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1. How People Learn - Introduction to Learning Theories

Session Content Outline


Key Questions

  • How do people learn?
  • How can learning theory inform teaching practice?

Learning Objectives
  • History of learning theory – Teachers will become familiar with the central debates and major concepts in the history of learning theory.
  • Learning processes and teaching for learning – Teachers will begin to uncover and articulate their assumptions, understandings, and questions about how students learn and the nature of teaching. Teachers will become familiar with the main themes of the video course.
  • Theory and practice – Teachers will begin to consider learning theory and its role in their teaching practice.

Session Outline

How do we learn? What helps us learn? How can teachers assist learning? In The Learning Classroom: Theory into Practice we explore how people learn through examples of teaching and learning in practice.


History of Learning Theory

How Philosophers Have Thought of Learning

People have been trying to understand learning for over 2,000 years. A debate on how people learn began at least as far back as the Greek philosophers, Socrates (469-399 B.C.), Plato (427-347 B.C.), and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). The debates that have occurred through the ages reoccur today in a variety of viewpoints about the purposes of education and about how to encourage learning.

  • Plato and Aristotle asked, "Is truth and knowledge to be found within us (rationalism) or is it to be found by using our senses to discover what is outside of ourselves (empiricism)?"

Rationalism: Plato developed the belief that knowledge and truth can be discovered by self-reflection. Socrates believed that certain knowledge was only attainable through reason.

Empiricism: Aristotle suggested that we use our senses to look for truth and knowledge in the world outside ourselves.

  • Romans differed from the Greeks in their concept of education. They felt that the purpose of education was to develop a citizenry that could contribute to society in a practical way.
  • When the Roman Catholic Church became a strong force in European daily life (500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.), knowledge was transmitted from the priest to the people. The primary conception of the purpose of education was to transmit information.
  • The Renaissance (15th to the 17th centuries) revived the Greek concept of liberal education, which stressed education as an exploration of the arts and humanities.
  • Ren? Descartes (1596 – 1704) also built upon Aristotle's empiricism with the concept that the child's mind is a blank tablet (tabula rasa) that gets shaped and formed by his/her own experiences.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was one of the first philosophers to suggest that education should be shaped to the child.
  • Kant (1724 – 1804) refined and modernized Plato's rationalist theory when he suggested that awareness of knowledge may begin with experience, but much knowledge exists prior to experience ("a priori" knowledge). Kant was one of the first to recognize the cognitive processes of the mind.

How Psychologists Have Thought of Learning

The nineteenth century brought about the scientific study of learning. The 20th century debate on how people learn has focused largely on behaviorist vs. cognitive psychology.

  • Edward Thorndike (1874–1949) believed that learning was incremental and that people learned through a trial-and-error approach.
  • B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) further developed Thorndike's behaviorist learning theory focused on stimulus and response. He considered learning to be the production of desired behaviors and denied any influence of mental processes.
  • Jean Piaget ( 1896 – 1980) was the first to state that learning is a developmental cognitive process, that students create knowledge rather than receive knowledge from the teacher.
  • Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) extended Piaget's developmental theory of cognitive abilities of the individual to include the notion of social-cultural cognition – that is, the idea that all learning occurs in a cultural context and involves social interactions.

Learning Theory in Practice

In the 20th century, as schooling became compulsory, more widespread and more systematic, large-scale reforms of practice were built upon these learning theories. The debate sparked by the Progressives, which continues today, is what is the proper balance of the traditional school's focus on teacher transmission and the progressive school's focus on the student learning from experience with guided opportunities to explore, discover, construct, and create.

  • John Dewey (1859 – 1952) believed that the teacher's goal is to understand both the demands of the discipline and the needs of the child and to provide learning experiences to enable the student to uncover the curriculum.
  • Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) introduced a more liberated concept of early childhood education that provided more opportunity for free expression, moving children away from their desks, providing them with hands-on activities, and respecting children as individuals.
  • Jerome Bruner (born 1915) has further explored the notion that disciplines have certain structural elements – core ideas and approaches to knowledge and understanding – that should guide curriculum development in a manner that connects to the development of the child.

Today teachers utilize a variety of classroom practices that are based on all of these ideas of learning. Effective teachers understand that different strategies are useful for different kinds of learning. It is most production to think of these issues in terms of what kind of learning is sought in what contexts and then deliberate about what strategies may be most appropriate for those goals.


The Learning Process

Learning theorists have provided us with a set of ideas about how people learn that have practical implications for teaching. Research has found that:

  • The brain plays a role in learning,
  • The way the learning environment is constructed makes a difference,
  • Learning is based on the associations and connections we make,
  • Learning occurs in particular social and cultural environments, and, finally,
  • The different ways people think and feel about their own learning affects their development as learners.

What Teachers Can Do To Assist Learning

Teachers can be more effective in their work if they teach in ways that are compatible with the process of learning.

How can what we know about the learning process help us to think about effective teaching practices? The following points about teaching and learning are emphasized throughout the course. Effective teaching involves:

  • Organizing the environment,
  • Organizing knowledge, information, and activities, and
  • Organizing people.

The Relation of Theory to Practice

This course addresses the relationship among three fundamental aspects of the educational process: the subject matter of the curriculum, the diverse capabilities of students, and the teacher's responsibilities to design and implement instruction. While general principles about learning can be drawn from many disciplines–such as psychology, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy–at a practical level, no two teaching situations are quite comparable. Learning to teach thus demands that we understand both the general and the particular, seek theoretical insights that give meaning to what we do, and raise skeptical questions about what we think we know.


Definition of a Theory

A theory is both an explanation and a model of how things work. Learning theories attempt to answer key questions:

  • How does learning happen?
  • What influences students' development?
  • What motivates students to learn?

A theory is not just an idea. It is an idea that explains a set of relationships that can be tested. If the idea is supported through rigorous research, that theory is said to have empirical grounding.

  • A theory is developed from research as well as practical experience and systematic observation.
  • A theory is modified overtime on the basis of practioners' insights as well as the work of researchers.
  • Theories are interconnected.

Applying Theory to Practice

To apply learning theories to instructional practices, we need to understand theories as principles that have been tested and that have some power to explain how things work across different situations and contexts. There is, however, no one-to-one correspondence between theory and practice. Integrating theory and practice is a process of connecting what teachers know about their own students with what they know about learning, motivation, development, cultures, and social contexts, as well as teaching. Excellent teachers use their storehouse of intersecting theories, research, and personal as well as professional knowledge to solve problems of practice that emerge in the classroom.


The Teacher as a Theorist

The teacher has the job of bringing together what the profession, researchers, and other professionals have come to know about what matters and what works under different situations. The teacher must apply theories judiciously using careful decision making informed by her own inquiry and her own understanding of the situation at hand. The theories illustrated in this course represent a sampling of what we know about learning theory today, which is constantly evolving. Teachers play an important role in building on and expanding what we know about how people learn.

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