Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Views on Learning: Two Major Views in Three Centuries

The Human Brain
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, serious attempts were made by the scientific community to study the human mind in earnest. This early work moved from introspective descriptions of thoughts to the study of observable behaviors and the stimuli associated with these behaviors. Behaviorists, following the empiricist tradition, assumed learning was the process of forming connections between stimuli and responses. Learning motivation was thought to be driven by drives and by the availability of rewards and punishments.

Early behaviorism, with a focus on observable behaviors and stimuli, was limited when studying less observable behaviors like understanding and reasoning. Behaviorism moderated somewhat and began to allow hypotheses about unobservable mental processes while retaining a data-driven perspective.

In the 1950s, the field of cognitive science emerged, due to more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of the human species. Cognitive science approached the study of learning from an interdisciplinary perspective, used new experimental tools, and developed new approaches. This field contributed to our understanding of the social and cultural contexts of learning. The study of learning came to emphasize learning with understanding. This approach acknowledges the importance of foundational knowledge (facts) while probing “usable knowledge.”

Inquiry into the application of foundational knowledge to novel situations brought ideas of “ways of knowing” into the study of learning. Humans come into any learning situation with pre-existing knowledge, skills, and beliefs that influence how they organize new information. This pre-existing knowledge may be accurate or full of incomplete understanding and misconceptions. Humans are not passive learners by nature. New developments in the study of learning also emphasize active, self-directed learning as important. Learners should work toward understanding what they know and what they do not know to grow as a learner.

Bransford, J., Brown, A, & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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