You are on page 1of 7

What is theory?

Theory is a formal statement of the rules on which a subject of study is based or of ideas
which are suggested to explain a fact or event or, more generally, an opinion or explanation.

• There is always doubt in a theory.

• A theory can be changed

• Theories seldom have to be thrown out completely but sometimes a theory may be
widely accepted for a long time and later disproved.

Learning, learning theories
Learning is an inseparable phenomenon to human life. From the facial and oral responses of
the least infant to the daily news of the elderly, human beings continually, consecutively, and
consciously learn. As Plato said, "Education and admonition commence in the first years of
childhood, and last to the very end of life" (Mayer, 1966, p. 88). Though learning is a
common experience permeating the length and breadth of our lives, it is by no means a simple
or fully explicable. Like many other human experiences learning is made intelligible by
theories, aided by models, and advanced by professional educators but nonetheless, remains

The foundations of the learning theory disagreements at least reach to the two seminal
thinkers in the West, Plato (ca. 427-348 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Essentially the
debate has existed for 23 centuries under the terms rationalism and empiricism. Plato's
worldview was a synthesis of Parmenides and Heraclitus . As such it was a way to remedy the
dichotomous variable that all is one or all is many, being or becoming. Plato's solution was to
have an absolute world of being (the forms) and this world of becoming. Knowledge only
comes from the world of the forms, through recollection--a kind of rational intuition. Plato is
the father of rationalism and as such is the father of all learning theories which assert the
primacy of the intellect or cognition in learning.

Aristotle, on the other hand, is the father of empiricism. Aristotle learned well from his
teacher, Plato, that one cannot escape the universals--the forms. However, Aristotle was not
satisfied with positing an other worldly, absolute-being-existence for universals. Rather, he
argued that we abstract universals from our experience of particular things. As the father of
empiricism, Aristotle is the father of learning theories which make experience the origin of
knowledge and source of learning. The rationalist/empiricist debate continued through the
Middle Ages and into the modern period with Locke (1632-1704) and Hume (1711-1776) on
the empiricist's side and Spinoza (1632-1677) and Leibniz (1646-1716) on the rationalist's
side. Following which some attempts were made at a synthesis, most notably Immanuel Kant
(1724-1804). In the 19th Century the a second Copernican Revolution of science changed the
face of many disciplines--Darwin's (1809-1882) Origin of Species. The evolutionary
worldview it espoused served as the paradigm for almost every discipline imaginable from
religion to economics to education. One wonders how such a uniform paradigm shift could
have been justified.

Still, systematic research began on learning as a result of new views (Merriam & Caffarella,
1991). In general terms we may say the inquiry into learning and the nature of human
knowledge shifted from philosophers discussions to the newly formed psychological
laboratory. With the Baconian scientific method thoroughly tested (pardon the pun) with the
impressive results of almost modern technology to show, the "soft sciences" worked for the
same products of research.

Behaviorism: the rise and fall of a discipline
Behavior theory, while still viable, no longer holds the dominance it once did in theoretical

The 20th century has seen the rise and, if not the fall, certainly the reappraisal of behaviorism
in psychology. The roots of objective psychology, of which behaviorism is a part, go back to
the late 19th century and the rise of experimental physiology and the transition from anecdotal
methods to scientific observation in comparative psychology. The development of
experimental physiology permitted the work on digestion by Ivan Pavlov and eventually to
his work on conditioning. The study of learning by psychologists like Hermann Ebbinghaus
and G.E. Müeller also demonstrated the use of objective methods in psychological research.
Edward L. Thorndike had an early interest in comparative psychology. As a student at
Harvard, he carried out his classic experiments on trial and error learning in animals which
later led to his "connectionism."

One of the results of this early experimentation was Thorndike's "law of effect," the idea that
rewarded behaviors are increased in an animal's repertoire while punished behaviors are
decreased. (Thorndike later replaced punishment with nonreward in his definition.)

But the founding of behaviorism as a movement is credited to John B. Watson, who, while a
doctoral student with James R. Angell at the University of Chicago, carried out animal
research in maze learning. To Watson, the study of consciousness became irrelevant in
predicting the behavior of animals and even humans.

In his 1913 manifesto, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," Watson claimed that the
introspective psychology was unscientific because it did not deal with objective states. He
rejected all subjective states such as sensation, imagery and thought unless they could be
observed by others. His movement, called Behaviorism, would be a stimulus-response
psychology, dealing only with the reactions of muscles and glands to stimulus situations.

Behaviorism grew slowly before World War I, but use of behavior in applications of
psychology during the war led to many people becoming converts afterwards.

In 1935, S. Smith Stevens at Harvard called on psychologists to think of behavior
operationally: to represent concepts in psychology in terms of the ways they are objectively
found. Thus, hunger became the amount of time without food. Operational definitions would
become deeply embedded in behavioral psychology.

