. and early notions of learning. critical awareness . A research perspective. Illeris. Gagné and Bruner learning styles . It is also important to recognize that the theories may apply to different sectors of the acquision-formalized learning continuum outlined above. 502 + x pages. J. Freire on 'conscientization'.K. the work of Lave and Wenger is broadly a form of acquisition learning that can involve some more formal interludes.Salzberger-Wittenberg et al provide a useful introduction. building learning communities . H. the writers can be grouped as follows: humanistic orientations . Lave and Wenger on situated learning. For those familiar with Tennant (1997) (which is a set text on a course I teach!). Overviews Hartley.with Piaget.Mezirow on the transformative dimensions of learning. Part five explores Hebb as a neurophysiological theorist. Hergenhahn. Frederiksberg: . behaviourism .represented here by Skinner. Piaget. Part three turns to ‘associationalist’ theorists: Pavlov. and Kolb on experiential learning. different approaches to study.Witkin on field dependence and independence. Part one contains three short chapters examining the nature of learning. Upper Saddle River. psychoanalytical approaches . M. and Olson. 178 + xii pages. Good.

Good discussion of the relevance of psychological theory to adult education. behaviourism. One of four readers for the Open University MA in Education course Learning.) (1999) Learners. B. E. S. 280 + viii pages. and learning and assessment processes. Examines relationships between development and learning in adulthood. 254 + xiv pages. R.. 218 + xvii pages. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education. (eds. A comprehensive guide. (2003) What is the Difference? A new critique of adult learning and teaching. to think metaphorically. to study values. and Hopkins. through counselling and through simulations. (1988. Short and very helpful exploration of the nature of learning (with particular attention to current debates around informal learning) and the extent to which adult learning and the teaching of adults is the same or different from that of younger persons. also. P. J. Calhoun. A developmental perspective. experience. D. Interesting. London: Paul Chapman. In the new edition. 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning. (ed. Rogers. theories of the life course. New edition includes helpful material on situated learning plus updates on the literature Tennant. learning styles. 85 pages. Buckingham: Open University Press. Provides a helpful series of insights drawn from a developmental psychology tradition. and Pogson. and Moon. Includes material on humanistic psychology and the self-directed learner. Curriculum and Assessment. part two deals with adult development and learning. Leach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. cognitive developmental psychology. M. and behavioural. Slightly for teaching. through cooperative disciplined enquiry. autonomy and self-direction. and McCormick. 205 + viii pages. and Paetcher. 1998) Learning in Adulthood. curriculum implications. and teacher-learner relationship. (eds. London: Routledge. M. group dynamics. A. Concluding chapters exami integrating models.) (1999) Learners and Pedagogy. 182 + xii pages. adult development. This volume has a useful collection of pieces on views of the mind. London: Paul Chapman. See. (1995) Learning and Change in the Adult Years. London: Paul Chapman. Joyce. critical awareness. to explore concepts. and Caffarella (1991. Ramsden's text can be profitably read by those teaching in other arenas. practical intelligence and expertise. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Murphy. B. Leicester: NIACE. Tennant. but very useful outline of different models of learning The writers isolate four 'families' of teaching based on the the types of learning they promote: information processing. Merriam and Caffarella provide a good overview of learning theory.) (1999) Learning and Knowledge. but at times debatable exploration. 290 + xiv pages. Ramsden. mnemonically. C. (1997) Models of Learning . P. They have chapters on learning: to think inductively. London: Routledge. It provides a focused introduction to learning and the implications for programme design and encounters in the classroom. Now pretty much the standard text. Merriam. and part three with the learning process. and teaching and learning together. 352 + xiii pages.Roskilde University Press. social/building a learning community. Learning and Assessment. intellectual and cognitive development. 528 pages. P. . personal. the psychoanalytical approach.

Important study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Classic and highly influential discussion of reflective enquiry. A pedagogy of liberation. J. New Y ork: D. basic forms of learning (signal. 97 + xxvi pages. Freire and A. The introduction of active occupations. Dewey (1915) The School and Society. also. A useful addition to thinking around reflection and experiential learning. J. (1933) How We Think 2e. uncompromising possession of our school system. Classic account of Freire's position. 1977) The Process of Education. P. See.all these are not mere accidents. the motivation and control of learning. with Dewey's famous five elements: suggestion. P. learning decisions. Jarvis. of elementary science. concept learning. Gagné. (1960. Geneva: World Council of Churches.of discipline. To do this means to make each one of our schools an embryonic community life. we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy.. Gives an account of learning through problem-posing. Faundez (1989) Learning to Question. 220 pages. testing. Important attempt to ground thinking about adult learning in a sociological perspective. and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction. they are necessities of the larger social evolution. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context. of nature-study. J. P. Argues for 'the spiral curriculum' with a discussion of the importance of structure. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New Y ork: Holt. and aids to teaching. pages 28-9. Dewey. and to put the ideas and ideals involved into complete. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community. Cambridge Ma. to appreciate them in their fullness of meaning. 2e. and science. readiness for learning. stimulus response). 308 + viii pages. 2e. C. and self-directing factors . intuitive and analytical thinking. that is. in the relation of pupils and teachers . chaining: motor and verbal.. M. of art. Freire. Harmondsworth: Penguin. the introduction of more active. Heath. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. R. 5). active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art. history. of history. Rinehart and Winston. the change in the moral school atmosphere. and harmonious. problem. lovely. learning structures. London: Routledge. the relegation of the merely symbolic and formal to a secondary position. problem solving. hypothesis. reasoning. saturating him with the spirit of service. when certain observable changes in human behaviour take place that justify the inference of learning' (p. For a discussion that focuses on learning communities see. Basically a systems approach with chapters on varieties of learning (8 types).Key texts Bruner. motives for learning. (1985) The Conditions of Learning 4e. that 'attempts to consider the sets of circumstances that obtain when learning occurs. expressive. John Dewey (1915) The School and Society.: Harvard University Press. first published in 1965. It remains to but to organize all these factors. .

Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. 526 + xvi pages. practice. Lave. E. Kirschenbaum and V. Rogers. M. Participation moves from the periphery to the 'centre'. J. self-actualization).: Prentice Hall. J. habits of perception. London is good collection. behaviouristic and humanistic theories. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. and psychological distractions'. .Kolb. Maslow (1970) Motivation and Personality 2e.) (1990) The Carl Rogers Reader. (1984) Experiential Learning. A new developmental way of learning. short discussion that distinguishes between taskconscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalized learning Rogers. Boden's (1979) Piaget. Learning is approached as a process leading to the production of knowledge. Englewood Cliffs. Chapters on legitimate peripheral participation. processes and strategies for creating learning communities. thus. New Y ork: Merrill. (1991) Situated Learning. J. D. 138 pages. Voneche (1977) The Essential Piaget: an interpretative reference and guide. Gruber and J. self-esteem. 256 pages. specific communities of practice. The nature of the situation impacts significantly on the process. It is difficult to know which of Piaget's 50 or more books to choose here . Draws on psycho-analytical. London: Fontana for a succinct introduction. Exploration of some of the processes by which people can free themselves from 'oppressive ideologies. Reworking of the classic Carl Rogers text first published in 1969. L. L. social world. also. E. Learning is. A. and Freiberg. (1997) The End of Knowing. New Y ork: Harper and Row. Piaget. A. not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of social participation. Significant exploration of learning as participation in communities of practice. Leicester: NIACE. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. New Y ork: Van Nostrand. NJ. H. H. Henderson (eds.but this and The Origin of Intelligence in Children are classic starting points. See. 185 + viii pages. His 'theory of motivation' moves from low to high level needs (physiological. 247 + xix pages. B. F. C. A. Legitimate peripheral participation. secondary and tertiary levels in a variety of educational contexts. J. A. K. London: Cassell. See. also. safety. Looks at how personcentred learning can be used in schooling and other situations and the nature of facilitation. Explores the theory and practice of learning communities from an international perspective. Covering primary/elementary. Looks at learning as performed activity. love and belongingness. and Wenger. (1998) Learning Communities in Education. (1993) Freedom to Learn (3rd edn. Very helpful. leading researchers discuss: theoretical issues and debate. J. for a full discussion of the model. and Coombe. (1968) Towards a Psychology of Being 2e. and Holzman. Newman.. H. See. Cocklin. (1991) Transformative Dimensions of Learning. 248 pages. person. Substantial discussion of the ideas underpinning Kolb's well-known model. Maslow. and learning communities in action . (2003) What is the difference? a new critique of adult learning and teaching. Mezirow. A . (1926) The Child's Conception of the World. In which he argues for the significance of self-actualization. J.). Retallick. London: Constable. London: Routledge. also.

Distributed Cognitions. K. H. and Goodenough. D. B. www. Säljö. Probably the most accessible entry into Skinner's work and provides a classic account of his all embracing vision of behaviourism. (1979) 'Learning in the learner's perspective. . New Y ork: International Universities Essence and Origins: Field dependence and field independence. 76. (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. F. (ed. G. These theories can also be accessed by learning domains and concepts. (1973) Beyond Freedom and Dignity. I.Salomon. the encyclopedia of informal education. (1999) Communities of Practice. 155 + xii pages. Learning. Hosting by Memset Dedicated Servers [C arbonNeutral®]. (1983) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching. University of Gothenburg. (1981) Cognitive Styles. I. 318 + xv pages. S. Witkin. R. Pathbreaking collection of pieces that explore the extent to which learning lies in the resources to which people have access. Check our copyright notice when copying.infed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. this book demonstrates the power of psychoanalytical insight into a range of learning relationships. E. (1999) 'Learning theory'.The picture of Carl Rogers is believed to be in the public domain via Wikipedia Commons [http://commons. Smith 1999. Some common-sense conceptions'. Reports from the Institute of Education. Give us feedback. D. write for us. Substantial exploration of situated learning and communities of practice.jpg] How to cite this article: Smith. G. The database contains brief summaries of 50 major theories of learning and instruction. Last update: September 22. Oxford: Pergamon. and Osborne.htm.wikimedia. Henry. 2011 © Mark K. Other references Krashen. While largely focused on adult-child interactions. M. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Picture . Account of Witkin's very influential exploration of the impact of context on perceptual judgements. 2003 infed is a not-for-profit site [about us] [disclaimer] provided by the YMCA George Williams College. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Skinner. Links Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database .).TIP is a tool intended to make learning and instructional theory more accessible to educators.. E. Join us on Facebook and Twitter. Salzberger-Wittenberg. London: Penguin. meaning and identity.