A number of definitions exist for the term "learning" and these definitions differ in the way they are put forward in different theories. However, the fundamental is the same. Learning refers to the process of increasing ones knowledge through the process of reading and the use of senses. The major debate that existed is whether learning is a product or a process. For us, learning is not an end; it is a process through which an individual increases his stock of knowledge and uses that knowledge to adapt into new environments and in defining a set of principles that he uses in his life.
Key words: Learning Theories; Behaviourism; Cognitivism
Myers and De Freitas (2006) made a useful distinction between two often confusing yet interrelated concepts namely the theories of learning and pedagogical frameworks. They argued that "Theories of learning provide empirically-based accounts of the variables which influence the learning process, and provide explanations of the ways in which that influence occurs while Pedagogical frameworks describe the broad principles through which theory is applied to learning and teaching practice.' According to Burns (1995, p 99), learning is a permanent change in behavior relative to the behavior at the initial comparison phase. Behavior, in this case, includes both observable activity and internal processes such as thinking, attitudes and emotions. Therefore, to Burns, the definition of learning includes motivation. Tamez and Surles (2004) on the other hand described learning as an active process that starts with the learner. `It consists of a relationship between the learner and the environment, their present and past experience, a natural or innate curiosity to know and the social interaction between each of us. Woven in this process is the desire to change the self and/or the environment in which we find ourselves'.
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In this paper we are interested in providing a concise critical survey of the learning theories literature. In fact this remain important as despite all the talk of learning amongst educational policymakers and practitioners, there is a surprising lack of attention on issues pertaining its definition and process. We begin by examining learning as a product and as a process and subsequently discuss the competing learning theories.
Literature Review and Theories of learning
Learning as a product
In the 1960s and 1970s, learning was usually referred as a change in behaviour, that is learning is discussed as the end product of some process. Thus learning was closely associated with change. However this approach to learning has been subjected to some debate and most interestingly from Merriam and Caffarella (1991) who raised the following critical questions i) Does a person need to perform in order for learning to have happened? ii) Are there other factors that may cause behaviour to change? iii) Can the change involved include the potential for change? These queries have triggered a number of reactions among theorists and some (refer to behaviourism below) have looked to identifying relatively permanent changes in behaviour, or rather the potential for change, as a result of experiences. But a number of other theorists (refer to cognitivism below) have been less concerned with behaviour but rather with changes in the ways in which people 'understand, or experience, or conceptualize the world around them' (Ramsden 1992: 4). They argued that not all changes in behaviour resulting from experience involve learning. The focus for them, is gaining knowledge or ability through the use of experience.
An interesting research by Sâ€žlj" (1979) on what adult students understood by learning yield the following responses (classified in five main categories) which shed some more lights from an empirical sense on the above.
Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or `knowing a lot'.
Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
Learning as acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge.
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The views are clearly different and the author argued that conceptions 1 to 3 imply a less complex view of learning. Learning is something external to the learner whereby people go out and buy knowledge. Conceptions 4 and 5 look to the 'internal' or personal aspect of learning and learning appears something that one does in order to understand the real world.
Learning as a process
The above also leads us to view learning appearing as a process as well as there is a concern with what happens when the learning takes place. Maples and Webster 1980 (quoted in Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 124) posited that learning is 'a process by which behaviour changes as a result of experience'. Central to this has been has been the issue of the extent to which people are conscious of what is going on, that is if they are awared that they are engaged in learning. One important contribution is that of Rogers (2003) who set out two contrasting approaches namely the task-conscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalized learning. The author described acquisition learning as going on all the time. It is 'concrete, immediate and confined to a specific activity; it is not concerned with general principles' (Rogers 2003). Formalized learning on the other hand arises from the process of facilitating learning. It is 'educative learning' rather than the accumulation of experience. As Rogers (2003:27) puts it 'Learning itself is the task. What formalized learning does is to make learning more conscious in order to enhance it'. In fact what is more likely is a mix of acquisition and formalized learning as forming a continuum. This is supported by key theorists such as Kurt Lewin, Chris Argyris and Micheal Polayni.
Learning as a process - learning theory
The above discussion on the process subsequently leads to the door of learning theories. Learning, may take different forms as promulgated in different theories. Meyers & Freitas (2006) group learning theories into different broad perspectives which are discussed below. Before that let us consider Tamez and Surles (2004) discussion on the theories of learning.
