There are myriad perspectives on the learning process, understanding the mechanisms of and our understanding of learning as theory and the practical application of methodology has evolved considerably over time. Each theory contributes to our understanding of how learners integrate information and experiences from their environment. This has implications for individual growth and also for institutional policy and practice.
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In this paper I will review three theoretical perspectives on learning, namely the Constructivist/Cognitivist perspective, the Phenomenographic perspective, and the Socio-cultural perspective, I will describe the salient features and characteristics of each theory, and compare the similarities and differences across perspectives. This will include a discussion of how learners access information, make sense of that information, and act on it in deliberate and purposeful ways as a means of engaging with the world.
From there I will investigate what these learning theories emphasize or give relevance to the concepts of context, meaning, and experience. The various perspectives each have something to say about the relationship between context, meaning, and experience as they relate to learning, however the importance of these core concepts differs in how each theory conceptualizes learning, and the importance of the role of context, meaning, and experience.
Finally , I will conclude with examples that bring these perspectives to life in my everyday experience, and I will bind these theories together within a cohesive understanding of learning and education as it relates to the interrelationship of the concepts of intrinsic motivation, variation, and transfer.
Three theoretical perspectives on learning
There are numerous theories of learning, each emphasizing a particular feature of the learning experience. Various theories of learning also describe learning in different ways depending on the viewpoint of the observer. Each theory emphasizes ideas related to context, meaning, and experience in different ways as they relate to learning, both from the perspective of the learner and from the instructor/teacher/coach/mentor.
“Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be
made without an observer” (von Foerster, 1995, pg. 5)
The Constructivist theoretical orientation holds that knowledge is acquired experientially, is mediated by our prior understanding, and is based on the belief that we learn by doing rather than observing, and that knowledge is built upon previous learning. “The essential core of constructivism is that learners actively construct their own knowledge and meaning from their experiences (Doolittle, pg 1)
Piaget was primarily concerned with cognitive constructions that occurred as a result of interactions with…
Constructivism emerged from early studies of learning, behaviour, and psychoanalysis, and the behavioural viewpoints of Watson, along with Kohler and Koffka’s Gestalt psychology. (Tools pg. 7) Constructivism as theoretical understanding exists along a continuum from “weak” to “strong” forms constructivism This is an adaptive process whereby behaviours evolve to meet the changing demands of the environment, and cognition serves to makes sense of subjective experience. (Doolittle, 1999, 1)
Constructivism emerged from schools of behaviourism and objectivism, which held that there was a knowable objective reality that existed independent of the individual. Constructivism takes the view that meaningful personal experience is the basis of knowledge and learning. Individuals construct meaning within a context of personal experience that is rooted in language, culture, and the social experiences of each individual. There can be no objectively verifiable truth or knowledge within constructivism, as each individual brings a unique perspective grounded in their own previous knowing. Much of this knowledge is tacit and resides in the implicit memory of the learner, but it exerts its influence and acts as a filter through which the individual “sees” new information and relates it to their understanding of the world. Knowledge and thus learning is constructed within the mind of the individual.
Constructivism rejects the notion of an objective and knowable reality independent of the observer, and holds that knowledge of the world is constructed through the active cognitizing on the part of individuals. Constructivism rejects the notion of an oberver-independent world in favour of knowledge reflecting the subjective realities of the observer. (Glaserfeld, 1989, p. 3) Knowledge is not a representation of reality, but instead a “collection of conceptual structures that turn out to be adapted or, as I would way, viable within the knowing subject’s range of experience. (Glaserfeld, 1989, p. 4)
Within Cognitive constructivism (explanation of scheme theory, accomodation, assimilation). Cognitive constructivism adheres to models of knowledge construction that consider the role of memory, cognitive constructs, and schemas without considering fully the subjective nature of knowledge as resident within the mind of the subject. Knowledge in this sense implies an internal representation that accurately reflects an observer-independent external reality. (Doolittle, 1999, 2)
Radical constructivism differs from cognitive constructivism by advancing the idea that learning is an adaptive process, and that it is observer-dependent and resides in a fluid and dynamic cognition that considers the subjective experience of knowledge construction. Radical constructivism, like social constructivism, also accepts social interactions as informing knowledge construction.
