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What do the learning theories say about how we learn?

Watch this animated video illustrating four different learning theories about how we learn and how they relate to teaching and learning.
NICHOLAS FAIR: In the previous quiz, you selected which of these images best represents the way you like to learn. Each choice represents a different theory about knowledge, learning, and teaching. These theories have a big influence on how we learn and how our education is structured, so it’s worth taking a moment to understand them more. The first theory is called behaviouralism. This theory sees knowledge as a collection of trained behavioural responses to external stimuli, just as Pavlov observed with his dog. In terms of teaching and learning, behaviouralism suggests we learn by passively absorbing information given to us by an expert. This may involve a lot of repetition until the correct behavioural responses are embedded in us.
This way of teaching and learning is considered instructionist. The second learning theory is cognitive constructivism. This theory considers knowledge is contained in a series of mental maps, or schema, inside our brains. As we experience new things, we make sense of them by using our current mental map, but then by ourselves, we actively reconstruct those mental maps to accommodate the new information we have gained. For teaching and learning, this means that actively discovering new information by doing things will lead to the construction of knowledge inside our brain. However, it may often help to have someone around to guide and help us with the resources we need. This way of teaching and learning is known as experiential.
The third of our learning theories is social constructivism. This theory argues that it is through the socially accepted frameworks of language and culture, meaning has developed and knowledge transmitted. For example, if all of us on this MOOC agree to call a glass a shoe, then a sentence such as, can I have a shoe of water, please? would make perfect sense to us but not to anyone outside of this MOOC. What this suggests is that meaning is not just interpreted and constructed within the brain but is co-constructed through social interactions with other people using a shared understanding of language and culture.
The impacts of this on teaching and learning is that learning is fundamentally a social activity where through collaborating and discussing in small groups of four or five, we can learn with and from our peers. A facilitator is key to starting off discussions for this type of learning. The final theory is called connectivism. It sees knowledge as distributed across a network of connections– networks where humans, technologies, actions, and social relationships act continuously together to create and distribute knowledge. Therefore, learning is the process of acquiring specific patterns of connections between items of distributed knowledge. Learners interpret their actions and experiences to build and navigate this network of connections in a range of formal and informal situations.
This means that learning is codependent on the growth, maintenance, and activation of that network and its effective inclusion into teaching practises. Aspects of this approach have previously been referred to as networked learning. In summary, we are all diverse in terms of our preferred method of learning depending upon our knowledge, choice of subject, and context. The teaching and learning approach that’s associated with these theories will have a vast impact on how we learn now and in the future, but what do you think? We look forward to hearing your views about how we learn in the discussion section below. Thanks

This animation explains some of the different theories about how we learn and how they relate to teaching.

These theories have a big influence on how we learn and how our education is structured, so it is important to take time to understand them.

Learning can occur in formal situations, such as a classroom, lecture theatre, or tutorial. It can also occur in informal situations, such as using Google and Youtube to learn how to fix your bike. The Web, social media and smartphones have led to a blurring of the boundaries between the formal and informal, the professional and the personal.

This means we need to assess the relevance of these different learning theories to teaching and learning in the network age.


Learning theory Teaching approach
Behaviouralism Instructionist
Cognitive Constructivism Experiential
Social Constructivism Collaborative Peer Learning
Connectivism Networked Learning

You will have a chance to investigate these theories and approaches in more detail during the next steps in this activity.

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Learning in the Network Age

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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