The focus this week in my Instructional Systems Design course is on models of learning and learning theories. We have been asked to update our Personal Learning Theories from a previous course describing how it has changed since that course. Because this was not an assignment for the section I took, I am describing by personal theory for the first time explaining how it has changed over my own lifetime. My definition of learning and how it takes place has changed over time as I add new research and experience “feathers” to my hat.
So what is learning, and how does it take place? Had I been asked this question as an elementary or secondary student, I would have said that learning is simply the acquisition of knowledge and skills. As an undergraduate student, I began to realize this definition was too simplistic as I studied learning from a psychological perspective focusing on Kimble’s (1967) definition which states “learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior potentiality that occurs as a result of reinforced practice” (Houston, 1991, p. 4). We explored such topics as conditioning, stimuli and response relationships, acquisition and reinforcement methods, and retention issues. Reflecting back, the psychological perspective most related to behaviorism because of the emphasis on “the stimulus, the response, and the association between the two” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 55). But like Winn (1990), I felt limited by no attempt to explain the learner’s structure of knowledge or their mental processes. What was going on inside the brain when presented with an outside stimulus?
During my childcare days, I was introduced to the Whole Child (Weissman & Hendrick, 2013) perspective which was the prevailing theory and practice for very young children at the time. This perspective recognized that all children reach predictable milestones at different rates in four major areas: physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially (PIES). Each area represents a different aspect of the child and together they create the whole child. While still feeling similar to behaviorism due to the emphasis on external stimuli, the model emphasized internal processes and structures as well as the learner being an active participant seeming more like cognitivism (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). Here is a great chart organizing the PIES milestones by stages of development which also includes language-learning: Child Development Chart. As teacher and an adult learner, I identify most with constructivism (Ertmer & Newby, 1993) which emphasizes the importance of authentic experiences to create meaning. In my teaching, I see my students as individuals each with their own personalities, learning styles, interests, and most importantly, life experiences. My goal is to make what I teach meaningful to them. Any reading teacher will argue that her students with more exposure to high-level vocabulary and experience reading will score higher on standardized tests. Likewise, if she provides rich interactions and experiences to her struggling students, they will progress quickly. As a student in my adult years, I rely on my prior knowledge and experiences to make connections among ideas, seeking similarities, identifying differences, and essentially seeing the big picture. Yet my interpretation of the same information is different than my course mates because they bring their own knowledge and experiences to the course. Consequently, the same information we all receive has different meaning to each of us according to the definitions we have already developed.
In summary, learning is complex idea with different definitions based upon the context of the situation, just as learners construct their own meanings based upon their situations. If asked to choose which idea gels with my current philosophy, I would say that they all do because each applies well to an age range. I see younger children benefiting from the external stimuli of a behaviorist perspective, older children and adolescents identifying well with the internal processes of cognitivism, and adults utilizing their knowledge and experiences through constructivism.
Ertmer, P. & Newby, T. (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-71.
Houston, J. P. (1991). Fundamental of Learning and Memory (4th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Kimble, G. A. (1967). Foundations of Conditioning and Learning. New York: Appleton.
Weissman, P., & Hendrick, J. (2013). The Whole Child: Developmental Education for the Early Years (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Winn, W. (1990). Some implication of cognitive theory for instructional design. Instructional Science 19, pp. 53-69.