Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Learning Theories: A Probing Introduction

Colleagues, the following is a lecture I have written for a course on adult education curiculum development to introduce three primary learning theories, behaviorsm, cognitivism, and constructivism. In this piece I have drawn on two web-based resources to flesh out the basics. I've embedded my own thoughts amidst what I would like to describee as my own reflective summary. Learning theory analysis is an important feature of this course, a topic that underlies much of our teaching, program development, and even core values in adult education.

This piece is designed as a fairly substantial introduction. More extended postings on learning theory may follow.


Learning Theories: Principles and Application


It is an underlying assumption of this course that at whatever degrees of implicit or explicit manifestation, some learning theory underlies instructional practices and core principles and thereby shapes both the intended and unintended curriculum in ways that may be easier or more difficult to perceive. For example, given its student-centered, the authors’ reluctance to impose structure, and process orientation of the emergent curriculum, it seems clear that A Guide for Implementing Instruction for Adults is largely premised on constructivist learning theory even as the authors are empathetic to the Competency Skill List of the ABLE Network (pp. 138-140) which they view as an alternative contextual approach from their own. Moreover, in their discussion of gradually implementing an Instructional Theme-Based (ITB) Approach within specific programs, the authors recognize the need for pragmatism in working from traditional programs (shaped by more behaviorist and cognitivist learning theories) to one fully structured on the ITB model, including its underlying constructivism in shaping an instructional program. I assigned Ch. 3 of the Dirkx & Prenger text principally for the purpose of keeping the reading of this text going on an even keel, though pointing out, above, the underlying learning theory grounding its pedagogical presuppositions. This may be worth keeping in mind as you work through the text; discerning what is valuable and what may be less so as you develop your own model curriculum framework, including your own preferred learning theory.

The Instructional Design Knowledge Base (IDKB) site provides a succinct overview of three primary learning theories that have pervaded educational theory through the course of the 20th century I find this to be a useful site to gain a basic overview, which can serve as a basis for our more extensive readings. Even though in this course we will be exploring post-behaviorist learning theories, reviewing our knowledge of behaviorism through this article, and in a more in-depth way in the following article, provides some baseline knowledge for gaining a deeper understanding contemporary learning theory. That’s one thing. The other matter I would like to briefly highlight is the reality that different writers have taken various interpretive slants in discerning differences in learning theory. This has been particularly the case on various definitions of behaviorism and cognitivism. Some writers have linked only the learning theory of behaviorism with the philosophy of objectivism (that there is an objective world outside perception that can serve as a standard for knowledge even as if only a regulative idea; an ideal that shapes research and practice in certain prescribed ways). Other learning theorists, including some working from constructivist premises, have linked behaviorism with cognitivism through the common philosophy of objectivism. As we work through these various learning theories we will attempt to get as clear as possible in delineating distinctions among them even as it is quite likely that total clarity will remain an ideal that continues to elude. With these caveats noted, let us give consideration to the Basic Principles and Goals of Instruction charts on the IDKB chart.

As you review the Objectivism/Behaviorist column as laid out in the web document you might notice that the attention is focused on observed behavior; behavior that is viewed as simply present in the external environment as evident by any objective observer. In this respect, there is a third-person distancing between the observer and the actors of any learning situation, objectivity which would apply in principle to the actors when they examine their behavior from an ideal, neutral position. The other primary position is that the stimuli (cues) both precede and are the basis for the response (behavior) in which there is a direct corresponding relationship. Based on this framework, the goal of “[i]nstruction is to elicit the desired response from the learner who is presented with a target stimulus.” Such behaviorism underlies certain phonemic-based adult literacy programs in which the stimulus is the presentation of the correct phoneme in which the student responds in an accurate manner in which learning takes place through successive practice of the same S-R pattern that includes room for variation within a given pattern of phonemic instruction. Strictly speaking, learning does not entail conscious cognition, but automatic patterning that becomes internalized though practice.

