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Theories of Learning

The Four Paradigms

Within a paradigm, a related set of theories all share fundamental assumptions about learning. Across the different paradigms, assumptions about learning differ in significant ways. The discussion in this module categorizes the theories into just four paradigms and highlights the differences among them. But the similarities across the paradigms are also noteworthy: the paradigms all address the big questions; they are all complex webs of ideas; they all provide descriptions of learning and explanations of why and how learning takes place; and they all support sets of recommendations for helping students learn.

The four paradigms are:

  • Behaviorism
  • Information Processing and Cognitive Psychology
  • Individual Constructivism
  • Social Constructivism and Situated Learning

The table below shows how each of these four paradigms answers the big questions. The decision to divide the theories into four paradigms is somewhat arbitrary, however. An even simpler scheme supports just two, which might be called "body" (the behavior of the body: the behaviorist paradigm) and "mind" (thinking and the workings of the brain: the other three paradigms).

Learning Theories What is learning? How do we learn? What conditions help us learn well? What conditions keep us from learning well? What should people do to help students learn well?
Behaviorism The mastery of behaviors (habitual actions) By developing new behaviors (making them habitual) Cleverly designed practice routines of repetition that “reinforce” habitual actions (behaviors) Instruction that leaves the development of desired behaviors to chance Analyze behavior; use behavioral objectives; cultivate behaviors systematically
Information Processing & Cognitive Psychology The processing of information by the mind (or brain) By observing, categorizing, generalizing, storing, and remembering Conditions that support information processing (e.g., classrooms that engage the mind) Conditions that interfere with efficient mental processes (e.g., fear, boredom) Teach in ways that cultivate thinking; plan activities that scaffold thinking
Individual Constructivism The individual’s personal (re)construction of existing knowledge By adjusting current knowledge and our mental frameworks to new knowledge Teachers who guide conceptual development and foil misconceptions Treating students as passive recipients of information “Facilitate” learning and actively engage the minds of students
Social Constructivism & Situated Learning Adaptation to a community of knowledge and practice By emulating others in the context of increasingly expert practice Access to a community of expertise and the scaffolding needed by novices Isolation from experts willing to include students in a community of practice Share expertise in ways that help novices become incrementally more expert

How exactly are these answers (that is, the answers provided by the four paradigms and summarized in the Table above) useful to thinking about instruction?

The behaviorist paradigm takes the view that we can't really know what is in the human mind, so instruction needs to focus on behaviors. Furthermore, behaviorist thinkers and researchers have developed proven methods for shaping behaviors efficiently. Applied behavior analysis and reinforcement regimes really can change behaviors (including students' classroom behavior). Remember, though, that everything is a "behavior" for a behaviorist: from sitting still for 10 minutes to mastering a foreign language and writing good essays. Some behaviorists believe that students can learn from observing behavior-shaping routines that are used on others and not just themselves.

The information processing and cognitive psychology paradigm takes the view that complex learning manifests itself in the mind as meaning. The mind's creation of meaning, however, is said to follow regular patterns and plans. In recent years, neuroscience has supported earlier claims made by cognitive psychologists, showing that, indeed, the brain is very active during specific sorts of mental activity. Clearly there is a link between thinking (the mind) and behavior (the activity of the brain, which is part of the body). Since the arrival of the digital age, some cognitivists have equated cognition to digital computing. Brains store and retrieve information, and more significantly, chain the information and create webs of information and webs of meaning from such chains.

The individual constructivist paradigm puts forth the idea that individuals construct their own knowledge and make sense of it in webs of meaning. "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" – a now discredited biological theory – was based on a similar idea. From this perspective on learning, knowledge exists, from color identification to understanding quantum mechanics, but every individual makes sense of it him or herself – in part based on biologically programmed developmental sequences and in part based on individual experience. Of course, the imperative to make sense of things inevitably causes individuals to make errors, and others (e.g., parents, teachers) must often intervene to help individuals change their subjective and naïve understandings into more intersubjective and sophisticated understandings.

The social constructivist and situated learning paradigm also understands "development" as important; but instead of treating it as an individual process of meaning-making, it treats it as a form of collective meaning-making. From the perspective of social constructivists, knowledge is a product of group interaction, and learning involves active engagement with a social group, sometimes referred to as a "community of practice." Cultivating students as members of instructionally relevant communities of practice makes the most sense from the perspective of social constructivism. Note that this outlook accommodates informal, out-of-school learning environments (sometimes called "experiential learning") as well as classroom contexts.

One way to get a handle on learning theory is to link individual theorists with the paradigms to which they have made the greatest contributions. The table below categorizes some of the most important learning theorists by paradigm.