H809: Week 7 - Learning Theories (Part 2)

April 2009

The second part of Week 7 was two readings. The first of these was Conole, G., Dyke, M., Oliver, M. and Seale, J. (2004) ‘Mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design’, Computers & Education, vol. 43, nos. 1–2, pp. 17–33.

The aim of this paper was to simplify the multitude of different learning theories to a level where they are more useful for informing practitioners in their teaching.

The technique proposed was to classify different theories by eight criteria:

Although these fall naturally into pairs, illustrated on the vertices of an octahedron, these criteria were not regarded as exclusive, so a theory could for example be both individual and social. Examples were given of how various influential theories, ranging from Kolb's experiential learning to Laurillard's conversation model would be categorised using this framework. Of course, as the authors freely admit, you lose something in this 'flattening out'. For example, to turn 'communities of practice' into 'information, experience, social, reflection' misses much of what the notion of communities of practice are about.

The paper then went on talk about the use of the octahedron in the Media Advisor toolkit as a way for for teachers to see which of these eight different angles they had considered. I have to admit that I was curious to know how the teachers reacted to this - I'll have to see if I can find out.

One part of the paper that I especially liked was where different approaches to an activity type were given (e.g. different approaches to brainstorming might be a seminar, online discussion, online chat or using a concept map) with an illustration of how each of the approaches fell in a different place on the octahedron, with a subtle switch here to using the octahedron as a set of three axes rather than an eight independent blobs.

This paper made me think about what exactly we mean by a learning theory. Is a learning theory essentially just a way of describing how learning can occur or does a learning theory alternatively need to say something about how best to create a context for learning to occur? Also what exactly is the relevance of learning theories to the practice of teachers and do we know for certain why many teachers ignore the various learning theories out there?

Even without answering these questions, the taxonomy is an interesting one I believe. I think that instead of categorising learning theories what it might actually be doing is categorising types of learning based on the theories that exist. I wondered in particular if the model's combinatorial nature could 'predict' new theories by looking at different combinations. I am also intrigued by the comment in the course notes that 'The framework is not derived from extensive theoretical argumentation or empirical work and is untested'. What would a theoretical basis or empirical work that would validate the framework look like?

It is an interesting exercise however to try and work out how you would categorise types of learning. I think to start with I would probably divide learning into behavioural learning and conceptual learning, thinking of the latter as the recognition and memory of patterns. Conceptual learning then feeds into behavioural learning when you apply concepts you have learned to your behaviours. Subconscious behavioural learning is also possible and repeated application of a concept to behaviour might eventually make that behaviour subconscious.

I might then divide conceptual learning into:

By adapting your interaction with the environment, your mental activity, and your social interaction you can influence the patterns you recognise and remember. This could be something you do quite actively and deliberately, for instance when you are trying to resolve conflicts between two different patterns.

This adaption is the interesting part where 'meta-learning' comes in. Other people can help you adapt these three pattern recognition behaviours and you can think of the constructivist view as helping people other people adapt these behaviours in useful ways (rather than actually telling them that patterns exist). Socially situated learning and ideas such as communities of practice also fit in here in terms of the way that these behaviours are adapted by social contexts.