Cognitivism, sometimes referred to the computer-based metaphor informational processing, has been variously identified in both sharing affinities with both behaviorist and constructivist learning theories. Those who draw on cognitivism from a behaviorist perspective recognize the mind as an intervening variable in the S-R relationship (S-M-R). For example, expectations and values can and do intercede in creating space at the onset of a given stimulus in which the response is at least partly a product of deliberate thought and choice and is therefore, neither strictly determinate nor predictable, though often in a range of behavior which might be broadly viewed as representative. Those cognitivists like Sticht and Merrill note that there are many types of learning and accept a strong role for the learner’s thought construction as a significant variable in effecting learning. They do, however, posit a sharp distinction between mastery of some aspect of the external environment in which the learning tasks are pre-determined (a job skill), with the hard work of processing such learning through internal mental operations through individual effort stimulated by effective task-based teaching. Thus, from either of these perspectives, the “[l]earner is viewed as an active participant in the [more or less objective and pre-determinate] learning process.” The key work is knowledge and mastery of “the building blocks of knowledge” as determined by environmental influences through effective informational processing strategies which “occurs within the learner and which can be effected by the learner.

The goal of instruction from these assumptions is to ‘[c]ommunicate or transfer knowledge in the most efficient, effective manner (mind-independent [that] can be mapped onto learners.” This requires “the learner to use appropriate learning strategies” so that “information” can be “stored in memory in an organized, meaningful way.” Those maintaining a cognitive perspective emphasize the importance of task-mastery as a key focus of adult education. Mastering a sequence of technical work skills of a somewhat complex nature would be an example of such cognitive-based instruction, which might be incorporated into a more complex learning environment in which technical skill development is one important component.

Constructivism shares strong affinities with Malcolm Knowles’ emphasis on self-directed learner for whom meaning often emerges in and through the process of learning itself as well as Donald Kolb’s four-cycle model of experiential learning. Constructivism is also highly influential in feminist pedagogy as well as that of Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences. It has wide purchase in adult education forums, which is sometimes taken by proponents as self-evident and obviously superior to other ways of knowing. Constructivist learning theorists reject radical distinctions between environmental and individualistic ways of knowing, maintaining that the self in its own right is a socio-cultural construction. On this view, “[l]earners build personal interpretation[s] of the world based on experiences and interactions,” which, when deliberately reflected upon has the potential of opening up fresh perspectives and enhancing self-awareness. In this respect, too, “meaning is imposed by the individual [on a perpetually constructive reality] rather than existing in the world independently.” Based on these perspectives “[l]earning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge” in which the “focus” of instruction “is on the process not the product” of learning. To put it in related terms, learning is a meaning-making process of increasingly deepening reflective awareness in connecting relevant knowledge (as defined by the learner in the role he/she is engaged or seeks to be engaged in) “in the actual use of tools [and resources] in real world situations as deemed by learners and their significant others as significant.

From the constructivist frame, a great deal more than task mastery is up for consideration when considering the various implications of gaining relevant workplace knowledge as reflected, for example, in the EFF Worker Role Map at the levels both of the Broad Areas of Responsibility and the Key Activities relevant to a given worker. (See link for a brief overview of the RFF Worker Role Map. Within the responsibilities of even the most entry level service position, there is typically a call for a range of soft and harder skills in which one’s sense of personal and recognized competence may be discerned through a subtle interweaving of the range of skills, behaviors, and attitudes that combine. This often includes the capacity to effectively assess the climate of the organizational culture and that of placing oneself effectively within it. Viewed from this perspective, the workplace itself might be visualized as a constructed reality that emerges through various processes and people that intersect in vying for resources, visibility, and positive recognition. From this vantage-point constructivist acumen might viewed as the highest form of learning that adult education students could engage in with much potential profit.

Brenda Mergel’s paper titled Instructional Design & Learning Theory provides a more extensive overview of the three learning theories we are examining in terms of theory construction and definition, key concepts, and practical applications. A quick glance on her short description of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism on p. 2 (she did not number her pages) provides a clear delineation that can keep us grounded in the basics as we probe into the implications of these theories in more depth.


