Learning is a complex topic. It has been the target of thought from philosophers and thinkers for a long time and is increasingly one of different avenues of research. However, a good overall appreciation of the concept seems valuable before we look at different components and specifics in more detail.
Definition of Learning
A definition of what learning is is probably a good starting point. This is actually quite hard to obtain. In psychology, there has been a tendency to relate learning to “the interaction between experience and behavioural change” i.e. there is an experiential process that leads to some change in behaviour. More completely this may be put as: “A change in knowledge, skills or behaviour, brought about by experience.” This is problematic as behaviour can be affected by factors other than experience. There is also clearly learning that may have no clear impact on behaviour. Another definition in Merriam-Webster is simply that learning is: Knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study. This seems to be a little bit of a tautology, although it does perhaps help with the common approach to differentiating between knowledge and skill.
There are other definitions that are available that explore some of these concerns, and thus lose the conciseness that we may desire from a definition. This includes clarifying that the changes are permanent (or at least long term), and not caused simply by growth or transient changes in physiology, fatigue, drugs etc. They can also describe learning as a process, rather than as a result.
I like the definition of learning as being the increased ability to solve problems. This seems to manifest at a variety of differing levels (macro and micro) and in different forms (knowledge, skill).
Historically, there has been differentiation between the learning of children and adults (pedagogy vs andragogy). Whilst they clearly have different features, I am not persuaded that they are truly different entities, but instead on a spectrum of learning. As such, I think it is more appropriate to thing of learning overall.
Theories of Learning
Given the complexity of the topic, I am sure you will not be surprised to discover that there have been several different theories about what learning is overall. These have evolved over the history of educational theory and are continuing to have input from developments in education, psychological and neuroscience research. The following categories are the ones that I think provide the clearest understanding.
Behaviourism Behaviourism was one of the earlier theories around learning which has largely gone out of favour. Much of it seems to arise from the more simplistic psychological assessments, particularly with animals. The approach was based on observation of a change in behaviour, and defining this change as learning. The most straightforward examples are clear to see in the classical animal studies (Pavlov’s dog comes very much to mind) when there is a clear link between an input and an output that is ‘learned’ over time - a stimulus-response model. Much of this was felt to be passive in nature, and contributed to the didactic approach to teaching. That is, a repeated input over time will allow the desired outcome to manifest. Summation of simple components was thought to coalesce together to create the larger pattern of learning that we may see. It may be that for more simple concepts, such as focal skill acquisition, that behaviourism is still a relevant theory. Driving a car is probably a good example of behaviourist learning, with the different, well defined behaviours summated into an overall outcome. However, it does seem that, as a model, it is just too simplistic for many of the more complex aspects of human learning that we see. A plus point of it, and probably a reason for its initial popularity, was that it is an empirical approach, and thus with more persuasive outputs for what it does answer. This is in contrast with much of the rest of educational theory which is much more theoretical in its nature. And it is clear that some aspects of behaviourism are very relevant and applicable e.g. reward systems. As such, it is useful to be aware of, even if it is clearly not a full narrative of how we learn.
Cognitivism Cognitive learning theories build up the complexity of learning by focusing more on the cognition that is occurring. That is, they aim to better describe the information processing that is going on. The analogy is to the brain being some form of computer and that the processing of information is more complex than the stimulus-response logic of behaviourism. Learning is therefore an accumulation of different parcels of knowledge and skills which can be applied to future problems that the person faces. Psychological and neuroscience research has continued to better understand many of these models (e.g. perception, memory, retrieval) and described their processes better. These explanations seem to form much better models of the building blocks of the learning system, although not really integrating them together into an overall theory of learning. As such, cognitive theories may be more relevant for focal aspects of learning, rather than the global picture of learning as a whole. A good example of this is the evidence for utilising techniques of spaced repetition to improve recall of specific facts whilst it doesn’t have a clear place in the development of higher order skills, such a complex problem solving.
Constructivism Probably the most favoured current theory, and one that I find fits best, is that of constructivism. This describes how learning is a constructive process where prior knowledge is integrated with new information. That is, the whole of a person’s knowledge is one giant structure that is constantly having components added, and existing aspects changed. The level of learning here is one of meaning, rather than the more simplistic behaviour outcome, but is probably still a useful model for anything other than the most simple and discrete actions. Jean Piaget was a notable pioneer of this theory, although his focus was more on children. However, the progression of learning from children to adults seems to be a useful example of how this theory fits well. Very young children are still very much constructing their models of the physics of the world from their limited senses (models are also referred to as schema in much of the literature). As they grow older, these models are used to build better models (physical skills, language, social) and as they continue to grow can even develop the meta-cognition models. The key terms that highlight this model well are accommodation (where their existing) models are adapted based on new information) and assimilation (where new information is made sense of using current models, and subsequently integrated). For educators, much of the role therefore becomes about providing the frameworks that help learners understand the relevant connections. There is also a potentially high degree of discomfort that may be experienced by learners when old models are challenged. Supporting this process is another role of the teacher here.
Social Constructivism This, as the name suggests, builds strongly on the concept of constructivism. The idea is that a lot of learning is impacted by factors outside the individual, that is, the social connections that they have. This will both greatly affect the initial models that an individual has, but also the trajectory of any learning that subsequently happens. Importantly, this is a two way process, as the learning that any individual undergoes will also inevitably feedback to his social environment.
To summarise, learning is creating connections between things. This is true metaphorically but also literally when we look at what happens with the brain with learning. It is these changes that allow the subsequent processing of information within the individual to be different than it was before. This allows us to be better at solving problems. This all seems constructivist, in that we utilise a huge amount of what we already know in any learning we subsequently do. It is also clear that our social setting will have a huge impact on our learning, both in terms of the models that we will have absorbed through and the directions that we are guided. In addition, cognitivist models can provide valuable insights into some specific aspects of this overall learning apparatus, such as how we encode and retrieve certain knowledge. Finally, it is also clear that we are not blank slates. It is increasingly apparent that our genes have a powerful impact on the people that we become. This doesn’t seem to be well explored in the educational literature, but the impact on many psychological domains is becoming clear. We shall explore many of these aspects in more detail in further notes.