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There are numerous theories of learning, each emphasizing particular features of the learning experience. Each theory contributes to our understanding of how learners integrate information and experiences from their environment in order to reify their experiences.
I will review three theoretical perspectives on learning, namely the Constructivist/Cognitivist perspective, the Phenomenographic perspective, and the Socio-cultural perspective. I will describe the salient features and characteristics of each theory and compare the similarities and differences across perspectives, examine their historical trajectories. and discuss their underlying assumptions. This will include a discussion of how learners access information, make sense of that information, and act on it in deliberate and purposeful ways as a means of engaging with the world.
Each perspective describes learning differently, depending on the viewpoint of the observer, and each theory places greater or lesser emphasis on concepts related to context, meaning, and experience. Each perspective contributes to our understanding of the relationship between context, meaning, and experience as they relate to learning, however the importance of these core concepts differs in how each theory treats them within the context of learning.
Finally , I will conclude with some thoughts that inform my perspective as it relates to learning in my experience, and I will link the perspectives to the concepts of intrinsic motivation, variation, and transfer.
"Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer"
Heinz von Foerster
The Constructivist theoretical orientation holds that knowledge is acquired experientially, and that it is mediated by our prior understanding. It is based on the belief that we learn by doing rather than observing, and that knowledge is built upon previous learning. "The essential core of constructivism is that learners actively construct their own knowledge and meaning from their experiences." (Doolittle, 1999, p. 1)
Constructivist theory emerged from early studies of learning, behaviour, and psychoanalysis, and the behavioural viewpoints of Watson, along with Kohler and Koffka's Gestalt psychology. (Bodrova & Leong, 2007, p. 7) Early constructivist thinkers such as Piaget explored cognitive constructions that occurred as a result of interactions between the subject and their environment. (von Glaserfeld, 1989, p. 4) Within this objectivist behavioural understanding, knowable objective reality existed independent of the individual; later theorizing expanded constructivist thinking, and multiple schools of thought emerged.
More recent Constructivist theory unfolded along a continuum from what is called "weak" to "strong" forms constructivism, based on adherence to particular epistemological tenets. Although this differentiation implies a certain epistemological heterogeneity, their theoretical understandings share much common understanding. (Doolittle, 1999, p. 1)
Taken together, Constructivism views meaningful personal experience as the basis of knowledge and learning. Meaning is constructed within a context of personal experience that is rooted in language, culture, and the social experiences of each individual. There can be no objectively verifiable truth or knowledge within constructivism, as each individual brings a unique perspective grounded in their own previous knowing. Much of this knowledge is tacit and resides in the implicit memory of the individual, but it exerts its influence and acts as a lens through which an individual views information and relates it to their understanding of the world. Knowledge and thus learning is embodied within the experiencing self.
Constructivism rejects the notion of an objective and knowable reality independent of the observer, and holds that knowledge of the world is constructed through the active cognitizing on the part of individuals, reflecting the subjective realities of the observer. (Glaserfeld, 1989, p. 3) Knowledge is not a representation of reality, but is instead a "collection of conceptual structures that turn out to be adapted or, as I would way, viable within the knowing subject's range of experience." (Glaserfeld, 1989, p. 4)
Cognitive constructivism views learning as an adaptive process where behaviour evolves to meet the changing demands of the environment, and cognition served to makes sense of subjective experience. (Doolittle, 1999, p. 2) This weak version of constructivism adheres to models of knowledge construction that consider the role of memory, cognitive constructs, and schemas without considering fully the subjective nature of knowledge as resident within the mind of the subject. (Doolittle, 1999, p. 2)
Radical constructivism differs from cognitive constructivism by advancing the idea that learning is an adaptive process, and that it is observer-dependent and resides in a fluid and dynamic cognition that considers the subjective experience of knowledge construction. Radical constructivism, like social constructivism, also accepts social interactions as informing knowledge construction. (Doolittle, 1999, p. 3)