I will highlight only a few aspects of her discussion on behaviorism (pp. 3-6), noting the major psychologists whose work she summarized, all of whom emphasized observable behavior while “ignoring the possibility of any processes occurring in the mind (p. 5). All of the behaviorists also underscore the S-R relationship as working in a linear direction, drawing on a scientific metaphor of cause and effect. A related concept is that of reinforcement and the importance of conditioning through repeated practice in bringing about the desired behavior or extinguishing those of a negative sort. One of her primary distinctions that Mergel brings out is difference between classical and operant conditioning in which the former is based on the automaticity (or unconditioned) nature of the S-R relationship while the latter modification as developed by B.F. Skinner highlights the importance of voluntary behavior (or conditioned response) in propelling the S-R relationship. Skinner’s work has been instrumental in drawing out the importance of positive and negative reinforcement in shaping educational behavior. For a quick overview of the distinction, go here.

An additional point to consider is the reinforcement schedule (p. 6) and the increasing effectiveness of variable over fixed rates of reinforcement. Thus, instead of calling on students sequentially, a moirĂ© random approach is more likely to keep student attention concentrated throughout a class discussion. Note also on the top of p. 6 to the mention of “successive approximations” in learning, a concept which I find highly fruitful in working with students from a strength-based model, building on what they do know as a basis for what they could come to know better through guided practice. However much this concept may have emerged with behaviorism it has been embedded in the research on scaffolding, a learning/teaching strategy we will study through the following essay written by Lipscomb, Swanson, & West, I also briefly deal with the topic of successive approximation here

Mergel concludes her discussion of behaviorism in focusing on its implications for instructional design on pp. 12-15. She underscores its importance for the development of the highly influential Bloom’s Taxonomy in its sequencing of learning in successive stages of development (p. 12), in mastery learning (p. 13), in computer-assisted instruction (p. 15), and also in the behavioral objectives movement which underlies the entire emphasis on the behaviorist influence on 20th century education.


Mergel provides a brief, yet deep discussion of the basics of cognitivism on pp. 6-7 with a follow-up on cognitivism and instructional design on pp.16-17. The author notes the range in cognitive learning theory, from applications with a close affinity to behaviorism to those veering closer to the constructivist edge. The connection to the former is encapsulated in the following quotation:

Cognitive theorists recognize that much learning involves associations established through contiguity and repetition. They also acknowledge the importance of reinforcement, although they stress its role in providing feedback about the correctness of responses over its role as a motivator. However, even while accepting such behavioristic concepts, cognitive theorists view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information." (Good and Brophy, 1990, pp. 187, in Mergel, p. 7).

There is also a strong connection between behaviorist and cogntitivist learning theorists in a mutual acceptance of the reality and significance of the external world in which the individual in one way or another takes in.

On the other hand, some of the key concepts of cognition theory (p. 7-8) such as schema and transference theory, along with the utilization of advanced organizers shift the focus more toward the importance of internal representation, which is an underlying component of constructivist learning theory. The work of Tom Sticht and M.D. Merrill are examples of cognitive theorists who seek to build bridges with constructivist learning theory while holding firm to an informational processing model of learning. On Merrill constructivist-based thinking, his 1991 essay, “Constructivism and Instructional Design" may be of interest Mergel discusses this diversity of application within cognitive learning theory on p. 16. For additional insight on cognitivist learning theory, the following link may be of value:


Mergel discusses basics of constructivism on pp. 8-9 and its implications for instructional design on pp. 17-19. The core shift is moving from mastery of the external environment to grounding instruction to the learner’s own construction of reality through forms of knowledge representation based on the centrality of “prior experiences, mental structures, and beliefs that are used to interpret objects and events” (p. 8). This emphasis on self construction does not imply that the external environment is not a strong motivational factor in shaping learning objectives. However, it does place the emphasis on learners as having an innate capacity for knowledge building based on their own emerging constructions of reality in which pre-determined learning tasks may or may not be relevant in any given learning context.

