Learning can be defined as the process of acquiring or adding value to the existing knowledge, skills and personal values. The learning process is continuous in one’s lifetime, since every new day is an opportunity for one to learn something new. However, in a classroom situation, the teachers have the responsibility of taking their students through the learning process. To facilitate the learning process in a classroom situation, learning theories and frameworks have been designed (Illeris, 2009, p.144).
The general definition of a theory is a statement that is meant to explain a particular phenomenon (Gredler, 2008, p. 5). Based on this definition, learning theories can therefore be defined as statements that explain observations made on learners, over a given period of time (Illeris, 2009, p. 189). One can hence use the designed theories to make predictions of behavior. More to that, these theories provide a guideline on how the learning process should be executed. Learning theories and models also hint possible solutions to tactical problems that teachers encounter in their teaching practice. However, theories can be criticized, modified or even done away with, if those who use it disapprove it or prove it wrong. The most popular of theorists are Knowles, Vygotsky, Kolb, Meizrow, Schon, to list but a few.
The Learning Theories
The most basic learning theories are the theory of Behaviorism, the theory of Cognitivism, and the theory of Constructivism. These theories have led to the designing of more analytical theories that are up to date with technological changes that are being experienced.
The theory of behaviorism focuses on the behaviors that can be observed. Behavioral theorist objectively state that learning is all about acquiring new behaviors depending on which environment the learner is in. They insist that learning has nothing to do with the mind. To support this argument that learning is about acquiring of new behaviors, several experiments have been carried out (Leonard, 2008, p. 88). The experiments have led to the conclusion that conditioning is the main component of the learning process.
According to experiments by behaviorism theorists, there are two distinct types of conditioning, because each of these yields to different behaviors. There is the classic conditioning which occurs when one is responding to a particular stimulus in the environment. A good instance is when a student does certain things like evading exams because they are scared of failing (Leonard, 2008, p. 118). Behavioral or operant conditioning occurs when a response is invoked or reinforced. For example, if a student is promised an award for achieving a certain target, they certainly will work hard towards achieving the target set by the teacher. This type of conditioning creates room for predictions and hence has probability of future happenings is there.
The theorists of the theory of behaviorism state that the theory is simple to follow and is very practical since it is totally independent on what one can see. In other words, it is dependent on the behavior of students (Leonard, 2008, p.213). This does not always work well since it disregards the changes experienced in the mind, it being a major part of the body involved in the learning process. Again, the theory of behaviorism does not explain certain learning behaviors such as the changes that occur when one learns something new. For instance, when a child learns new words, they always want to use it. The theory of behaviorism does not cover this aspect, as well as give guidelines on how to enhance more learning. It is possible that students will not work to achieve highly if a reward is not given, or they will only work hard out of fear of being punished of they do not meet the set targets. All these will negatively affect the learning process, making it less effective (Leonard, 2008, p. 230) .
The other basic learning theory is the theory of constructivism. This theory is based on the philosophy that learning is the process where the mind adjusts itself to accommodate new experiences, based on past experiences. The theory states that the mind designs its own rules and models, which are used to interpret what is happening in the environment, and adjust itself to fit in the current conditions.
The theory of constructivism has got principles that are meant to guide the learning process. First and foremost, this theory defines learning as a means of searching for meaning. Hence, some basic understanding is needed, to trigger curiosity in a student. It is this curiosity that drives the student to carrying out researches in a bid to find meaning for the subject or topic in question.
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Learning starts in the mind. The theory of constructivism recognizes this and therefore, it actively engages the mind of the student, living up to the basic definition of learning. In contrast to the theory of behaviorism, constructivism allows for experimentation and exploration. The active involvement of the students in a classroom enhances great experiences for the students.
