Learning Theories and Learning Tool Design

Have you heard the joke of two researchers specialized in behaviorism meet on a street? The dialogue goes like this: – “Hey John, how am I today?” – “You seems to be pretty ok, so how am I then?“.

Some of the basics ideas of behaviorism are used daily in (good) teaching and learning. With relatively simple ability to track our behavior, by trying out different strategies of behavior and playing with it we learn. In some areas of learning you also need trill and practice, trial and error — the most classical form of behaviorist teaching and learning strategies.

Constructivism, or more specifically cognitive constructivism, is often presented as some kind of anti-thesis of behaviorism. If in behaviorism the focus is on the external behavior, constructivism is more interested in interaction of a mind with it’s environment. According to constructivism human mind is accommodating and assimilating new knowledge from experiences. New experiences have an effect on the existing framework that is in a continuous change. In practice we do not learn only by simply changing our behavior but by building new structures of knowledge that will have an impact on our behavior. Learning takes place inside a human mind.

Like constructivism was an anti-thesis of behaviorism, social constructivism is an anti-thesis of constructivism. According to social constructivism the most crucial aspect in learning is the social interaction that is always taking place in some linguistic and cultural context. People construct knowledge and meaning together — from the early days of children’s play to the last moment in a deathbed. The knowledge constructed as well as all the shared artifacts with shared meanings are all social products, products of the culture.

Often I see, especially in the English speaking world, that people consider constructivism to be the “core” and social constructivism to be some kind of a subclass and application of it. This is a misconception. From Vygotsky’s writings I have understood that his theory is from large part showing weaknesses in the constructivism. He is not really building on it, but rather aiming to do a paradigm shift.

When analyzing different learning tools, from OLPC-XO / Sugar to “Hole in the Wall”, different LMS, wikis (and marginal things like Fle3) we may see some learning theories behind them.

In the OLPC there is a lot of baggage from the constructivism (and Papert’s Constructionism), the Dynabook’s behaviorism and other R&D projects relying on the PC revolution. The Sugar has been fast to move to the direction of being more “social” and actually been very successful in it. On the other hand if the underlying theory would have been social constructivism the device and the software could look very different.

Hole in the Wall” is an interesting case. I highly appreciate the experiment and definitely one can see in it some connection to social constructivism. In the experiment children are teaching each other. On the other hand the result from the learning point of view are very weak and behavioral. In the documents and presentation I have seen, the main learning achievements have been ability to use computer. That is of course interesting and important, but if the learning is in the level of clicking and browsing internet it is not very impressive. It is simple behavior with very little knowledge constructed at all — whatever we consider it to be inside or outside a single human mind.

Many of the LMS are some kind of hybrids of tools that represent all different kind of theories of learning. The quizzes and multiple-choice test tools come somehow from behaviorism. Simulations come from constructivism and discussion forums from social constructivism. In most of the cases the implementation of all three theories in the tools have been miserable.

I think wikis and Fle3 are both, more or less, build on the theory of social constructivism.

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3 Responses to “Learning Theories and Learning Tool Design”

  1. David G says:

    Hi Teemu,
    Thanks for the non-idealistic presentation of learning metaphors; I agree different maps can work better in different terrains. I wonder why you didn’t include knowledge creation/trialogical learning? Seems like Bereiter would argue that it is different from social constructivism or at least that a 2-world conception of social constructivism would be different than a 3-world perspective.
    Thanks,
    David G

  2. Well, here’s my own idealistic perspective on it: Socially constructed media and communications

  3. Hi David and Leigh,

    David wrote: “I wonder why you didn’t include knowledge creation/trialogical learning? Seems like Bereiter would argue that it is different from social constructivism or at least that a 2-world conception of social constructivism would be different than a 3-world perspective.”

    I consider knowledge creation and trialogical learning to be adjustments of the social constructivism. I also have a problem with the trialogical learning (http://kplab.evtek.fi:8080/wiki/Wiki.jsp?page=TrialogicalLearning). I see in it a conceptual problem: dialogical (from Gk. dia=through, and logos=word, discourse, reason) already carries the idea what trialogical is trying to describe, although there are maybe other points that it is able to describes better than the “old” dialogical. Still, I would rather return the original meaning of “dialogical learning” and put more meanings on it, than introduce a new concept. My 10 cents.

    Leigh: is there explanation (maybe we should ask Roger Waters) why there is a grammatical error in the “”…We don’t need no education…”? I think we need “education” – probably more than ever before. I am writing about it in my next post and I think you’ll like it. This is a good introduction to the theme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYEWabQoloM&feature=related “hah, hah, your best friend” :-)

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