Learning Theories

In a learning domain, there have been numerous theories of learning.

Merriam and Caffarella (1991, p.138) have typified four orientations to learning:

  • behaviourist,
  • cognitive,
  • humanist and
  • social/situational (Virkus, 2004).

Each of them views the learning process differently:

  • behaviourists see it as a change in behaviour,
  • cognitivists as an internal mental process (including insight, information processing, memory, perception),
  • humanists as a personal act to fulfill potential and
  • representatives of social/situational orientation to learning as an interaction/observation in social contexts and a movement from the periphery to the center of a community of practice (Smith, 1999 as cited in Virkus 2004).

Greeno, Collins and Resnick (1996) make a distinction between three major streams of instructional theories:

  • empiricist (behaviourist),
  • rationalist (cognitivist and constructivist) and
  • pragmatist-sociohistoric (situationalist) (Virkus, 2004).

Educational Technology Expertise Center of the Dutch Open University has also added a fourth type of model: the eclectic model. These are instructional design models using principles from different stances, just for the practical occasion. All stances have different views on knowledge, learning, transfer and motivation (Koper, 2001 as cited in Virkus 2004).

  • According to the empirical approach all reliable knowledge is based on experience.
  • In the rationalist approach thinking is considered the only reliable source of knowledge.
  • According to the pragmatic and socio-historic approach or educational theory as social constructivism, knowledge is distributed among individuals, tools and communities, such as those of professional practitioners. The assumption is that there is collective as well as individual knowledge (Koper, 2001, p.13 as cited in Virkus 2004).