Perspectives on Learning

One of the reasons there is so much debate about teaching and learning and what we should have students spend their time doing when they are in schools is that there are different theories about human learning. By theories, of course, I mean ideas supported by evidence that accurately predict and explain what we observed. In general, we can identify two groups of theories.

Cognitive theorists believe learning is a process that happens within the brain of a single individual. That individual is responsible for perceiving, encoding, and remembering what they are supposed to learn. If other situations are sufficiently similar, then cognitive theorists believe, the learners will be able to transfer what they have learned to new situations. Motivation is understood to be based on interests and one’s perceptions of potential for success.

Sociocultural theorists believe learning is grounded in cultural and situational contexts. What individuals perceive, expect, encade and remember is highly dependent on cultural norms and the degree of participation in the social interaction. While describing situations in which learning is transferred, sociocultural theorists have had difficulty accounting for it. Further, they believe that students are motivated by the social and situational content; they are motivated by those in which they can participate.

The unfortunate reality for many educators (and their students) is that leaders believe there is one single correct method for defining learning. As individuals reflects back on their lives as learners, they can identify situations in which their learning was aligned with one perspective and other times when it was aligned with the other. Yet other learning appears to have been a mix of both. This is the reality. Human learning is a complex and multidimensional activity. We cannot focus exclusively on one perspective because we have a personal affinity for it or because it is easy to measure. A complete education must provide both.