Learning is a very complex process, the theoretical definition has been the subject of debate over the last century.
For this reason, it is not surprising to see that in psychology and allied sciences, as in the educational sciences, they did not agree on the definition of this what learning is and how it is given.
There are many theories about learning, All with their advantages and disadvantages. Below, we’ll take a more in-depth look at them, knowing their definition of what learning is and knowing some of its biggest exponents.
How many theories of learning are there?
In psychology there many theoretical currents, which has repercussions on the sciences with which it has a lot to do, such as the sciences of education. For this reason, it is not surprising that in addressing what learning is and how it is given, many educational psychologists and psychologists have come up with various theories, each with its supporters and detractors.
Although we have all experienced what learning is, trying to define it is not an easy task. It is a difficult concept to define, which can be interpreted in very different ways and the very history of psychology is a demonstration of this. However, roughly, we can understand what learning is all changes, both behavioral and mental, are the result of the experience, Different from one person to another depending on their own characteristics and situation.
There are as many theories about learning as there are ways of looking at it. It is difficult to give an exact number of theories, because even in the same stream, two authors may differ on how it is given and what learning is. Likewise, what we can say is that its scientific study was born at the beginning of the twentieth century and since then attempts have been made to give an answer to the way in which this important educational process takes place.
Theories of learning, summarized and explained
Below, we’ll take a look at the major theories of learning raised from the turn of the last century to the present day.
Behavioralism is one of the oldest psychological currents, having its origins at the beginning of the 20th century. The basic idea of this current is that learning is a change in behavior, brought about by the acquisition, reinforcement and application of associations between environmental stimuli and the observable responses of the individual.
Behavioralism wanted to show that psychology was a real science, focus on the purely observable aspects of behaviorand experiment with strictly controlled variables.
Thus, more radical behaviorists have assumed that mental processes are not necessarily those that cause observable behaviors. In this approach, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, Edward Thorndike, Edward C. Tolman or John B. Watson stand out.
Thorndike argued that a response to a stimulus is enhanced when this phenomenon is followed by a positive reward effect, and that a response to a stimulus will become stronger through exercise and repetition.
The figure of Skinner is very important in behaviorism, being one of its greatest representatives with its operant conditioning. According to him, rewarding good behavioral actions strengthens them and stimulates their recurrence. Therefore, reinforcers regulate the appearance of desired behaviors.
Another of the referents of behaviorism is in the figure of Ivan Pavlov. This Russian physiologist is famous for his experiments with dogs, bringing great influences to behaviorism in general.
To Pavlov, we must thank him for his approaches to classical conditioning, according to which learning occurs when two stimuli are combined simultaneously, one, conditioning, and the other, unconditioning. The unconditioned stimulus elicits a natural response in the body, and conditioning begins to trigger it when bound to it.
Taking his experiments as an example, Pavlov showed his dogs food (unconditioned stimulus) and sounded (conditioned stimulus). After several attempts, the dogs tied the sound of the bell to the food, causing them to emit in response to this salivary stimulus, like what they did when they saw the food.
2. Cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology has its origins in the late 1950s. According to this trend, people are no longer seen as mere receptors of stimuli and transmitters of directly observable responses, as behaviorists understood.
For cognitive psychology, humans act as processors of information. Thus, cognitive psychologists have a special interest in the study of complex mental phenomena, which had been largely ignored by behaviorists, who went so far as to assert that thought could not be considered behavior.
The appearance of this current in the 1950s was not accidental, since it was at this time that the first computers began to appear. These computers were for military use, and they were far from the potential they have now, but they gave rise to the idea that humans could be compared to these devices, as we process the information. The computer has become an analogue of the human mind.
In cognitive psychology, learning is understood as the acquisition of knowledgeIn other words, the student is an information processor who absorbs the content, performs cognitive operations during the process and stores it in his memory.
Constructivism appeared between the 1970s and 1980s, in response to the view of cognitive psychology. Contrary to this current, constructivists did not see students as mere passive recipients of information, but rather as active subjects in the process of acquiring new knowledge. People learn by interacting with the environment and by reorganizing our mental structures.
Learners are considered responsible for interpreting and making sense of new knowledge, And not simply as individuals who store, in a purely memorial manner, the information received. Constructivism involved a shift in mentality, from treating learning as the mere acquisition of knowledge to a metaphor of building-knowledge.
Although this current matured in the 1970s, there was already some antecedents on constructivist ideas. Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner anticipated the constructivist vision several decades ago, in the 1930s.
Piaget’s learning theory
Piaget developed his theory from a purely constructivist position. This Swiss epistemologist and biologist said that boys and girls have an active role in learning.
For him, the different mental structures change and combine through experiences, adapting to the environment and the organization of our mind.
Learning happens as a result of changes and new situations. Our perception of the world is renewed as we grow up. This process is made up of patterns that we mentally order.
Adaptation occurs through a process of assimilation, which modifies external reality, and another of accommodation, which is what changes our mental structures.
