Learning Theories

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1. Domains of learning
Bloom’s taxonomy (cited in Petty 1998) provides the basis for classifying learning into domains and thus highlights learning outcomes should be hierarchical and concerned with different forms of learning. The cognitive domain is concerned with knowledge and knowing, the psychomotor domain is concerned with physical skills and the affective domain concerns itself with attention, awareness, moral, aesthetic and other attitudes opinions or values.

Reece and Walker (2009) identify the main theories of learning as behaviourism, neo- behaviourism, cognitivism, gestaltism, constructivism and humanism. Each are now considered in turn.
2. Behaviourism
Behaviourism believes that human beings are self-correcting and modify their behaviour according to the success of their actions. The models, therefore, assume that learners will adjust their behaviour or approach to an action, according to the feedback they receive. Theorists associated with this school of thought (such as Pavlov and Thorndike) view that learner behaviour is controlled or changed as a result of the application of stimuli under controlled conditions. There has been criticism of behaviourism which appears to be well founded. One criticism centres on the ability of behaviourism to extrapolate results obtained within the laboratories (which were often conducted on animals) to that expected with humans (Reece and Walker, 2009: 81). Proponents of behaviourism however identify its widespread use within education of rewards and punishments to control behaviour and learning and how positive reinforcement methods can help in the learning process (Rogers 2002: 17). Despite concerns over the extent to which behaviourism can be and should be adopted in a classroom environment practical applications in the establishment of learning outcomes, testing methods, reinforcement or the acquisition of practical skills are evident in current-day practice.

3. Neo-Behaviourism
The work of behaviourists was extended by the neo-behaviourists in applying a more human approach to learning and attempting to further consider the role of the mind in learning. Skinner (cited in Reece and Walker, 2009) demonstrates this through the introduction of the concepts of operant conditioning (voluntary responses) and reinforcement. Gagné (cited in Reece and Walker, 2009) concluded that the learning methods had to be designed to match the type of learning taking place. This encourages a more holistic view of learning and one where planning for feedback is incorporated into its design.

4. Cognitivism
The cognitivism model emphasises the role of the mind in learning rather than physical responses (as required by the behaviourists). The importance of cognitivism is that it implies that learning is an active process. This involves the learner taking responsibility and the teacher selecting activities appropriate to the level of learning being undertaken. The cognitivism model of learning recognises the learner as being an active participant in the process who interacts with the teacher and the learning environment. This internal process differs significantly from the external stimuli required by behaviourists and displays how individuals gain the ability to learn themselves through metacognition.

Dewey (cited in Reece and Walker, 2007) defined learning as “learning to think” the key being reflective thinking and allowing time for reflective thinking to take place. Furthermore, Dewey identified the importance of ensuring that learning tasks are not disassociated from a social context and should become meaningful to the learner. In the context of mathematics, Dewey highlights the need to ensure students are not merely trained to perform algorithms but educated and developed. Bruner (cited in Reece and Walker, 2007) concurs that learning is not just the acquisition of knowledge but the means to develop individuals and highlights educational concepts such as discovery thinking where...
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