A learning process that encourages active participation of the students is very effective because it provides opportunities for the learner to put into practical use what they learn in class. The active participation makes remembering much easier. Again, active participation of the learner via experiments and activities such as excavations may lead to new discoveries. Students are not limited in their thinking. A teacher who applies this theory adds value their students, since they are able to encourage their students to keenly look at the information presented to them, analyze it, interpret it, and make predictions.
Constructivism has an adverse effect on learning as it discourages the use of a standard curriculum (Leonard, 2008, p. 47). It tends to encourage flexibility in teaching practices, making it possible for teachers to change their teaching approaches depending on individual capabilities of students. The theory emphasizes on an assessment system that does away with grading, but provides an opportunity for personal judgment to the students.
In the teaching practice, it is difficult to completely do away with the grading system. The grading system serves as an incentive for the students to work harder. This is an element of the learning process that the theory of constructivism totally disregards. The theory only allows for assessment where the students get to be tested on what they have learnt in class and how they would put to practical use what they have learnt in class. This is positive in the aspect that assessments are made part of the learning process.
The theory also helps build on the critical thinking of a student. Students are trained to think in a liberal way. However, this liberal mindset does not translate to what is in the real world. It is very true that high achievements are important for one to succeed in life. It is also very clear that life is not all about achievements, as this would indirectly lead to a lot of comparisons in life. The comparisons lead to a lot of competitiveness in the real life situation, which may end in unnecessary rivalry.
In a class situation, teaching following the principals of the theory of constructivism enables students to have a mental picture of what they are learning in their minds. With the mental picture, the students, the students have a clue of what to expect when they make use of the learnt concept in a given situation. This results to successful experiments and researches. It also enables the students to remember much of what they learn in class, making it easier for them in an exam situation.
The other basic learning theory is the cognitive learning theory. This theory tries to explain why the brain is the most important centre of information processing and interpretation, in the course of the learning process. The cognitive theory is further divided into two; the Social cognitive theory and the cognitive behavioral theory.
The social cognitive theory focuses on three aspects; behavioral factors, environmental factors, and personal factors. The learning process involves the interaction of the three factors. On the other hand, the cognitive behavioral theory states that a person’s behaviors are affected by the environment they live in. People are able to form personal concepts that determine how they behave. The personal concepts are formed on what they already know.
Edward Tolman, a behaviorism theorist, came up with a theory that had a cognitive element added to it. His theory stated that behavior is purposive, and that learning does not necessarily have to be characterized by behavior change. He went on to state that learning can occur without any form of reinforcement. Of all Tolman’s principles, the most practical one states that behavior should be studied at an individual level. This ensures that the teacher is able to attend to each student individually, making the learning process much more effective. This is because the teacher can identify the weak points as well as the strengths of the learner, and hence is able to know what approach to use when teaching the particular student. Individual attention from a teacher to a student can also serve as a motivating factor for the student to work harder and achieve highly.
On the other hand, trying to give the students individual attention can be difficult and time wasting in a situation where a teacher has quite a high number of students under their responsibility. Another point of critique is that learning has to be characterized by some changes. Change is an inevitable part of learning. It shows that value has been added and development is has taken place.
Piaget’s research led to a number of conclusions, one being that people are active processors of any information that is presented to them. Piaget also made the conclusion that learning takes place through a process in which people interact with their environment. According to Piaget, cognitive development takes place through four stages; the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete stage, and the formal operations. These have not been proven right by more recent researches.
Vygotsky carried out a research and came up with a number of different conclusions (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 64). Young minds need the assistance of a much mature person to learn new and difficult things. In addition to that, Vygotsky believes that learning, which is a mental activity, starts with social activities. Children analyze these social activities, internalize them, and start behaving as per what they internalize (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 89).
The cognitive learning theory has impacted the learning process by emphasizing on the role of the teacher to present instructional material to their students. This means that before starting any lesson, a teacher should first take the students though the previous lesson, before starting up a new lesson.