For example, if we find out that our friend has a dog and we have already had a bad experience with these animals because they bit or barked us, we will think that the animal is going to hurt us (assimilation).
However, seeing that he approaches us and gestures as if he wants us to caress his belly, we are forced to change our old ranking (Accommodation) and recognize that some dogs are friendlier than others.
Ausubel’s theory of learning significant
David Ausubel is also one of the greatest representatives of constructivism, receiving many influences from Piaget. He believed that in order for people to learn, they had to act on their prior knowledge.
For example, if a teacher wants to explain what mammals are, he must first consider what his students know about what dogs, cats or any animal belonging to that class of animals are, in addition to knowing what let them think.
so Ausubel had a very focused theory on training her. Meaningful learning contrasts with purely memorial learning, such as keeping long lists without arguing. The idea of producing knowledge that is much more durable, more deeply internalized, is defended.
4. Social learning of Bandura
The theory of social learning was proposed by Albert Bandura in 1977. This theory suggests that people learn in a social context, And this learning is facilitated by concepts such as modeling, learning by observation and imitation.
It is in this theory that Bandura proposes a reciprocal determinism, Which argues that a person’s behavior, environment and individual characteristics are mutually influenced. In his elaboration, he also said that children learn by observing others, as well as from model behavior, which are processes that involve attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.
5. Social constructivism
At the end of century XX the constructivist vision changed even more by the increase the perspective of cognition and learning situated, Which emphasizes the role of context and social interaction.
Criticism against the constructivist approach and cognitive psychology became stronger with the pioneering work of Lev Vygotsky, As well as research carried out in anthropology and ethnography by Rogoff and Lave.
The essence of this critique is that constructivism and cognitive psychology view cognition and learning as processes “trapped” in the mind, isolated from the environment, considering self-sufficiency and independent of the contexts in which they occur. find.
Social constructivism arose in response to this criticism, defending the idea that cognition and learning should be understood as interactions between the individual and a situation where knowledge is considered to be locatedThat is, the product of the activity, the context and the culture in which it is formed.
6. Experiential learning
Experiential learning theories are based on social and constructivist theories of learning, but positioning experience as the center of the learning process. Its goal is understand how experiences motivate students and support their learning.
In this way, learning is seen as a set of meaningful experiences, occurring in everyday life, which lead to a change in the knowledge and behavior of the individual.
The most influential author of this perspective is Carl Rogers, Which suggests that experiential learning is what is given on its own initiative and with which people have a natural propensity to learn, in addition to promoting an attitude full of involvement in the learning process.
Rogers advocated the idea that learning should be made easy. Students cannot be threatened with punishment because in this way they become more rigid and impervious to new knowledge. Learning is more likely to happen and to be more sustainable when it is delivered on its own.
7. Multiple intelligences
Howard Gardner developed the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983, in which he argues that the understanding of intelligence is not dominated by a single general ability. Gardner states that each person’s overall level of intelligence is made up of many different intelligences.
Although his work is considered very innovative and, today, few psychologists advocate this model, it must be said that his work is also considered speculative.
However, Gardner’s theory is appreciated by psychoeducators, who have found in it a broader vision of their conceptual framework.
8. Situational learning and community of practice
The theory of situated learning and community of practice developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger it collects many ideas of learning theories from various psychological currents.
The theory of situated learning emphasizes the relational and negotiated character of knowledge and learning, the nature follows from an action of commitment to knowledge, which occurs more effectively within communities, whatever they are.
The interactions that take place within a community of practice are diverse, such as cooperation, problem solving, understanding and social relationships. These interactions contribute to social capital and the acquisition of knowledge within the community itself, depending on the context.
Thomas Sergiovanni reinforces the idea that the learning process is most effective when delivered in communities, arguing that academic and social outcomes will only improve when classrooms become mere places where students should. be forced to become true teaching and learning communities.
9. Learning and skills in the 21st century
We now know that learning theoretical and practical knowledge has to go beyond what is in the books. Immersion in new technologies and in social and creative skills is a fundamental thing in a constantly changing world. One of the references of this current is the Association for 21st Century Skills (P21) or Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Among the skills valued today, in addition to mastering new technologies, there is critical thinking, improving interpersonal skills and independent learning, among others.
It is not only a question of knowing or criticizing data, but it is also the acquisition of skills that are useful for the pupil, as an adult, to be able to practice as a citizen with the ability to think. is make him aware of his environmental footprint, of how he can improve humanity, be creative or how to exercise as a good neighbor and father.
- Skinner, BF (1954). The science of learning and the art of teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 24 (2), 86-97.
- Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1990). Learning in situation: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Gardner, H. (1993a). Multiple intelligences: theory in practice. NY: Basic books.
- Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press.
- Bruner, J. (1960). The educational process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Rogers, CR and Freiberg, HJ (1994). Freedom to learn (3rd edition). Columbus, OH: Merrill / Macmillan.