Social constructivism takes the view that social interactions contribute to knowing, and views the social and cultural context as anchoring knowledge “to a specific time and place. (doolittle pg 4)
These various perspectives exist on a continuum, however the most fundamental understandings are shared.
We all hold memories of previous experiences; those collected memories and experiences, both tacit and explicit, become the lens through which we view our current unfolding reality. Emerging evidence within the realm of neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology may predict further homogenization of constructivist philosophy and understanding. Interpersonal neurobiology views the brain as a social organ built through experience. This insight shifts Cognitive Constructivism further along the continuum in the direction of radical and social constructivism by lending supporting evidence to the two remaining epistemological tenets, namely that “cognition organizes and makes sense of one’s experience, and that “knowing has roots in both biological/neurological construction, and social, cultural, and language-based interactions.” (Doolittle, 1999) Learning is transactional, with experience influencing cognitive construction and the pliable cognitive constructions influencing our experience in a duality of experience and subjective reality. As Carr states, “…the growing body of evidence makes clear that the memory inside our heads is the product of an extraordinarily complex natural process that is, at every instant, exquisitely tuned to the unique environment in which each of us lives and the unique patterns of experiences that each of us goes through.” (Carr, 2010, p. ??)
Carr recounts some of the current research on memory and experience, and expands on the idea that our brain structure continuously changes with experience; brain plasticity, the growing and pruning of synaptic connections over time, changes our very memories and our recollections of experience based on new experiences. (Carr, 2010, p. 190) Researcher Kobi Rosenblum further describes how memory, which in a sense is our recalled experience, can be a pliable and moving target. As he explains, “..the human brain continues to process information long after it is received, and the quality of memories depends on how the information is processed.” (Carr, 2010, p. 191)
Meaning within Cognitivist/Constructivist Perspective
Meaning as significance for each perspective, but it is integral to an understanding of constructivism. Meaning is central to the intentionality of learners; relevance and meaning enhance a learner’s ability to relate with their world. It also relates to concepts of motivation as it relates to a learners sense of agency and engagement with their experience, ad it highlights the importance of culture and language as social mediators of learning???? “The importance of these memory mechanisms to the development of cognitive psychology is that, once understood, they make it very clear that a person’s ability to remember items is improved if the items are meaningfully related to each other or to the person’s existing knowledge. The key word here is meaningful.”Wynn pg.4 “What is meaningful to people is determined by what they can remember of what they have already learned”. Wynn pg 4
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Opportunities for learning within a constructivist framework occur most readily when what is being learned has relevance or high emotional valence for the learner; in other words when information or experiences are meaningful. In order for learning to be meaningful it should be relatable to previous knowledge and experience. This building-block model of knowledge and experience is entirely consistent with a learner as meaning-maker.
The implications for teaching and educational pedagogy are that tasks that have meaning and relevance tend to be of greater intrinsic interest to learners. Research on the experience of learning speaks to the importance of meaning as it relates to knowledge construction, and speaks of the importance of autonomy, agency, choice, and collaboration in driving our instrinsic motivational desires to engage in meaningful tasks, remember and recall information, self-organize, and be curious. A learning context rich in meaning is crucial.
Context within Cognitivist/Constructivist Perspectives
Learning occurs most successfully at the intersection of a learner’s previous knowledge of the world and the experience of socially mediated interactions with others, and is influenced by all accumulated social and cultural experiences. (Bodrova & Leong, 2007, p. 9) The context for learning resides within the experience and imagination of the learner, and is rooted in prior experience and is mediated by teachers/facilitators and the ecological setting or context.
