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Learning theory is rooted in epistemology, a branch of philosophy that investigates the nature, scope and source of knowledge, the human mind, the meaning of knowing (Schunk, 2004; Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007; Steup, 2005). Plato and his student, Aristotle, framed the philosophical debate that laid the foundations that many theoretical interpreters use to classify learning theory today (Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005; Schunk, 2004). Plato argued that reason is the source of knowledge. This philosophy became known as Rationalism, which overlaps with current cognitive/gestalt learning theories of learning. Aristotle argued that experience is the source of knowledge; this philosophy became known as Empiricism, which overlaps with current behaviorist learning theories.

Learning theory is rooted in epistemology, a branch of philosophy that investigates the nature, scope and source of knowledge, the human mind, the meaning of knowing (Schunk, 2004; Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007; Steup, 2005). Plato and his student, Aristotle, framed the philosophical debate that laid the foundations that many theoretical interpreters use to classify learning theory today (Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005; Schunk, 2004). Plato argued that reason is the source of knowledge. This philosophy became known as Rationalism, which overlaps with current cognitive/gestalt learning theories of learning.

Aristotle argued that experience is the source of knowledge; this philosophy became known as Empiricism, which overlaps with current behaviorist learning theories.This section does the following:


Rationalist foundations of cognitive learning theory

To Plato, knowledge arises through the mind and pure thought can be acquired through reason. Things in the external world pass through the senses, but people discover the true nature of things by reflecting on them. Reason is the highest mental capacity; people learn abstract ideas and discover the meaning of things through reason (Schunk, 2004).
Plato’s philosophy became known as Rationalism, and is evident in writings of the French philosopher Rene Descartes. To Descartes, reason acts on information acquired from the world to change the individual. The mind and body are distinct entities, independent and different; but, somehow interacting to change the action and thoughts of the individual. The bodies of animals and humans are mechanical, driven by biology. However, humans are distinct from animals by their ability to reason. The rational soul is responsible for individual perception, cognition, and subjectivity (Norden, 2007). The rational soul holds the capacity for thought which regulates the mechanical actions of the body, while the body acts on the mind by bringing in sensory experience (Schunk, 2004).

Rationalism generally overlaps with today’s cognitive learning theories (Schunk, 2004), like those proposed by gestalt psychologists, Tolman, and Piaget. Cognitive theory views learning as internal mental processes--thinking, memory, knowing, problem-solving--that the learner controls for developing capacity and skills (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). With knowledge defined as symbolic mental constructions, learning becomes a change in the individual’s knowledge. Rationalism, particularly Descartes’ contributions, also holds a strong influence on the field of neurology (Norden, 2007), which today provides insights into learning that seem to be relegating some theories to the historical dustbins, while providing evidence to support others. Using the input, process, output model of the computer, emerging research in cognitive psychology is providing (a) a scientific foundation on the structure and function of mental processes that account for human behavior, (b) images of how and where learning occurs in the brain (Hunt & Ellis, 2004).


Empirical foundations of behavioral learning theory

To Aristotle, experience is the source of knowledge; the external world provides the foundation of human learning. The external world becomes the basis for sense impressions, which the mind interprets. The individual discovers the laws of nature through reason as the mind takes in data from the environment. Ideas and the external world interact, with the external world serving as the source of knowledge. Aristotle contributed the concept of associated memory that is prominent in many of today’s learning theories. Recalling an idea triggers other ideas within the experience of the individual. The more an individual associates ideas the more likely recalling one idea will trigger the other (Schunk, 2004).

Aristotle’s philosophy became known as Empiricism, which is reflected in the writings of British philosopher John Locke. Locke revolutionized the contemporary view that people were born with inherent skills, notions, and evil (Watson M. W., 2002; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007) by arguing that an individual is born tabula rasa, a blank tablet upon which the environment and society write what the individual becomes (Goldhaber, 2000). In other words, children are born neutral with the potential to become anything; what a child becomes depends on how he or she is nurtured by the environment. The content of the mind originates in the senses. Understanding the mind is a function of breaking ideas into simple units; complex ideas are collections of simple ideas (Schunk, 2004).

Empiricism tends to overlap with behaviorist learning theories (Schunk, 2004), like those proposed by Watson, Thorndike, and Skinner. Behaviorism views the process of learning to be a change in behavior, and holds that the purpose of learning is to produce behavior change that will ensure survival of the human species (Skinner, 1984). Behaviorism serves a fundamental role in education today, with the teacher creating an environment that draws out desired behaviors and extinguishes undesired behaviors. Human resource development and military training rely heavily on behaviorist theories to develop and enhance performance of individuals and groups within the constructs of the organizational mission (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).