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There seems to be a disconnect between learning and teaching. And it seems to me that in many organisations precious little attention is paid to learning, with an expectation that if the appropriate instructional regime is put in place learning will simply follow.

In this five-part blog series, I will explore this quandary further and explain how your organisation can avoid this disconnect and become a true learning organization. As with all good stories, I will start at the beginning, with an exploration of learning and learning theories. I will build on this foundation in future blogs.

So let’s start with a simple question. What is learning? With such a simple question, surely there is a simple answer… well, no.

There is a great deal of research and many different theories of learning, and these can be placed into three general categories:
  1. behaviourist theories (based on stimulus-response)
  2. cognitive theories (based on nature of knowledge) 
  3. humanist theories (interaction of personality with society)
The first two groups of theories are broadly based on the principles of Positivism, a subject which was all the rage in Victorian times. The main tenets of Positivism are:
  1. Empirical science is the only real knowledge
  2. It is best to cleanse the mind of mysticism and myth
  3. Extending this knowledge to human society will benefit all
So these behaviourist and cognitive theories treat knowledge as something the learner needs to acquire. In the modern changing world, these theories are in decay, leading to the rise in humanist theories.

More modern theorists such as Carl Rogers talk about the goal of education not being teaching, but rather the facilitation of change and learning. This has led to a shift away from teacher-centric (behaviourist) and subject-centric (cognitive) theories towards learner-centric learning theories.

 

There are many theories of learning under the humanist rubric, but they tend to share one thing in common: the individual’s experience is central to the learning process. We can further break these humanist theories into two categories: those which focus on personality aspects, and those which focus on the social context.

Many researchers have focused on the personality aspects, with a lot of research in the areas of reflection and the use of reflection-on-action as part of learning programs. While this can be helpful for teachers, how can this assist with the autonomous self-directed learner? And while there is ample research regarding the use of reflection in the learning of conceptual knowledge, there is little research available on how this approach helps with skill development (this omission is common amongst these learner-centric theories). And finally, these theories still tend to treat learning as an individual process.

 

Attempting to displace these learner-centric theories is the social perspective of learning. In these theories, learning is based solely on the interaction of the person with the social context. Learning can take place without specific instruction, through social interaction amongst peers. These theories apply to both conceptual learning and the learning of skills. Much of this research neglects formal learning completely, and focuses on the informal aspects of learning. A good example of this is the extensive research done by Lave and Wenger on situated learning (a lot of their research was based on apprenticeships), where the learning takes places through participation in a community of practice.

 

So many theories, and they all share one key thing in common – none of them on its own is correct. Simply put, there is no one correct approach, no single answer to our simple question. As professional learning practitioners we need to find some middle ground.

 

Not only do we need to understand how we learn, but we also need to understand how the way we learn is changing. The reality is that the way in which we learn is changing faster than ever before. I will deal with this in my next post, as we continue this exploration of learning, and how to become a learning organization.
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