About the same time, Clark Hull, like an Isaac Newton, sought to provide lawful
mathematical relationships to describe the nature of behavior. His research and that of
Kenneth Spence centered on conditioning and the growth of habits and the factors that govern

Another strain of behavior research called "purposivistic behaviorism" was carried out in the
early 1930s by Edward C. Tolman. Having been exposed to aspects of Gestalt and other
nonbehavioral fields, Tolman approached the learning process with the idea that the animal or
human was viewing the solution as a whole rather than as incremental elements to be learned
to gain success.

It was Tolman who in 1938 introduced the concept of "intervening variables" into the
psychological scene and urged study of their relationship to independent and dependent

B.F. Skinner represented yet another branch of behaviorism. Skinner's research was concerned
with the experimental analysis of behavior, and specifically, the effect of reinforcement on
behavior. While Pavlovians used "hard-wired" reflexes as the raw material for conditioning,
Skinner was able to use any overt action of the organism, from the smile of a baby to working
harder for a grade.

Perhaps Skinner's most significant contribution to conditioning was his work on partial
reinforcement. He worked with "schedules of reinforcement" to study and manipulate

If Skinner moved behavior theory away from the physiology of the organism for explanation,
Donald Hebb brought behaviorism into the physiology of the organism itself. Hebb was
influential in establishing physiological psychology as part of behavior theory. He worked
widely with behavioral physiological psychologists Karl Lashley and Robert M. Yerkes, as
well as with the brain surgeon Wilder Penfield.

In 1949, Hebb introduced his theory of cell-assembly: a group of neurons clustered together
functionally because of a past history of being stimulated together. The cells are capable of
functioning together for a time as a closed unit. Cell assemblies that are activated at the same
time may become organized into "phase sequences," which become the basic elementary or
functional units of behavior.

By the 1940s and 1950s, behaviorism reigned supreme in American experimental psychology,
moving into virtually every sphere in psychology, applied and theoretical. With it came an
environmentalist view, emphasizing learning and experience over inheritance of traits. But,
around 1965, the tide began to turn with the coming of the "cognitive revolution" in
experimental psychology.

Just why behavior theory declined is complicated. Perhaps the extensions of behavior theory
into issues of everyday life demonstrated in ways the laboratory could not that the extant
behavior theories were overly simplistic and inadequate, particularly as they applied to human
beings. Psychologists sought something more to explain the complexity of human conduct.

At the turn of the new century, behavior theory, while still viable, no longer holds the
dominance it once did in theoretical psychology. Applications, such as behavior modification,
have remained fruitful, although even in the clinical area, more cognitively oriented therapies
and approaches are gaining favor.


During the 1960s, discontent with the inadequacies of behaviourism another school of thought
was developing besides the behavioural thinking, the cognitive aspects. The behaviourist
perspective could not easily explain why people attempt to organise and make sense of the
information they learn. One example includes remembering general meanings rather than
word for word information. Among learning psychologists there emerged a growing
realisation that mental events or cognition could no longer be ignored

Cognitive psychologists share with behaviourists the belief that the study of learning should
be objective and that learning theories should be developed from the results of empirical
research. However, cognitivists disagree with the behaviourists in one critical aspect. By
observing the responses that individuals make to different stimulus conditions, cognitivists
believe that they can draw inferences about the nature of the internal cognitive processes that
produce those responses.

Many ideas and assumptions of cognitivism can be traced back to the early decades of the
twentieth century. Of all theories, the theories of Jean Piaget of Switzerland are the ones that
have provided psychology with very elaborated account of developmental changes in
cognitive abilities.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980).

Jean Piaget was one of the most influential cognitive psychologist. He was a student of
biology and zoology and learnt that survival requires adaptation. Therefore he viewed the
development of human cognition, or intelligence, as the continual struggle of a very complex
organism trying to adapt to a very complex environment. According to Piaget´s theory,
human development can be outlined in terms of functions and cognitive structures. The
functions are inborn biological processes that are identical for every one and stay unchanged
throughout our lives. The purpose of these functions is to construct internal cognitive
structures. The structures, in contrast, changes repeatedly as the child grows (Vasa, R., Haith,
M.M., Miller,S.A.,1995, p.,33).

Piaget emphasises on two main functions; one is organisation (or equilibrium). Organisation
refers to the fact that all cognitive structures are interrelated and that any new knowledge must
be fitted into the existing system. It is the need to integrate the new information, rather than
adding them on, that force our cognitive structure to become more elaborate.

The second general function is adaptation. Adaptation refers to the tendency of the organism
to fit with its environment in ways that promote survival. It is composed of two terms;
assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation is the tendency to understand new experience in terms of existing knowledge.
Whenever we come across something new, we try to make sense of it, built upon our existing
cognitive structures.

Accommodation occurs when the new information is too complex to be integrated into the
existing structure - this means that, cognitive structures change in response to new
experiences (Spencer, K., 1991,p.,175).