Social constructivism takes the view that social interactions contribute to knowing, and views the social and cultural context as anchoring knowledge "to a specific time and place. (Doolittle, 1999, p. 4)
These various branches of constructivism exist on a continuum, however the most fundamental understandings are shared. There is concurrence around the idea that we all hold memories of previous experiences, and that those collected memories and experiences, both tacit and explicit, become the lens through which we view our current unfolding reality. More recently, emerging evidence within the realm of neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology may further shape our understanding of constructivist philosophy and understanding. Interpersonal neurobiology views the brain as a social organ built through experience, and recent evidence may shift Cognitive Constructivism further along the constructivist continuum towards radical and social constructivism by further elucidating two epistemological tenets, namely that "cognition organizes and makes sense of one's experience", and that "knowing has roots in both biological/neurological construction, and social, cultural, and language-based interactions." (Doolittle, 1999, p. 1)
Learning is increasingly understood to be highly transactional, with experience influencing cognitive construction and pliable neurological cognitive constructions influencing our experience in a duality of experience and subjective reality. As Carr states, "the growing body of evidence makes clear that the memory inside our heads is the product of an extraordinarily complex natural process that is, at every instant, exquisitely tuned to the unique environment in which each of us lives and the unique patterns of experiences that each of us goes through." (Carr, 2010, p. 190) Current research on memory and experience expands on the idea that our brain structure continuously changes with experience; "brain plasticity, the growing and pruning of synaptic connections over time, changes our very memories and our recollections of experience based on new experiences." (Carr, 2010, p. 190) Researcher Kobi Rosenblum further describes how memory, which in a sense is our recalled experience, can be a pliable and moving target. As he explains, "..the human brain continues to process information long after it is received, and the quality of memories depends on how the information is processed." (Carr, 2010, p. 191) This research speaks to a mind that is cognitizing and making sense of our experiences moment to moment, and that these cognitions are biological/neurological processes that respond to interactions with the environment.
Meaning within Cognitivist/Constructivist
Meaning has significance within each of the theoretical perspectives, but it is foundational to an understanding of constructivism. The centrality of meaning as a catalyst for learning within a constructivist framework is most readily obvious when what is being learned has significant relevance or high emotional valence for the learner; in other words when information or experiences are meaningful. "The importance of these memory mechanisms to the development of cognitive psychology is that, once understood, they make it very clear that a person's ability to remember items is improved if the items are meaningfully related to each other or to the person's existing knowledge. The key word here is meaningful." (Winn & Snyder, n.d., p. 4) Meaning is derived from or is in some way relatable to previous knowledge and experience; how subjects act upon that knowledge and experience with heightened intentionality is entirely consistent with the idea of "learner as meaning-maker." Therefore, individuals benefit from previous experiences that have relevance and meaning for them, at the same time as they enhance a learner's ability to relate with their world. "What is meaningful to people is determined by what they can remember of what they have already learned". (Winn & Snyder, n.d., p. 4)
Finally, ongoing learning research speaks to the role of meaning for knowledge construction. Individuals are more intrinsically motivated to engage in learning that is meaningful; exploration of learner autonomy, and the role of agency, choice, and collaboration in the design of more optimal situated learning contexts has been the result. ("Situated Learning," 2012, para. 1) The implication for teaching and educational pedagogy point to contextual learning content that is rooted in the meaningful historical experiences of the learner.
Context within Cognitivist/Constructivist
As learners construct reality within a social and cultural context, their interactions imply a degree of collaboration and engagement with the environment. Collaborative learning by its nature is socially constructed learning, and when choice around structure and content is collaboratively negotiated, learners are granted a level of autonomy around how and what they learn. When those experiences are meaningful, learning takes place within a context more suitable to the learning style, goals, and priorities of the learner.
