How People Learn

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Learning can be defined formally as the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skills. Burns ‘conceives of learning as a relatively permanent change in behaviour, with behaviour including both observable activity and internal processes such as thinking, attitudes and emotions'. Burns (1995) considers that learning might not manifest itself in observable behaviour until some time after the educational program has taken place. Learning helps us move from novices to experts and allows us to gain new knowledge and abilities.

There are many different theories on how people learn. This paper will summarize in the next chapter, a range of conventional learning theories. In the third chapter, this paper will discuss on how children learn, concentrating on Piaget's theory and Vygotsky's social cognition theory. Finally the fourth chapter will discuss on the subject of adult learning theories particularly on Knowles' theory of andragogy.


Traditional sensory stimulation theory has as its basic premise that effective learning occurs when the senses are stimulated (Laird, 1985). Laird quotes research that found that the vast majority of knowledge held by adults (75%) is learned through seeing. Hearing is the next most effective (about 13%) and the other senses – touch, smell and taste – account for 12% of what we know.

By stimulating the senses, especially the visual sense, learning can be enhanced. However, this theory says that if multi-senses are stimulated, greater learning takes place. Stimulation through the senses is achieved through a greater variety of colours, volume levels, strong statements, facts presented visually, use of a variety of techniques and media.

This theory was developed by the behaviourist school of psychology, notably by B. F. Skinner (Laird 1985, Burns 1995). Skinner believed that behaviour is a function of its consequences. The learner will repeat the desired behaviour if positive reinforcement (a pleasant consequence) follows the behaviour.

Positive reinforcement, or ‘rewards' can include verbal reinforcement such as ‘That's great' or ‘Well done' through to more tangible rewards such as certificate at the end of the course or promotion to a higher level in an organization.

Negative reinforcement also strengthens a behaviour and refers to a situation when a negative condition is stopped or avoided as a consequence of the behaviour. Punishment, on the other hand, weakens a behaviour because a negative condition is introduced or experienced as a consequence of the behaviour and teaches the individual not to repeat the behaviour which was negatively reinforced. Punishment creates a set of conditions which are designed to eliminate behaviour (Burns 1995). Laird (1985) considers this aspect of behaviourism has little or no relevance to education. However, Burns says that punishment is widely used in everyday life although it only works for a short time and often only when the punishing agency is present.

Carl Rogers and others have developed the theory of facilitative learning. The basic premise of this theory is that learning will occur by the educator acting as a facilitator, that is by establishing an atmosphere in which learners feel comfortable to consider new ideas and are not threatened by external factors (Laird 1985).

Other characteristics of this theory include:
•A belief that human beings have natural eagerness to learn •There is some resistance to, and unpleasant consequences of, giving up what is currently held to be true •The most significant learning involves changing one's concept of oneself. Facilitative teachers are:

•Less protective of their constructs and beliefs than other teachers •More able to listen to learners, especially to their feelings •Inclined to pay as much attention to their relationship with...
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