Learning Theory

Learning Theory concept map

I have been working for the HoTEL EU Support Action recently at Brunel University and I was asked to produced a report on learning theories – a struggle, since there seem to be so many ‘isms’ and often I come across what seems to be the same theory, but from a different disciplinary or professional context.

So, this A3 poster of Learning Theory was central to the outcome and I would welcome feedback, especially since I will use it as part of my theoretical and conceptual framework for my PhD by Retrospective Practice. There is also the live this CmapTools version with clickable links to Wikipedia and InfEd.

Here is an extract from the report:

“Learning theory has been a contested scientific field for most of its history, with conflicting contributions from many scientific disciplines, practice and policy positions. With the continuing and disruptive influence of technology on information, knowledge and practice in all sectors of society it is no wonder that innovators, drawn to the interactive potential that computers bring to learning, are challenged by the theoretical basis for their innovations.

Formal education is also a high stakes, culturally & institutionally conservative activity, which serves more than one societal purpose, including:

  • learner development and fulfilment;
  • child care;
  • preparation for citizenship, parenthood and retirement;
  • preparation for work;
  • selection for jobs.

Even in the higher, informal and professional sectors of education, complexity of education is matched by complexity of learning outcomes which may include:

  • skills development;
  • knowledge acquisition;
  • improvement in strategic, analytic and creative capacities;
  • attainment of competence;
  • establishment of attitudes and values.

Each of these societal purposes and these learning outcomes demand different approaches and understandings for the theorist and may develop at varying rates or found to be diverse in relation to context, location and culture.”

Thanks to all the Twitterati that responded so positively when I shared an earlier draft at the HEA TeachMeet: @mike_blamires  @stephenharlow  @lenatp  @LizaField  @fleapalmer  @laurapasquini @JuneinHE @ProfDcotton @RebeccaRadics @catherinecronin @oliverquinlan @STEMPedR @IaninSheffield @louisedrumm @valerielopes @marloft @ethinking @HEAEducation @suzibewell @DebbieHolley1 @cgirvan @suebecks

26 thoughts on “Learning Theory

  1. ianinsheffield

    Wonderful summary and synthesis Richard – thanks so much.
    Having asked for feedback, can offer a couple of things? Mere observations.

    Firstly wondering about the position of connectivism as a child node of social constructivism and (given the information in the Wikipedia article) whether experiential learning might offer an alternative parent node? Or perhaps it should even have its own branch?
    Wondering also whether Rhizomatic Learning (Cormier – http://davecormier.com/edblog/2012/12/13/trying-to-write-rhizomatic-learning-in-300-words/) is sufficiently mature or robust to merit inclusion?

    A fascinating topic!

  2. Richard Millwood Post author

    Both connectivism and rhizomatic learning offer interesting insights into the new ways in which we can organise learning activity in a self-regulated manner, but I would argue neither is clear, in an evidence-based nor analytic way about their explanation of learning in the human mind.

    To quote from an answer I already gave regarding connectivism to Sue Beckingham:
    Connectivism is interesting and an idea I consider to be very useful. For me it is more a statement of how we can benefit from the internet, connected age and as such is a world-view, or paradigm, of ‘knowledge performance’ and thus has more general consequences for society at large (as first suggested by Illich?).

    Like all such ideas, it then influences the nature of: learning activity, the curriculum, teaching, organisation and assessment (often forgotten).

    But what does it say about how we actually learn? That is how change occurs in the mind of the learner? It speaks to me of how we manage our collaboration, perform on tasks etc. and indeed, avoid learning!

    I had (and still have) considerable trouble distinguishing between theory, organisation, practice, paradigm, concept and cultural norm! My tendency (not always maintained) has been to look for theoretical views of learning based on evidence, scientific approach and analysis.

  3. ianinsheffield

    Thanks for such a fulsome response Richard. It seems we are similarly ‘troubled,’ for I too often wrestle with distinguishing between theories, practice and paradigms … especially where a fresh insight is just beginning to emerge and being tested through discussion and reflection.

  4. Richard Millwood Post author

    Thanks to Phil Wood for this useful exchange on Twitter, which led me to Illeris’ work:
    Phil Wood:

    @richardmillwood great poster. Have you seen Illeris’ 3-dimensions of learning and the mapping of other theorists in a holistic field?

    Richard Millwood:

    @geogphil not until now – what a fantastic thing Twitter/Intenet is! This is Illeris’ work http://www.tlu.ee/~heidi/experiential%20education/Contemporary%20Theories%20of%20Learning_%20Learning%20theorists%20_.%20in%20their%20own%20words%20-%20Knud%20Illeris.pdf

    And there’s more!:
    Phil Wood:

    @richardmillwood chapter 1 gives a useful overview of his 3-dimensions theory. Greatly expanded in his book ‘How We Learn’ which I think is

    @richardmillwood the best single volume work on learning I’ve ever read. In there is the accompanying diagram pic.twitter.com/CEpbuRNKdK

  5. Lucie

    Thank you for this – it is very useful for me as I pursue my EdD in informal learning in the workplace. will keep this as a reference :)

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  9. Al Priestman

    I have been in the TEL field for more than two decades and this is the depiction I would love to have come up with! Neverf have I see such a well laid out and extremely useful aide memoire! Thanks Richard. This will be going up on my office wall.

