Learning Perspectives

Learning and educationGiven that learning appears to be an innate human trait, reason suggests that humans could devise a standard definition of learning. Such is hardly the case.

From ancient philosophers debating learning as either experience or reason to modern educators quibbling about whether learning is process, product, or function, perspectives on learning seem to be as numerous as practitioners of learning. Theorists, researchers, practitioners, and philosophers may never agree on a single definition of learning because the definition seems to depend on so many dynamically interacting variables. Some of these variables include the philosophical and theoretical foundation of the institution, the social agenda of administration, the philosophical perspective of the practitioner, the needs and capacity of the learner, and contextual factors.

The confusion presented by disparate perspectives on learning presents an opportunity to explore the foundations of modern education practice to understand why some learning programs apply the methods they do, while providing a basis for a principal-based approach to learning that matches method with context.

The Learning Perspectives category reviews competing perspectives on learning, from the classical foundations of rationalism and empiricism through the traditional classifications of learning theory-- behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism, and constructivism. The purpose of this exploration is to understand the foundations of historical and modern learning practice, and to illuminate the practices that may best serve learner and context.


Following are articles that will appear in the Learning Perspectives Section:

Synthesizing disparate perspectives of learning to discover best practices in education

Classical foundations of learning theory

  • Rationalist foundations of cognitive learning theory
  • Empirical foundations of behavioral learning theory

Behaviorism: Producing behavior change

  • Thorndike's connectionism
  • Watson's behaviorism
  • Skinner's radical behaviorism
  • Applying behaviorist learning theory

Cognitivism: Developing capacity to better learn

  • Piaget's cognitive-developmental theory
  • Bandura's social cognitive theory
  • Applying social cognitive theory

Humanism: Reaching for inherent potential

  • Maslow: Transcending full humanness
  • Rogers: Learner-centered education
  • Mays: Authentic Self
  • Applying humanist learning theory

Constructivism: Constructing knowledge through experience

  • Disparate ideologies under the constructivist penumbra
  • Vygotsky's Cognitive-Mediation Theory
  • Applying constructivist-learning theory

Situational learning theory

  • Grow's Staged Self Directed Learning Model
  • Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Theory
  • Limitations of situational teaching methods



Behaviorism: Producing behavior change

Dismissed by many educators as archaic and dehumanizing, behaviorism seems anathematic in the post-modern world. However, after generations of Dr. Spock parenting and self-esteem school have directly contributed to high depression rates, low resilience, and falling performance among American youth, popular television shows like The Nanny and The Dog Whisperer are influencing rediscovery of shaping as a tool for increasing learner focus and achievement. In addition to being a useful tool for training animals and children, conditioning is widely applied to modify behavior in clinical and correctional settings, classroom management in schools, recruit training in military, and organizational learning and development practices in business. Emerging applications of conditioning include training individuals suffering from bipolar disorder, autism, and Alzheimer's to be functional without medication. This section will review the modern history and controversies of behaviorism to conclude that, alone as a philosophy, behaviorism may be archaic and dehumanizing, but used as a tool in the right situations can be effective for producing behavior change.

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Classical foundations of learning theory

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.

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The elusive definition of learning

Adult education pioneer, Maclolm S. Knowles (2005) suggested that education is an activity an agent takes to change individuals and groups, whereas learning is the process by which organisms change. From this perspective, education focuses on the interests and processes of the educator, while learning focuses on the individual and groups in which change occurs. Understanding the distinction between learning and education might help provide a basis for understanding the strategies and methods of education institutions; however, sifting through disparate perspectives clarifies the confusion about the definition, nature, and purpose of learning.

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Why learning theory is important for educational practice

While some academics generally consider that a good theory provides a framework for understanding phenomena and serves as a bridge between research and practice (Knowles, Holton III, & Swanson, 2005; Schunk, 2004), others assert that theories cannot explain learning, are wasteful and misleading, and only of historical value (Skinner, 1971; Hildegard & Bower, 1966). Hildegard and Bower assert that research should focus on scientific efforts that analyze changes as learning occurs, not on pursuing paths that “are strewn with discarded theories” (p. 143).

Emerging discoveries in genetics and neurology increasingly provide the scientific focus that some physical scientists believe will relegate learning theory to the historical dustbin by demonstrating what is happening in the brain and explaining all cognitive processes in the language of biology (Kagan, 2008). Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan rejects emerging mechanistic notions of learning asserted by the physical sciences by declaring that “it is not possible” to translate emotional states into biological terms.

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