The cognitive theory has got a number of limitations. It is the responsibility of the students to keep themselves well updated with their class work. Once the teachers have played their part of giving instructional material, the only other thing that they should do is ensure that all is followed to the letter. Having to review a whole lesson before starting another lesson can be time wasting. To avoid this, the teacher should make time for the students to individually seek extra help, when needed.
Other learning theories have been designed. They include the control theory, the connectivism learning theory, the instructional learning theory, to list but a few. Each of these theories tries to limit the learning process to a set framework or a phenomenon that can be explained and predicted based on behavior (Olson, & Hergenhahn, 2008, p. 69).
The learning process does not have to be determined by set theories or frameworks. According to Malcolm S. Knowles, the learning process can also be an informal process that does not necessarily have to follow certain guidelines to be effective. Knowles gave a good illustration of adult informal learning and how effective it has been. The learning process would be very effective if the instructors would start by diagnosing the existing needs that have made learning necessary (Knowles, 1980, p. 103). Based on the diagnosis, new learning needs should be formulated. With a list of learning needs, material resources for learning should be identified, appropriate learning strategies chosen and implemented and finally, the outcomes are evaluated. The evaluation is very crucial as it determines the success or failure of the chosen teaching and learning strategies (Knowles, 1980, p. 206s). Did the strategies meet the identified learning needs? However, it is unfortunate that Knowles theory of andragogy is only applicable to adult learning.
Most of the original learning theories and models emphasize on the learning process of children and young students. Learning is a continuous process in life and so adult learning should not be disregarded. Adults learn in different ways as compared to children. The concept of andragogy is applied when it comes to adult learning, which is different from what is used in a classroom situation (Tusting & Barton, 2006, p. 322). Adults do not need the individual attention from a teacher for them to complete their learning tasks effectively. Adults do not also need the assistance of a much skilled person to complete difficult tasks. This is because adults are much mature and so, have the sense of self-direction. Again, their experiences serve as a learning resource (Tusting & Barton, 2006, p. 367).
Mature people have an internal motivation to learn as much as they can. The motivation is backed up by a certain urgency to apply whatever they learn. All these characteristics make it much easier for a teacher to handle mature students, since they do not need to push the students to learn. All they have to do is provide the instructional material and everything else gets done. Sadly, most of the learning theories disregard these characteristics.
It would be unfair to the students if a teacher chose to use one particular theory as an approach to their teaching (Gredler, 2008, p.315). Each of these theories focuses on one individual aspect, compromising many other crucial factors. A good teacher should use their teaching experience to be able to combine various theories and models, so as to have a much comprehensive and complete approach of teaching. A good teacher should be able to come up with a teaching approach that is inclusive of a continuous assessment system. Assessment is one way that helps determine how much learning is taking place.
Learning theories should not be all instructional. It helps the mental development of students if they are actively involved in the learning process. This means that activities such as experiments, field activities such as excavations should all be incorporated and made part of the lessons (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, Norman, & Mayer, 2010, p.247). This active participation promotes boosts the critical thinking of the students, and are hence able to apply whatever they learn in class in real life situations. The activities also enhance mental activity making remembering in an exam situation much easier. It is easier to remember something that one has seen, heard about, and probably touched it or had something to do with it (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, Norman, & Mayer, 2010, 310). However, there are concepts that are better taught by issuance of direct instruction. It hence is up to the teacher to discern which concepts will require direct instruction and which call for active participation, for proper learning to take place.
Teachers should take advantage and make use of new technology to make learning much easier and fun. Children and young learners are intrigued by new technology. This would help awaken their curiosity and motivate them to learn more as they make use of the technology and what it has to offer. For the adult learners, technology would also reinforce their internal motivation to learn.
Old learning theories should be reviewed and integrated with the virtual learning environment. The virtual learning environment is a combination of tools that provide for student tracking, delivery of feedbacks, assessment, and access to learning resources. However, to make use of the virtual learning environment, a bit of IT knowledge is needed. Virtual learning environment can be used to facilitate the learning process in children, young learners, and adults.
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