  10. Dermot Walsh

    Thank you for access to this online resource it is really interesting to see this framework and very valuable as a learning tool and a thought provoker. I wonder where you would place Gagné into this framework and whether you had considered Bronfenbrenners ‘ecology of development’ due to the importance of culture and the environment and how it suggests that different layers of peripheral influences play a part in an individuals development. Also what boundaries did you use for classifying theorists, disciplines, learning paradigms and key concepts? Is it possible to create further links between the categories? For example between Kolb and Bruner, Kolb and Gardner and Kolb and Dewey? Similarly, Piaget suggested the influence of philosophy on his learning theory while Vygotsky initially constructed a learning theory framed around Marxism who in turn was influenced by Hegel, who influenced Rosseau who influenced Piaget. Is it fair to classify Piaget only in pyschology?
    Finally, It is interesting to see how theology forms part of your framework. Would you have anything to say on how this impacts on Irish primary education? I need to clarify that I mean from a purely design perspective. Do you think that theological instructivism influenced the delivery of education in Irish primary schools? It may be interesting to point out that St. Augustine promoted reflection for deepening understanding and meaning making which form part of the metacognitive processes considered necessary for higher order thinking by both Piaget and Vygotsky. Do you think that teachers can learn about instructional design by examining the structure of religious activities, theological scriptures and reflective practices? To clarify, I mean from a purely design consideration, e.g., the interactions with signs and symbols, individual and social participation in a particular context working towards a shared understanding of an ill-structured problem while trying to become legitimate participants in a particular society?

  11. Richard Millwood Post author

    Dermot, thanks for your comment – I am sure I can’t answer all you ask for though!

    I wonder where you would place Gagné into this framework and whether you had considered Bronfenbrenners ‘ecology of development’ due to the importance of culture and the environment and how it suggests that different layers of peripheral influences play a part in an individuals development.

    I considered Gagné, but he seems to me more concerned with the teacher than the learner. Did he propose mechanisms for learning in doing so? I had to draw a line…

    Also what boundaries did you use for classifying theorists, disciplines, learning paradigms and key concepts? Is it possible to create further links between the categories? For example between Kolb and Bruner, Kolb and Gardner and Kolb and Dewey? Similarly, Piaget suggested the influence of philosophy on his learning theory while Vygotsky initially constructed a learning theory framed around Marxism who in turn was influenced by Hegel, who influenced Rosseau who influenced Piaget. Is it fair to classify Piaget only in pyschology?

    I made a human judgement about the principle discipline that each founded their work in. I may be wrong. I think that all of us are founded in philosophy at some point of course…

    Finally, It is interesting to see how theology forms part of your framework. Would you have anything to say on how this impacts on Irish primary education? I need to clarify that I mean from a purely design perspective. Do you think that theological instructivism influenced the delivery of education in Irish primary schools? It may be interesting to point out that St. Augustine promoted reflection for deepening understanding and meaning making which form part of the metacognitive processes considered necessary for higher order thinking by both Piaget and Vygotsky. Do you think that teachers can learn about instructional design by examining the structure of religious activities, theological scriptures and reflective practices? To clarify, I mean from a purely design consideration, e.g., the interactions with signs and symbols, individual and social participation in a particular context working towards a shared understanding of an ill-structured problem while trying to become legitimate participants in a particular society?

    I chose theology because I could not find a theorist for instructivism, which I considered to be almost a predominant paradigm for so much teaching I have witnessed and carried out myself. My friend Claudio Dondi in the Hotel prject suggested it after some deliberation, and I leapt at the chance to give it some connection to a tradition, but not with the depth of thought you propose here which I would support. I would also be interested in the rôle of belief in learning!

    Again, thanks Dermot!

  12. Richard Millwood Post author

    It would be a mistake – amongst others! I do think this concept map is incomplete and needs some revision based on many of the useful comments received. I will at some point update it. In the meantime, I would argue that Engestrom’s disciplines are education and psychology, based on his PhD work.

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  15. Traci Dunn

    Hello there. First off, absolouely brilliant work on this map. I got a bit emotional when reading it over because it is so true to the way we work as human beings and I wish everyone could see things this way. What a breath of fresh air! I live in California, USA and have an 11 year old son who is now part of the Common Core State Standards effective this 14′-15′ school year. As an active participant in education I have done my fair share of studying the American education system over the years and do not agree with the new structure of the Common Core. I’d like to know your take on the CCSS. What do you feel are the strenghts and weaknesses? And based on your extensive experience in education, how do predict this will effect the current path of the educational sysyem here in America?

    Thank you for your time!

  16. Richard Millwood Post author

    Thanks Tracy for your kind comments. I am afraid I cannot comment properly on the new structure of the Common Core nor how it will affect the educational system in America, but do fear that all curriculum developments which seek to limit diversity and meaningfulness for individuals will leave many young people cold.

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