As aspiring educational technologists discover in their university studies, there are many different theories that talk about human learning. Each one brings a somewhat different take on the broad phenomenon of human learning. And while each theory has its partisans and arguments, it is important to resist getting caught up too much in that. It is important to remember that it is not a matter of a contest for “one true theory to rule them all.”
There are some that think like this, or at least talk like this, and in such striving to elaborate particular learning theories and in such trying to argue for the maximal potential application of one’s pet theory are careers in academia made. But this is not the best approach for the practitioner, who is less interested in proving or justifying an ideology or dogma than in pragmatically figuring out what works best in practice for the particular task, the particular teaching point at hand, given the context at hand.
The reality is that learning is multi-faceted. There are many different aspects to it. There is an aspect of learning that consists in modifying external, observable behavior. There is an aspect of modifying internal cognitive structures. There are ways that learning can be improved by paying attention to sensory modes and structuring of information so that it’s easier to process. There are ways that learning can be improved by understanding learners’ prior mental structures and by working to modify and build on them. There are aspects of motivating learners to give them that initial push to engage with learning materials. And there are aspects of helping learners to have the volition to persist with the efforts through to the end when things get hard. There are aspects of learning that are shaped by the individual’s interaction with content to construct meaning. There are aspects of learning that are shaped by learners’ interactions with other people to construct meaning. There are ways that knowledge is situated in activity in context, with learning mixed up in recognizing and mastering the affordances of the environment and with the learner’s efforts to become part of a community of practice. There are principles for teaching young learners, and principles for teaching adult learners. And there are meta-cognitive strategies, where learners can learn to monitor and improve their own learning and abilities to learn.
Different theories individually shine light on particular facets of learning. They have applications in certain areas. A zealous focus on one theory, one aspect of learning is not going to be useful. Better to take a pluralistic sort of approach that sees the relative truths in all of these learning theories, and the specific domains where each is the best tool for the job. By putting these insights together, you can gain a more cohesive and comprehensive view of learning.
- Behaviorism gives insight in training in its reminder to focus on observable end performance, on what you expect the learner to be able to do differently at the end.
- Cognitive information processing theory reminds us to be mindful of the limits of human processing power and short term memory as we try to deliver instructional content without overloading the learners.
- Schema theory reminds us that people are not blank slates, and that the ease of new learning is influenced, for good and bad, by the mental structures that are already there. Correct beginnings of understanding are scaffolds we can build on to make our jobs easier. But misconceptions form barriers to understanding that must be actively grasped and torn down before we can begin to build.
- Motivational Design / ARCS reminds us of the importance of using motivational elements, when appropriate, in training, to push learners to engage with the training and stick with it.
- Individual constructivism reminds us of the importance of not just delivering passive instruction, but rather allowing learners a chance to interact actively with the learning environment so as to test their developing knowledge structures. This prompts us to design rich, interactive materials so that the learners can engage, test, and refine their knowledge.
- Social constructivism reminds us of the value of letting learners interact with each other and how much learners can learn from fellow students who have just learned the material. This prompts us to enable opportunities for communication, discussion, and collaboration.
- Situated cognition, meanwhile, reminds us that learning is tied up human activity in the world, in social/cultural context and physical space. This prompts us not just to create training that is not abstracted away from really, but to build rich, situated activities like case studies and simulations with realistic scenarios.
If we allow ourselves to be reminded of all these points, we can hopefully become more rounded, more effective instructional designers as a result by consciously and selectively applying the insights of various learning theories. In this way we can support more completely, in the training we build, the varied bases of learning.