Learning or educational theories refer to an organized set of procedures that define how people obtain, retain, and remember knowledge. Through the study of the different educational theories, we gain a better understanding of how the learning process takes place (Ertmer and Newby, 2013). That understanding helps the stakeholders in the educational sector to use the principles of the theories as guidelines to develop appropriate instructional methods, tools, and strategies that enhance learning. Three common educational theories include behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism.
The behaviourism theory was developed from the early works of B.F Skinner and the idea of concept conditioning (Ertmer and Newby, 2013). The proponents of this theory perceive knowledge to exist independently outside of learners. They consider learners as blank slates who need to be provided with experience for them to learn through the acquisition of new behaviours as a result of associations between responses and stimuli. In other words, behaviourism theorists believe that association results in a new behaviour.
In behaviourism, the learning process is based on objective recognizable alterations in behaviour. The underlying principle is that the learning process commences when a learner is presented with a stimulus from the environment and reacts to it with a unique response (Skinner, 2011). Factors that reinforce the desired outcome are planned to come after the desired behaviour. For instance, a student is required to study hard to attain good grades. Repetition of the new behaviour ensures automatic response with the desired change. Learning is assumed to have taken place when the learner changes his/her behaviour (Skinner, 2011). Behaviourism is common in the learning environment as teachers use it to reward or punish students for ascribing or deviating from certain behaviours. Although behaviourism contributes to the learning process, it is not a comprehensive tool hence cannot be used on its own. In particular, the theory does not equip the learner with creative thinking or problem solving skills. Learners can only repeat what they are taught and are discouraged to take initiative to improve the current situation.
Cognitivism (Cognitive Information Processing)
The cognitivism educational theory is anchored on the thinking process underlying the behaviour. The principles of the theory stem from the idea that human beings do not just respond to the information through stimuli but process that information (Ryder, 2003). In other words, the changes in the learner's behaviour are a manifestation of what is happening in his/her head. The proponents of this theory liken a learner's mind to a mirror where new knowledge is reflected. Cognitivism educational theory, an early work of Jean Piget, is understood when the learner looks for ways to comprehend and process information received and relate it to the already known knowledge in the memory (Ryder, 2003).
According to Yilmaz (2011), learning in cognitive information processing takes place when information is processed internally. Contrary to behaviourism where information processing is controlled by an external factor, information processing in cognitivism is governed by an internal circumstance. It is focused on the mental processes in the learner's mind rather than the learner's observable behaviour. In particular, the learning process entails the reorganization of experiences through the attainment of new experiences or through changes in old ones (Yilmaz, 2011). Therefore, the learning process involves changing the knowledge stored in the memory which is manifested by changes in the learner's behaviours. Application of this theory is demonstrated when learners link concepts, classify information, and solve problems.
Constructivism educational theory asserts that human beings construct their own perspectives of the world from internal knowledge and individual experiences. In this theory, the way in which the learner creates the perspectives depends on how he/she interprets his/her experiences. The learning process is unique for every individual because knowledge is constructed by the learner based on the different set of perceptions and experiences (Philips, 2000). According to Philips (2000), the creation of the different mental models to understand individual experiences helps in resolution of conflicts between ideas as well as to reflect on theoretical explanations. Therefore, learning is a process that entails adjustment of mental models to accommodate the new experiences. Primarily, constructivism is used to direct people's attention to problem solving. For the learner to become successful, he must have a wide base of knowledge to facilitate the interpretation and creation of ideas (Brandon and All, 2010). It is important to note that the outcomes of the learner generated using constructivism are not always predictable because learners construct their own knowledge based on their unique experiences. Therefore, constructivism is not an ideal theory when the desired outcomes are expected to be consistent. Some of the major applications of this theory include research projects, simulations, case studies, and discovery learning.
The discussion above shows that learners exposed to the three educational theories would benefit from various competencies. Given that each of the theory has unique applications and benefits, it raises the question whether there is one instructional approach that is more effective than the others. The fact that learning is a complex process that is heavily influenced by an individual's past experiences and knowledge, perhaps the answer to that question would be "it depends on the context." The dynamic nature of the learning process means that what could be effective for new learners encountering a complex chunk of information for the first time might not be effective for learners that are more familiar with that knowledge. That is because facts are taught differently from problem solving and the proficiency of the learners with the concept significantly determines the method used. For these reasons, it is critical that the instructor and curriculum developers create a link between the content and the strategies.
In order to achieve that, we must consider how the learner's knowledge evolves as they get more conversant with the content. That process is similar to how people change as they acquire more knowledge and experience about a certain concept whereby they move from a low to high knowledge continuum. The first stage involves recognizing and applying the common rules, facts, and procedures of a task (knowing what) (Ertmer and Newby, 2013). The second stage involves thinking in a professional manner to advance from the general rule to more specific problems (knowing how) (Ertmer and Newby, 2013). The third stage entails development and testing of new ways of understanding and actions to take when established ways of thinking fail (reflection-in-action) (Ertmer and Newby, 2013). Applying this continuum in learning, the point at which the learners sit in terms of developing their knowledge, the appropriate learning theory for the advancement of the learner's understanding and knowledge at that level would be best determined by the instructional approach that corresponds to the learner's objectives and outcomes on the continuum. In other words, the behavioural approach would best help in mastering the content of a profession (knowing what). Cognitivism would be most appropriate in teaching problem solving skills, especially where defined rules and facts are used in unfamiliar cases (knowing how). On the other hand, constructivism approach would be appropriate to help the learner handle undefined problems through reflection-in-action.
Brandon, A. F., & All, A. C. (2010). Constructivism theory analysis and application to curricula. Nursing Education Perspectives, 31(2), 89-92.Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71.
Phillips, D. C. (2000). Constructivism in Education: Opinions and Second Opinions on Controversial Issues. Ninety-Ninth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. University of Chicago Press, Order Dept., 11030 South Langley Avenue, Chicago, IL 60628.
Ryder, M. (2003). Instructional design models. School of Education, University of Colorado at Denver http://carbon. cudenver. edu/~ mryder/reflect/idmodels. html (Consultada el 18 de agosto de 2007).
Skinner, B. F. (2011). About behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.
Yilmaz, K. (2011). The cognitive perspective on learning: Its theoretical underpinnings and implications for classroom practices. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 84(5), 204-212.
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