Connection not Content

A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

What are learning theories for?

with 4 comments

I taught in a university for many years but only came across learning theories in 2011 in one of the first MOOCs – CCK11 on Connectivism. Coming from a science background, the term ‘theory’ in ‘learning theory’ was a source of confusion. Learning theories are conceptual frameworks proposed and developed by highly respected researchers but they do not enjoy the status of established theories in the physical sciences. They are more like hypotheses, proposed explanations on the basis of evidence that’s probably incomplete, disputed or even pure speculation. For a start, how can a learning theory ever be complete without detailed reference to the place where learning occurs – the brain? Learning theories are important as a source of ideas but difficulties with the collection and interpretation of evidence make firm conclusions hard to come by.
Learning theories may be in their infancy as science but can play a valuable role in providing alternative frameworks for educators, motivating examination of teaching practices and perhaps making improvements on a more rational basis. Even basic familiarity with Behaviourism, Constructivism, Connectivism etc may help educators spot elements of these theories in their own teaching and encourage experimentation. For example, a teacher of medical subjects insisting that a multitude of specialist terms be memorised, might usefully evaluate behaviourist elements in their teaching. (I recall a medical student passing every ‘spotter’ test by studying all through the night before the test with a bottle of whisky: ….. “The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone …” – Operant conditioning?).

The Skeleton Dance – song for learning parts of the body. (Super Simple Learning)

Teaching in real classrooms or lecture rooms embraces many different circumstances but learning theories say little about what’s actually being taught. There’s a world of difference between STEM type material where ‘facts’ and ‘correctness’ play a far more dominant role than in the humanities with considerably more scope for debate and discussion.

An obsession with the instructivist trappings of Behaviourism has its dangers but caveats apply to any learning theory. Consider the distressed child who just can’t ‘get’ negative numbers while his obsessively constructivist teacher keeps insisting that he had to be self-directed and figure it out for himself. Connectivism, focusing on connected learning and personal learning networks, has much to offer for the digital age but social networks can become – just that. Knowledge is not only found in the connections. For deep learning, complete disconnection in a quiet physical room with a good textbook, pencil, paper, coffee (or whisky!), can offer more than desperately tweeting ‘friends’ for advice or searching for clues on forums. No current theory seems to take into account the wide diversity of learning. Who and what is taught, where and by whom, will inevitably influence best practices in any circumstances.

The role of the education researcher is very different from that of practicing educators. The researcher, aims to advance an academic field while the educator simply aims to teach effectively. Most educators now have access to an abundance of pertinent information and a diversity of viewpoints. They can be trusted (with a Howard Rheingold ‘crap detector’ at the ready!) to maintain open and enquiring minds while using their valuable field experience to exploit and test a diversity of learning theories in a diversity of learning situations.

I recently participated in an excellent short MOOC by Southampton University (Learning in the Network Age) where many participants were practicing educators of one sort or another. Some (like me in 2011) had little prior knowledge of networked learning or learning theory but they were eager to learn about the new learning opportunities for themselves and their students. The course was only 2 weeks long, so no time for detail but numerous participants were motivated to examine material gleaned from several different learning theories with a view to improving their teaching. This ‘mix and mash’ approach suits busy educators. That’s what learning theories are for – ‘If the cap fits, wear it!’

Mixing and mashing learning theories
(Special Collections Toronto Public Library)

Written by Gordon Lockhart

June 14, 2017 at 9:08 pm

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4 Responses

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  1. Thank you for connecting theories and teaching practices.That is a connection that sometimes get lost. I do like the connection of learning theories and crap detection. Very helpful in times of fake news and trolls.


    June 15, 2017 at 7:23 am

    • Thanks Jaap and good to hear from you. I’m too lazy to read many research papers but even brief exposure to learning theories seems useful for practicing educators. As for crap detection, I wish there was more of that around here in UK – we are in a pickle!

      Gordon Lockhart

      June 15, 2017 at 10:07 am

  2. I’m slowing going through the MOOC, learning in the digital age and you have been very helpful. Thanks. This blog is really good as I was really confused with the term learning theories. Maybe model or system would be a better word ( like classification system of animals). As a useful construct but not a very scientifi theory. I’m interested in neuroscience and psychology so it is an interesting course, if not very practical for me personally.

    Personlly I have always found the behaviouist tpye of learning difficult – being dyslexic. So languages are tricky for me. I have, firstly unconsciously, then more consciously developed my own strategies using more of the cognitive or even the slightly conectivism methods throughout my life. My mum is an A-level maths teacher and she likes to show various methods so the student can find what works best for them. She says the non-maths minded students like the behaviourist approach of learning, as in memorising methods and applying them. I don’t like this and I usually learn methods that are either simple or make sense to me by trying to understand them.My mum also teaches international students, including Chinese students and says it’s interesting how different nationalites have very different maths skills and approaches. My mum likes to bring difficult/ unusual puzzles home to see how/if we can solve them. My sister is a very good mathematician and solves them really quickly. I take longer but usually with a more logical approach so very occasionally I can do one when she can’t. My other sister, is language minded and thinks it’s ridiculous that we talk about maths problems after dinner!


    August 9, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    • Hi Deborah – nice of you to comment here! Learning theories are discussed a lot by academics but much of the literature is a bit esoteric (to me anyway!) and doesn’t seem to say too much about actual practice.

      I think anyone whose main aim is to pass an exam in a subject they’re not particularly interested in will tend to just memorise stuff and of course it tends to ‘go in one ear and out the other’ without much understanding. You’ve done well to overcome your dyslexic problems to such a great extent and its pretty obvious to me and others on the FL MOOC that there’s nothing much holding you back now as far as career opportunities or further studies are concerned. And it does help to have quite an academic family for support! I’m sure you can make all the right choices and wish you all the best for the future.

      Gordon Lockhart

      August 10, 2017 at 9:35 pm

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