De-contextualized learning by contrast lacks a sense of connectedness to the historical and subjectively meaningful experiences of the learner. Historical experience and intrinsic motivation are diminished in the absence of a meaningful context, and authentic experiential learning suffers. Kohn and others emphasizes these conditions of collaboration, content, and choice, as creating the context necessary for authentic and intrinsically motivated learning to emerge. (Kohn, 1993, Chapter 10)
Experience within Cognitivist/Constructivist
The constructivist context for learning is rooted in the prior experience of the learner and is socially mediated by teachers or facilitators and the environment. "Learning occurs most successfully at the intersection of a learner's previous knowledge of the world and the experience of socially mediated interactions with others, and is influenced by all accumulated social and cultural experiences." (Bodrova & Leong, 2007, p. 9)
The concept of mediation underscores the social and transactional nature of constructivism; the role of a mediator is important to an understanding of context within a constructivist perspective with regards to how individuals experience learning. "The mediator creates in a person an approach, a form of reference, a desire to understand phenomena, a need to find order in them, to understand the order that is revealed, and to create it for oneself." (Feuerstein, Feuerstein, & Falik, 2010, p. 37) Mediators can take many forms, but they share in common an ability to potentiate a learner's capacity to benefit from learning opportunities. In the absence of a mediator, even in cases where individuals acquire knowledge, they may not "understand its significance." (Feuerstein et al., 2010, p. 37)
"There is no learning without discernment. And there is no discernment without variation." (Marton & Trigwell, 2000, p. 1)
The theory of phenomenography is connected with the study of human experience, particularly as it relates to educational research. Phenomenography examines thinking and learning within the context of educational research, and seeks understanding of "the different ways in which people experience, interpret, understand, perceive, or conceptualize a phenomenon, or certain aspect of reality." (Orgill, n.d., para. 2)
Marton postulates that in order for learning to occur, "...there must necessarily be a pattern of variation present to experience, and this pattern must be experienced". (Marton & Trigwell, 2000, p. 381) This highlights key epistemological tenets related to Phenomenographic theory, namely concepts of variation, discernment, and transfer.
In order for learning to occur, individuals must be exposed to a wide range of variation in experience, with sameness or similarity contributing little to our understanding of experience. (Marton, 2006, p. 519) Variation and difference create a broader context for understanding phenomena, and also expand our repertoire when encountering novel situations or circumstances.
Transfer is concerned with how "what is learned in one situation affects or influences what the learner is capable of doing in another situation. " (Marton, 2006, p. 499) This transfer of learning is integral to variation theory and a key underpinning of phenomenography. Experiencing difference or variation may be likened to experiences of cognitive dissonance within constructivist models of learning, where an individual experiences dissonance and a perturbation and must adjust their conception of this new information within their existing paradigm. How we categorize, makes sense of, or identify with that difference relates to our discernment skills. (von Glaserfeld, 1989, p. 5)
Discernment allows a subject to see or sense an experience "against the background of his or her previous experiences of something more or less different." ( Marton, pg.386). In essence, as subjects experience greater variation they become more attuned to increasingly subtle differences between the "physical, cultural, symbolic, or sensual world" that they inhabit. (Marton & Trigwell, 2000, p. 386)
The implications for pedagogy center on the manipulation of the objects of learning in order for students to experience variety, become adept at discerning increasingly subtle differences within that variety, and transfer learning across situations in an adaptive problem solving manner. The manner in which variation is presented to students can profoundly influence their understanding. "Excellence in teaching has very much to do with what aspects of the object of learning are subjected to variation, and what aspects of the object are subject to variation simultaneously." (Marton & Trigwell, 2000, p. 391) Subjects learn to manage novel experiences as a result of having experienced novelty through variation. (Marton & Trigwell, 2000, p. 394)
Meaning within Phenomenographic/Variation Theory
In order to consider the role of meaning it is important to understand what constitutes a meaningful learning experience, and in this phenomenography and constructivism have related but somewhat different understandings. Constructivism considers knowledge construction and learning as rooted in previous subjectively meaningful experiences, however I would like to consider phenomenography and the experience of meaning within the context of task engagement, skill development, and motivation.