Within this learning context, Feuerstein describes the role of mediation. “The mediator creates in a person an approach, a form of reference, a desire to understand phenomena, a need to find order in them, to understand the order that is revealed, and to create it for oneself.” (Feuerstein, Feuerstein, & Falik, 2010, p. 37) Mediators can take many forms, but they share in common an ability to potentiate a learner’s ability to benefit from learning experiences. In the absence of a mediator, even in cases where individuals acquire knowledge, they may not “understand its significance.” (Feuerstein et al., 2010, p. 37)
Experience within Cognitivist/Constructivist Perspectives
As learners construct their own experiential reality within a social and cultural context, the dyadic interactions that unfold imply a degree of collaboration and engagement with learning that is intrinsically motivated by a meaningful context within which learning occurs/unfolds. Collaborative learning is by its nature socially constructed learning, where the interest of learners is central, meaningful, and contextual. Decontextualized learning by contrast lacks a sense of connection to the experience of learning. Prior experiences of learning are diminished when there is no meaningful context, and authentic experiential learning suffers. When choice around structure and content is collaboratively negotiated, learners are granted a level of autonomy around how and what they learn, and experiences that are meaningful place learning within a context more suitable to the learning style, goals, and priorities of the learner.
Kohn emphasizes these conditions of collaboration, content, and choice, as creating the conditions necessary for authentic and intrinsically motivated learning to emerge. (Kohn, ???)
“There is no learning without discernment. And there is no
discernment without variation.” (Marton, Trigwell, 2000)
The theory of phenomenography is connected with the study of human experience, particularly as it relates to educational research. Phenomenography examines thinking and learning within the context of educational research, and seeks understanding of “the different ways in which people experience, interpret, understand, perceive, or conceptualize a phenomenon, or certain aspect of reality.” (Orgill, ????) Marton defines phenomenography as “a qualitative research methodology, within the interpretivist paradigm, that investigates the qualitatively different ways in which people experience something or think about something” (Marton, 1986). One of the key epistemological tenets ??? related to Phenomenographic theory relates to concepts of variation, discernment, and transfer.
Marton postulates that in order for learning to occur, “…there must necessarily be a pattern of variation present to experience, and this pattern must be experienced”. (Marton, variation, pg.1). In order for learning to occur, learners must experience a wide range of variation in experience, with sameness or similarity contributing little to our understanding of experience. Variation and difference create a broader context for understanding experience, and also expand our repertoire when encountering novel situations or circumstances. This transfer of learning is integral to variation theory and a key underpinning of phenomenography. Experiencing difference or variation may be likened to experiences of cognitive dissonance within constructivist models of learning, where an individual experiences dissonance and a perturbation and must adjust their conception of this new information within their existing paradigm. How we categorize, makes sense of, or identify with that difference relates to our discernment skills. Discernment allows a subject to see or sense an experience “against the background of his or her previous experiences of something more or less different.” ( Marton, pg.386). In essence, as subjects experience greater variation they become more attuned to increasingly subtle differences between the “physical, cultural, symbolic, or sensual world” that they inhabit. (Marton, pg 386) Every phenomenon that is experienced only in contrast to alternate experiences of the same phenomenon (marton, pg 387)
The implications for pedagogy center on the manipulation of the objects of variation in order for learners to experience variation, become adept at discerning, and transfer learning across situations. “Excellence in teaching has very much to do with what aspects of the object of learning are subjected to variation, and what aspects of the object are subject to variation simultaneously.” (Marton, pg. 391) Subjects learn to manage novelty as a result of having experienced novelty through variation. (Marton, pg. 394). Transfer is concerned with how “what is learned in one situation affects or influences what the learner is capable of doing in another situation. ” (Marton, pg. 499)
Meaning within Phenomenographic/Variation Theory Perspective
Context within Phenomenographic/Variation Theory Perspective
A concept that illuminates ideas of context within the phenomenographic perspective relates to concepts of situated learning. Situated in this instance “refers to what surrounds the learning event; that is, to the socially constructed life-world in which a particular instance of learning occurs.” (Sameness in transfer, pg. 511)
Sameness and difference in learning and experience are acknowledged, however “…the extent to which we can make use of something we have learned in one situation to handle another situation is a ma
Learning is not simply acquiring new information and storing it on top of the information we already have. It involves meeting something unexpected (what ??? might describe as a perturbation), something that cannot be easily explained by those theories or understandings we have already developed. To resolve that conflict we have to change what we previously believed (kohn, pg 187??) This explanation is the tie that binds constructivism, variation, theory and scheme theory to social learning, along with ideas of motivation and personal agency.
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