Piaget did many experiments on children’s way of thinking and concluded that human beings
go through several distinct stages of cognitive development. Each stage involves the
acquisition of new skills and rest upon the successful completion of the preceding one.
The first stage is the sensorimotor, (0-2year). Until about four months of age, the infant can
not differentiate itself from the environment. Gradually the child learns to distinguish people
from objects and that both have an existence independent of their immediate perception. This
stage draws it name, sensorimotor, from that the child learns mainly by touching objects,
manipulating them and physically exploring the environment. By the end of this stage the
child understands that its environment has distinctive and stable properties.

The next stage is called the pre-operational (2years-7years). This is the stage when the child
acquires a mastery of a language and becomes able to use words to represent objects and
images in a symbolic fashion. Piaget terms this stage pre-operational because children are not
yet able to use their developing mental capabilities systematically. At this stage children are
egocentric, which means that the child has the tendency to interpret the world exclusively
with its own position. The child does not understand, for an example, that others see things
and objects from a different perspective from their own. During this phase of development the
children have no general understanding of categories of thought that adults take for granted,
ideas such as causality, speed, weight or number.

The third stage is the concrete operational period (7years-11years). During this period
children master abstract, logical notions. They are able to handle ideas such as causality
without much difficulty, and they are fit to carry out the mathematical operations of
multiplying, dividing and subtracting. By this stage children are much less egocentric.

The fourth stage is called the formal operational period (11+). During adolescence, the
developing child becomes able to comprehend highly abstract and hypothetical concepts.
When faced with a problem, children at this stage should be able to review all possible ways
of solving it and go through them theoretically in order to reach a solution.

According to Piaget, the first three stages of development are general, but not all adults come
to the formal operational stage. The development of formal operational thought relies in part
on the process of schooling. Adults of limited educational achievement tend to remain to
think in more concrete terms and retain large traces of egocentrism (Giddens, 1994).

The educational interest of Piaget´s work lies firstly in this procedure he used to make
educationists aware of the child’s thought processes and the conditions under which
intellectual structures are established at different ages.

There are four principles that are most often cited in Piaget´s theory regarding to education.
The first is the important of readiness. This principal follows from his emphasis on
assimilation. Experience, educational or otherwise, does not simply happen to a child; rather
it must always be assimilated to current cognitive structure. A new experience can only be of
any value if the child can make sense of it. Teaching that is far away the child’s level is
unlikely to be useful.
The second principle concerns the motivation for cognitive activity. Educational content that
is either to advanced or too simple is unlikely to be interesting. The educational subject has to
be slightly beyond the current level of the child so that it provides experience familiar enough
to assimilate however challenging enough to provoke disequilibrium.

The third is the awareness of what level the child has reached and the information of what it
can be expected at that level and what not. Piaget´s studies often identify steps and sequences
through which particular content domains are mastered. It is therefore possible not only to
determine were the child is but also to know the natural next steps for development. The final
principle is more functional. It concerns Piaget´s emphasis on intelligence as an action. In
his view education should be build on the child’s natural curiosity and natural tendency to act
on the world in order to understand it. Knowledge is most meaningful when children
construct it themselves rather than having it imposed upon them (Vasa,R.,

The experience in acquiring a new knowledge through action allows two different kinds of
knowledge to develop, the physical experience and the logico-mathematical experience.
Physical experience produces knowledge of the properties of the objects acted upon. Logico-
mathematical experience result in knowledge, not of the objects, but of the actions themselves
and their results.

From physical experience, one would gain knowledge of the weight of objects; or the fact
that, other things being equal, weight increases as volume increases, and so on. When
speaking of logico-mathematical experience the point is that even the highest forms of
abstract reasoning have their origin in action (Donaldson, 1987).

The aim for education, according to Piaget, is to make individuals who are critical, creative
and inventive discoverers. So the major part of the child’s learning relies on active
experimentation and discovery. The active classroom has been associated with the term
progressive teaching, where pupils are in active role, learning predominantly by discovery
techniques, with emphasis on creative expression. Subject matter tends to be combined, with
the teacher performing as a guide to educational experiences and encouraging cooparitive
work. External rewards and punishments are seen as being unimportant, and there is not so
much concern with traditional academic standards and testing (Spencer, 1994).

As a biologist Piaget tended to look at development more from the physical change and the
readiness for each stage to develop any further. Another perspective in the cognitive
movement was from those who saw the connection between the environment and the child
development in a constructive way, and Jerome Burner’s ideas are those that are well know

Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our
experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us
generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our
experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to
accommodate new experiences.
There are several guiding principles of constructivism:

1. Learning is a search for meaning. Therefore, learning must start with the issues
around which students are actively trying to construct meaning.
2. Meaning requires understanding wholes as well as parts. And parts must be
understood in the context of wholes. Therefore, the learning process focuses on
primary concepts, not isolated facts.
3. In order to teach well, we must understand the mental models that students use
to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models.
4. The purpose of learning is for an individual to construct his or her own
meaning, not just memorize the "right" answers and regurgitate someone else's
meaning. Since education is inherently interdisciplinary, the only valuable way
to measure learning is to make the assessment part of the learning process,
ensuring it provides students with information on the quality of their learning.