3.2.4 Evaluating Learning Theories

When encountering any form of theory it is important not to accept its accuracy uncritically. In fact, academic progress depends on people challenging and questioning key beliefs and theories, and suggesting alternatives.

We’ll do just this with the theories of Pavlov, Skinner, Bandura, and Köhler that you read about earlier in the unit, in “An Overview of Learning Theories.” Arguably, there are problems with the way these theories view the individual and with their focus on the environmental factors involved in learning.

The theories in the overview give different roles to the individual—compare the role of Pavlov’s dogs and Köhler’s chimps, for example. Within each theory, each individual is assumed to be much the same. So neither Pavlov nor Köhler suggests that there may be dogs (or chimps) that react differently. Even Köhler suggests that all chimps that have reached a particular stage in their development and find themselves in the same situation (with bananas that can be reached by sticks) will act in much the same way. If this is applied to human beings (as done by Skinner), the assumption would have to be that all human beings in similar situations will experience similar learning.

The second important problem stems from the focus on the role of the environment. Some of the theories suggest that our environments need to provide particular things at just the right time in order to be able to take our learning forward. For example, Köhler developed the idea of “ripeness” to describe when the chimps were ready to use a stick to reach the object. If they were not ready, the stick would go unused and the object would stay out of reach. This means that for useful learning to take place, the environment needs to fit in with our ever-changing learning. There are some special environments that aim to be especially tuned in to changing learning needs. These include schools, colleges, and other situations. Similarly, on-the-job training attempts to provide learning that suits those to whom it is given.

The mention of schools and other providers of education should also remind us that the environment includes other people. Indeed, it is possible to argue that other people are the most important aspect of any environment. This is certainly true of learning environments. It is not a coincidence that the outcomes of school and college evaluations are mainly decided on the basis of the quality of the work done by the teachers. However, it may have occurred to you that “other people” are absent from the theories we have been discussing. These theories do not seem to say much about the importance of other people in our learning. As you may have realized from the previous unit of this course, other people are important because we can learn from, and with, other people. Other people may even learn from us. Other people are also important because they get together and form groups. These groups may be quite small or local—for example, a local dance or salsa club.

So there are areas that do not seem to be covered in the theories we have looked at so far. It is therefore possible to say that the scope of these theories is limited. This is an important way to think about theory. It is often useful to ask yourself what the theory covers and what it does not. Once you have worked out the scope of a theory, it becomes much easier to see whether you need to look elsewhere for a theory that covers some of the aspects that are important to you.

Let’s move on to think about the gaps in the first set of theories that you have studied. These can be summarized as:

  • The lack of attention paid to the differences between individuals in how they learn.
  • The importance of other people in our immediate social and learning environments.

We have noted the importance of other people in Unit 2, but this “everyday” evidence does not seem to figure in the theory we have looked at so far. Later in this unit, you will come across theoretical attempts to account for this aspect of learning.

3.2.3 Integrating Theory and Personal Understanding: The Difference Between Academic Writing and Reflective Writing

3.2.5 An Alternative Perspective: The Importance of Other People in Our Immediate Social and Learning Environments