Mergel also points to “realistic vs. radical construction” (p. 8). In the former application “learners eventually construct mental structures that correspond or match external structures in the environment.” This would apply, for example to an internal mastery of “the basics” of truly selling oneself in a job interview or in some other “real-world” context. The EFF Role Maps and Content Standards would be examples of real-world application of constructivist learning theory in a similar manner to Robert Kegan in his book, In Over Their Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life as reviewed here

The four points that Mergel extracts from Merrill’s essay provides a useful framework for grasping some of the core fundamentals of constructivism, namely, that:

• knowledge is constructed form experience
• learning is a personal interpretation of the world
• learning is an active process in which meaning is developed on the basis of experience
• conceptual growth comes from the negotiation of meaning, the sharing of multiple perspectives and the changing of our internal representations through collaborative learning
• learning should be situated in realistic settings; testing should be integrated with task and not a separate activity (p. 8-9)

The parallels between constructivist learning/teaching application and the recommendations offered by Dirkx & Prenger are striking. Key features include:

• Provide multiple representations of reality – avoid oversimplification of instruction by representing [in the classroom] the natural complexities of the world
• Present authentic tasks -contextualize [even if there is need for some simplification]
• Provide real-world, case-based learning environments, rather than predetermined instructional sequences
• Foster reflective practice
• Enable context- and context-dependent knowledge construction
• Support collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition (p. 18)

These key points underlie the more extended statements that Mergel draws out from : Jonassen & McAlleese’s article, “Thinking Technology: Toward a Constructivist-Design Model,” which doesn’t currently appear to be available on-line. The summary statement on the differences between constructivist and objectivist (behaviorism and cognitivism) based design structures “is that objective design has a predetermined outcome and intervenes in the learning process to map a pre-determined concept of reality into the learner’s mind, while constructivism maintains that because learning objectives are not always predictable, instruction should foster, not control learning” (p. 18). Next week we’ll examine constructivist assumptions in more depth, which will include comparison with Merrill’s discussion on the relationship between Constructivism and Instructional Design, the latter which he refers to as ID.2 This short interview with David Jonassen may also be of interest

After providing a very brief assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the learning theories discussed, Mergel offers a more extended discussion on assessing the important question as to whether there is a single best learning theory for instructional design that would apply across the board. In this the author identifies three basic positions. The first is the eclectic approach, which is characteristic of both Merrill in Sticht, in borrowing freely from a diversity of theories in meeting the various goals of different types of learning. Consider Merrill’s First Principles of Learning:
The demonstration principle: Learning is promoted when learners observe a demonstration
The application principle: Learning is promoted when learners apply the new knowledge
The activation principle: Learning is promoted when learners activate prior knowledge or experience
The integration principle: Learning is promoted when learners integrate their new knowledge into their everyday world
The task-centered principle: Learning is promoted when learners engage in a task-centered instructional strategy

These seem to reflect a cognitive impetus in the sequencing as listed in the importance he places on informed practice through sharp task delineation. Still, Merill incorporates a variety of constructivist strategies even as he gives them a cognitive spin. One might easily identify behaviorist stimulus-response principles also embedded in his work. Sticht also draws freely from informational processing theory, situated cognition, social constructivism as well as behaviorism from which his early work on cognition seems to have been an extension from. The question remains that however much borrowing a learning design specialist may draw from various perspectives on whether there is a singular, underlying perspective giving shape to the eclectic mix.

Closely related is the argument that design elements from different learning theories are needed at different stages and different levels of learning. This is maintained both by Jonassen and Riegeluth in the call for more structured learning activities in learning new activities or among more novice learners, while learning activities can be more open-ended once a sufficient mastery level has been attained or with higher level learners. The brief link referencing Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory may be of interest

The third position, maintained by Bednar et al., advocating from the perspective of radical constructivism, argues the points that theory, whether consciously articulated or not, is inescapable and that cogent learning requires internal coherency from theoretical premises, to core principles, best practices and assessment. Their basic point is that “abstracting concepts and strategies from the theoretical position that spawned them strips them of their meaning” (quoted in Mergel, p. 19). That, itself is a contestable issue that warrants further investigation.

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