Tamez and Surles (2004) argued that all theories are grounded in one or a combination of rationalism, empiricism or constructivism. Rationalism means that the individual is not influenced by third parties in the decision making process. The individual has his own beliefs and thinking process. That individual would always have a set of principles based on his acquired knowledge from exposure to the world. Empiricism is a state whereby the higher the level of experience, the more the individual becomes knowledgeable and the better is his ability to make experienced decision. All the decisions taken by the invidual have a high level of coherence. Constructivism stipulates that the individual is exposed to the world and to his inner beliefs and he uses both these knowledge to form his own principles. The individual constructs meaning from the information of experience." Tamez and Surles (2004) argued that none of these three theories dominate in real life, these are all extremes and in the real world, individual uses a combination of these three theories. The end result is one of learning.
The different broad perspectives are now discussed below and this is believed to give a more complete analysis of learning theories.
Sensory stimulation theory
Traditional sensory stimulation theory posits that effective learning happens through the stimulation of senses. For instance Laird (1985) showed the ability of senses to help in the learning process - 75%, 13% and 12% of knowledge are learned through seeing, hearing and the other senses (smell, touch and taste), respectively. Thus the visual sense goes a long way in stimulating learning, with greater learning taking place if multi-sense are simulated.
Forming part of the behaviourist school of psychology (see Skinner, Laird 1985, Burns 1995), behavior is a variable that depends on its own lagged terms. That is, if positive `reinforcement' follows a behaviour, the learner will repeat the desired behaviour. On the other hand, it is also argued that negative reinforcement as well has the effect of strengthening behavior. This happens when change in behaviuor stops negative conditions. However Laird (1985) argued that punishment has the ability to weaken behavior. Though it is a fact in everyday life punishment is used, Burns notes that the effect is only present for a short time span and only if there exist some sort of punishment agency. This approach however, is mechanical and inflexible.
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The Cognitive-Gestalt approach lays emphasis on a number of different but inter-related terms that changes behavior. These are the importance of experience, problem solving ability and the development of insights. During the life time of an individual, he goes through a number of different conditions and the meanings of these terms adapt differently based on the different circumstances.
Holistic learning theory
For learning to be effective, the learning process require activation of `individual personality which depends on a number of crucial factors such as intellectual capacity, emotions, desire, thinking capacity and feelings (Laird, 1985, p 121).
Facilitation theory (the humanist approach)
Laird (1985) discussed this theory and ascertained that the role of an educator is also that of a facilitator who has the ability to create a conducive environment which facilitates the learner to integrate easily and feel comfortable in such an environment and the learner is not threatened by external factors. Learning will occur by the educator acting as a facilitator, that is by establishing an atmosphere in which learners feel comfortable to consider new ideas and are not threatened by external factors. He further characterized this theory by arguing that while human beings are keen to learn, the significance of learning depends on the willingness of changing one's concept of oneself. The reality is that because one is used to ones behavior, there is resistance to change and something some negative consequences associated.
Kolb (in McGill & Beaty, 1995) proposed an experiential learning model which is a four-stage learning process. In fact, the process is a cycle and the starting point can be at any one of the stages and within the learning cycle, one may go through the several stages more than once. This theory posits that without reflection one would simply continue to repeat our mistakes. The four stages of the cycle are: â€¦ i) through concrete experience ii)through observation and reflection iii)through abstract conceptualization iv)through active experimentation. Building on Kolb's work, Honey and Mumford (1986 cited in McGill & Beaty 1995 p 177), identified four learning styles: i) Activist (enjoys the experience itself), ii) Reflector (spends time reflecting) iii) Theorist (uses past experience to make connections and (iv) pragmatist (plans activities). Each of these styles however, have their own strengths and weaknesses. Honey and Mumford argue that enhanced learning takes place when one builds on the strengths and work towards minimizing weaknesses.
Revans, also known as the `father' of action learning, very rightly said that action and learning has a high degree of causality - each causes the other and a single one cannot exist on its own. McGill & Beaty (1995) described this approach as the linking mechanism between the world of learning and the world of action, and this is done through a reflective process in a learning group which he termed as `action learning sets'. To him, the 'sets' meet regularly to reflect and leach from each other.
This short paper has summarized the different theories on learning that are found in the literature and which could be applied in the academic context. The design of teaching and learning process should be built on the premises discussed to become effective. Since a wide range of learning theories exist, they must be seen as complimentary to each other to adapt to the teaching and learning environment, even moreso when the learners are not perfectly homogeneous.