As to why students may experience learning as meaningful, it is worthwhile to consider the benefits of student self-efficacy and choice around learning content and the mode of delivery. When learners have a sense of agency and control around what is being learned, and there is opportunity to place that learning within a meaningful context; deeper understanding within a context of more meaningful learning is often the outcome. (Marton & SÃÂ¤ljÃÂ¶, 1984, p. 54) Deeper learning implies depth and breadth of understanding, along with greater transfer of that knowledge and skill to unique or novel settings. A sense of agency, choice, and collaboration around how learning happens also contributes to a sense of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation promotes a deeper and more meaningful sense of engagement with learning tasks that fosters a virtuous cycle of meaning-seeking, increased intrinsic motivation, and deeper understanding. (Kohn, 1999)
Context within Phenomenographic/Variation Theory
A notion that illuminates ideas of context within the phenomenographic perspective relates to the concept of situated learning. This idea originated in Lave and Wenger's research on Communities of Practice; situated in this context "refers to what surrounds the learning event; that is, to the "socially constructed life-world in which a particular instance of learning occurs." (Marton, 2006, p. 511)
Skills of transfer and discernment are then contextual and based on the range of experience and variability that the subject has experienced and can bring forward and relate to novel situations in order to create new understandings. As subjects experience greater variation and learn to perceive increasingly subtle differences, their perceptual discriminatory abilities manifest in the form of sophisticated and highly attuned skills of discernment. Expanded knowledge and understanding correlate with greater expertise in distinguishing or "discerning distinctive features or critical dimensions of variation." (Marton, 2006, p. 519) As students move from novice to expert to master, their capacity to generalize their heightened perceptivity to novel contexts "amounts to learning to find the differences that are most critical in relation to our goals." (Marton, 2006, p. 519) This amounts to what is called professional seeing, a characteristic that is possessed by individuals who have achieved mastery in their field or profession. (Marton, 2006, p. 512)
Experience within Phenomenographic/Variation Theory
Within Phenomenographic theory, experience plays a role in regards to how historical knowledge informs how we respond to and act upon emergent or novel experiences. Phenomenography gives focus to the myriad ways in which phenomena are attended to by subjects, the manner in which historical experience influences the ways in which subjects process new information and grapple with novel or dissimilar situations.
Phenomenology also aims to understand how subjects come to view, experience, understand, and act on their world with a set of skills related to that understanding. (Marton, 1996, para. 3) In order to do so requires a range or variety of experiences that can serve as a series of referential anchor points from which subjects venture out; "we see everything against the background of our experiences." (Marton, 2006, p. 512) Marton postulates that it is actually impossible to grasp anything without having experienced an alternative option. This calls for a lived historical understanding and a range of recalled experiences that provide a contrast when attempting to understand or grapple with novel experiences. (Marton, 2006, p. 517) Phenomenography would predict that our range or variation of previous experience will largely determine to what extent we can discern (determine what is worth attending to) and act upon new information in novel settings. As David Foster Wallace states, "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." (D. F. Wallace, personal communication, Commencement Address Kenyon College, 2005) It is this subjective capacity for discernment of differences that allows a subject to transfer previous learning to new and novel experiences. "This differentiation amounts to becoming attuned to distinguishing features - or critical differences - that can be used for making distinctions." (Marton, 2006, p. 519)
How successfully new learning can be applied is a function of "the extent to which we can make use of something we have learned in one situation to handle another situation is a matter of similarity (or partial identity) between the two situations. (Marton & Trigwell, 2000, p. 385) This application of experiential learning is also an integral component of knowledge construction within constructivist theory, based on the premise that ``knowledge is constituted when it is applied." (Marton, 2006, p. 504) Where constructivism involves cognitizing based on previous experience within a framework of what is meaningful within a given context, phenomenography is interested in how that understanding is experienced or applied in the present moment, as "knowledge does not exist independent of action." (Marton, 2006, p. 504)
What if we assumed that learning is as much as part of our human nature as eating or sleeping, that it is both life-sustaining and inevitable, and that - given a chance - we are quite good at it? (Wenger, 1998, p. 3)
Socio-cultural learning theory focuses on learning as social participation, and traces its early roots to the research of Lev Vygotsky, Chaiklin & Lave, and Leontiev; their theorizing placed learning and development solidly within a social, cultural, and historical context. The role of culture as a mode of social transmission and learning is central to this framework; it is through joint social enterprises that learners internalize working models of the world. Knowledge construction is transactional and involves both a "knowing other" and the learner in the co-construction of knowledge. (Scott & Palincsar, n.d., para. 1)
In this regard Socio-cultural theory shares many epistemological tenets with theories of constructivism, with its emphasis on knowledge and learning as a subjective experiential endeavor where meaning is constructed within a social and cultural context.
