Monday, 10 May 2010

H800 Week 4: Activity 1 - Defining Learning

Note: This post was originally posted on my OU Blog on 1st March 2010

James Atherton, on his 'Learning and Teaching' website attempts to address directly the question "What is Learning?". He starts by citing a 1993 American textbook, Introduction to Psychology (Atkinson et al, 1993):

"a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from practise."

Atherton goes on to expand on this definition, by adding his own comments (paraphrased here):

It's about change ... in behaviour (It may be in a "capacity for" behaviour which is never actually translated into action) ...which more or less sticks .... and is the product of interaction with the organism's environment .... within an organism's lifespan

Atherton's definition focuses on learning as an outcome or an end-product. The infed website (The Encyclopedia of Informal Education) provides an interesting overview of some of the common models of learning theory. In examining the idea of learning as a product, the site refers to an experiment conducted by Säljö (1979) in which he asked adult students what they understood by learning. Their responses fell into five main categories:

  • Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or 'knowing a lot'.
  • Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
  • Learning as acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
  • Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  • Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge.

The infed website makes the point that the first three of the above are qualitatively different from the other two, and imply a less complex view of learning. I found the reference to Ryle's (1949) idea of 'knowing that' and 'knowing how' quite helpful in appreciating the difference between the first three and the last two. 'Knowing that' refers essentially to propositional knowledge, whereas 'knowing how' is a much deeper understanding. This is point echoed in work by Eraut (1994) who considers how professional people gain knowledge.

The infed website then goes on to present an alternative way of looking at learning, i.e. to see it as a process rather than a product. In doing so it presents four different orientations of learning theory, and their respective view of the learning process:

Behaviourist: Change in behaviour
Cognitivist: Internal mental process (including insight, information processing, memory, perception
Humanist: A personal act to fulfil potential
Social and situational: Interaction /observation in social contexts. Movement from the periphery to the centre of a community of practice

As a final aside, during my searching I noticed that on several websites there is an attempt to use graphical models to represent learning. One common representation refers to Edgar Dale's Cone of Learning, as seen on the Percepsys website.

Further research reveals that this is actually a misrepresentation of Edgar Dale's work. His original work (Dale, 1946) sought to highlight the value of various audio-visual media in the learning process. His original cone had no figures attached to it at all. Will Thalheimer's website suggests that the misrepresentations are actually fraudulent.

Personal perspective:

I suppose my original views on the definition of learning were more closely associated with learning as a product rather than learning as a process. Referring to Säljö's five categories above, I would expect most 'laypeople' to consider learning in accordance with the first three. I think my own view of learning is much more closely linked to the final two.

It is apparent that the learning is viewed differently depending on whether it is looked at from an educationalist's perspective, or a psychologist's perspective. Since I don't have a very deep understanding of psychology, I find some of these views quite difficult to understand. That is not to question the validity or value of the theories, it is simply a reflection of my own lack of experience in the field.

I thought the misrepresentation of Edgar Dale's cone was quite interesting, and should serve as a reminder of the questionable veracity of much web-based information.


Atkinson R L, Atkinson R C, Smith E E, & Bem D J (1993) Introduction to Psychology (11th edition) Fort Worth TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich:

Dale, E. (1946). Audio-visual methods in teaching. New York: Dryden.

Eraut, M (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, London, The Falmer Press

Ryle, G (1949) The Concept of Mind, London, Hutchinson

Säljö, R. (1979) 'Learning in the learner's perspective. I. Some common-sense conceptions', Reports from the Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg, 76.

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