Monday, September 15, 2008

Learning Theories: Behaviourism, Cognitive Information Processing, and Constructivism

Today's class discussion on various branches of learning theory was quite interesting to me because we were making a lot of connections between concepts and really helping each other to learn (as opposed to listening to one person give a lecture).  It was was also entertaining to hear everyone's perspectives on the various theories and to see which direction we lean in.  While we each probably have a learning theory that we feel a closer kinship to, I think the comment that was made today about having an "eclectic lens" is probably pretty accurate.  While I think I probably see things with a constructivist view, I also agree with some of the premises of the other two learning theories we discussed today:  Behaviourism & Cognitive Information Processing.  I'll provide a summary of my understanding of each of the theories below.  Before I forget, I thought that Dr. Graham's clarification of the difference between learning theories & instructional theories was very helpful--learning theories are used to help explain how learning occurs, while instructional theories are focused on specific pedagogies or instructional strategies.  I think that some of the conflicting ideas that were brought up in class were probably a result of a misunderstanding between these two categories of theory.

Behaviourism:  This theory explains learning as an adaptation in behaviour based on the introduction of various stimuli and that those stimuli illicit specific responses within the learner or "organism".  I understood this to mean that behaviourists are less concerned with the learner (i.e. their past experiences, prior learning, cognitive processes, etc.) and more concerned with manipulating the learning environment so that particular stimuli are present.  The behaviourist would explain any change in behaviour (or learning) as a response to particular stimuli that were introduced or applied.

This discussion took me back to the Child Development course I took as an undergraduate and the discussion we had about behaviourist theory and its implications for raising children.  This was probably on my mind because of the recent addition my wife and I have had to our family (little baby Anna whose picture I have attached to this posting).  I actually saw my wife operating under a behaviourist perspective just yesterday.  We were giving Anna her second bath and hoping that she would react a little more positively than she did during bath #1.  After the bath was over my wife laid Anna on the bed and spent about 15 minutes stroking her head, her legs, her feet, etc. and speaking to her in soft tones.  While she was doing this she told me that she wanted our daughter to think of bathtime as a special time that was enjoyable and that she would look forward to.  Although she wasn't thinking about behaviourist theory explicitly, I think that she was thinking of her soft touches & soft tone as a stimulus of sorts and that it would elicit the response of less crying during future bath episodes.  I'm not sure yet that it will work, but it is an interesting idea.  

During our discussion of Behaviourist theory I was also intrigued by how our gospel perspective might influence our view of behaviourism.  It seems that the behaviourist interpretation of learning doesn't really attend to what is happening inside the learner,  but focused purely on outward and observable behaviours.  My view of the plan of salvation is that it is intended, not just to elicit particular behaviours from us, but rather to help us become something (see Dallin H. Oaks October 2000 General Conference Talk "The Challenge to Become"  A Behaviourist approach would seem to suggest that "learning" could occur without any real change in thinking or character, just as long as behaviour changes.  Maybe this is one level of learning; however, the type of learning or becoming that I believe Heavenly Father would have us experience seems to be much deeper and represent a change in nature (both behaviour and motive or intent).

Cognitive Information Processing:  This theory seems to be concerned with the way in which information is stored in memory and how it is retrieved.  It is all about structures and models that represent the way in which information is organized or stored within the organism or learner, particularly processes explaining how information moves in to and out of long-term memory.  A cognitivist (is that even a word?) would say that learning has taken place if a student can recall or retrieve information that was previously inputted.  The illustration of the way that a computer works was very helpful for me (e.g. Inputs--CPU--Memory--Outputs).

Constructivism:  According to constructivist theory, knowledge is "constructed" or formulated by the learner as they seek to make sense of their experiences.  This suggests that the learner's knowledge is very dynamic, changing and adapting in response to the learner's experiences & perceptions of those experiences.  It is important to recognize that constrictivism is an epistemology (a way of explaining how we come to know things) rather than an ontology (a way of thinking about what exists or what is real).  A constructivist could hold either a relativistic or objectivist ontology--they may or may not believe that there is an absolute truth.  An objectivist who also views themself as a constructivist would hold the view that an individual develops a perception of truth based on their experiences and that the more experiences they have, the closer their perception of truth comes to reality.  Relativists would refute this claim by saying that there is no absolute truth, only a socially constructed truth for each situation or setting.  Constructivists view learning as something that happens within a particular context and that knowledge is context specific.  This has some interesting implications for instructional design because it seems to suggest that learning environments need to be contextual or authentic and that learning is often a social process that relies heavily on collaboration and exposure to varied perspectives and instructional methods (this variety of experiences helps the learner construct a richer understanding & knowledge).  I read a book a few years ago (The Wisdom of Crowds, Malcolm Gladwell) that seems to have a loose connection to this idea.  In it the author discusses the conditions necessary to have a "wise crowd" or a group that can arrive at innovative ideas, solutions, predictions, etc.  By having a diverse crowd, with a multiplicity of perspectives and ideas, we can arrive at a closer approximation of what is true or real.  

In terms of the perspectives outlined by Schuh & Barab (Behaviourism, Cognitivism, Constructivism, Sociocultural/Historicism, Situativity Theory) I think that I align most closely with Socioculturalism and Situativity Theory.  I am a big believer in the power of social interactions in the learning process and believe that designers can do some things to really capitalize on group dynamics and the natural energy possessed by groups of learners, socioculturalism is something that I find myself being drawn to.  I also am a big proponent of contextual learning and the link between knowledge and the environment in which it is obtained.  I think that learning is context specific (this is why we see so many students doing well on exams, but then having a difficult time applying their knowledge in more authentic settings and the same reason why when I was a soccer coach I worked very hard to design training sessions that simulated authentic game-like settings).  I am also intrigued by the concept of legitimate peripheral participation and believe that situativity theory can help explain the process by which individuals become socialized into organizations and groups and how they learn to be functioning members of the groups (e.g. how a new student at BYU learns to be a "BYU student").  I read a book over the summer, at the suggestion of Dr. Gibbons, that explores situated learning called Situated Learning:  Legitimate Peripheral Participation that got me excited about this theory and its implications for design, particularly as it relates to my work at the university (New Student Orientation & Undergraduate Peer Mentoring).

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