Later socio-cultural theories, such as Wenger's Community of Practice, emphasize learning as an inherently social enterprise where communities of practice become the locus of learning. Whereas Vygotsky viewed learning as a process of internalization where "students inherit the cultural meanings that constitute their intellectual bequest from prior generations" (Cobb & Yackel, 1996, p. 186), communities of practice focus on learning as "transformation of individual participation in socio-cultural activity. (Scott & Palincsar, n.d., p. 1)
A community of practice is a shared enterprise where members contribute meaningfully through their activity and their connection with other members within the community. "Practice is, first and foremost, a process by which we can experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful." (Wenger, 1998, p. 51) Participation provides a sense of identity within a larger community of learners, one in which "meaning is constantly being negotiated by individuals within the context of communities." (Wenger, 1998, p. 55) Negotiation of meaning is a central tenet within communities of practice, where meaning exists in the space between individual participation and reification.
Participation is a fluid process that involves activity in the pursuit of meaningful endeavours, and promotes a sense of connectedness and identity within the community; reification is the process or product that results from purposeful efforts of community members. (Wenger, 1998, p. 63) Participation and reification exist in a dualistic state of tension, where "meaning is constantly being negotiated by individuals within the context of communities." (Wenger, 1998, p. 55)
A community of practice can take nearly limitless forms, however there are particular features that define the boundaries of a given community. Individuals within a community of practice share a sense of mutual engagement in the pursuit of joint enterprise. A shared repertoire provides a scaffolding within which a common language, customs, culture, and shared understanding can emerge. "Negotiation of meaning is at once both historical and dynamic, contextual and unique." (Wenger, 1998, p. 54)
Communities of practice provide the context for learning, within a framework of participation and reification. Communities of practice serve as a collective memory and a place where relationships of learning coalesce; they are dynamic structures that evolve to accommodate the ongoing mutual engagement of members in the negotiation of meaning. (Wenger, 1998, p. 73) Mutual engagement is the agreement among members to pursue action that has purpose and negotiated meaning within the collective understanding of the participants. There are numerous relationships to be navigated as tension, conflict, and ruptures in the form of misalignments unbalance the dynamics of the community. Reification serves to repair those misalignments by clarifying understanding and codifying that understanding within artifacts such as policies or procedures that, for example, provide a set of accountability measures. The maintenance of this dualism provides the resilience or adaptability of the community of practice in the face of perturbations; as perturbations arise there may be a call for greater participation or a different kind of participation, or greater reification. (Wenger, 1998, p. 65)
Context described a coming together in a form of mutual engagement; that participation and reification defines the experience of practice. "Whereas in participation we recognize ourselves in each other, in reification we project ourselves onto the world, and not having to recognize ourselves in those projections, we attribute to our meanings an independent existence." (Wenger, 1998, p. 58)
Joint enterprise and shared repertoire, along with mutual engagement, are pillars of a community of practice framework. These elements underscore the participatory and collaborative nature of knowledge construction, concepts familiar to constructivist theoretical understanding as well.
A joint enterprise...
Theories of learning provide insight into the mechanisms of learning at the intersection of the student or learner, the teacher/mentor/facilitator, and the specific learning that is embedded within an educational or institutional context. These contexts may be a classroom or a community of practice, and occur within virtual space or within the mind's eye.
Learning and education within various perspectives strive for greater understanding of the circumstances that promote successful learning within contexts of meaning and engagement for learners. From my perspective, there are three further elements residing on another axis that merit careful consideration, namely intrinsic motivation, transfer, and discernment.
I would offer that when learning is bound to a meaningful context, preferably one that is informed by or builds on prior experience, that experience tends to be more intrinsically motivating for learners. Intrinsic interest and meaningful engagement appears to predict deeper learning and evidence of greater breadth and depth of understanding. The deep learning that accompanies greater understanding may predict greater ability in areas related to discernment and skill mastery; ongoing consolidation of knowledge may allow a learner to respond more deliberately and purposefully when presented with new information, problem-solving types of tasks, or novel circumstances. It is my belief that models such as these would promote adaptation, resilience, and creativity, and self-regulation; all qualities that would allow a learner to profit from a greater range of learning experiences. (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999)
The dichotomous alternate models of teaching and learning would draw on extrinsic forms of motivation and rote learning, would be characterized by shallow or surface learning that is decontextualized, all occurring within a context that lacks meaning or emotional valence for the learner.
I use this false dichotomy to draw a distinction, however history and personal experience have taught me that my own personal context for learning falls somewhere on this continuum. I find it fascinating to contemplate these implications for learning, instructional design, and pedagogical understanding.