Learning is a personal endeavor. Each of us can probably articulate a set of conditions that are optimal for us to engage in learning. For example, I prefer complete quiet in a well-lit room with a large clean desk on which to spread out papers and view my computer monitors. My daughter is similar to me, although she insists she can listen to music while studying. She cannot. My wife and son, on the other hand, seem to study best in a chaotic environment. When they are engaged in learning something new, they often will have the television on (my wife a drama; my son a sporting event). Both will have their phones nearby keeping an eye on texts and social media. My wife might even take an occasional break to work on a Sudoku puzzle. I detail all of this because it demonstrates how different we all are when it comes to learning.
When analyzed independently, I see the plausibility in each of the major learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. I don’t think it can be proven that one is right and the others wrong. Each has elements of truth, and surely reflect the way human beings learn. Perhaps it depends on the type of learning that the learner is engaged in that explains how that person is best able to accomplish the learning.
For example, a behavioral approach might best explain the learning processes that require muscle memory such as welding a circular pipe. Behaviorism emphasizes that learning happens best by doing. Repetition and practice are necessary for learning to take root. Also, with behaviorism, reinforcement is a strong motivator (successfully welding the pipe that holds is a positive reinforcer while a weld that breaks being a negative reinforcer). Behaviorism also holds that the potential for learning is greater when the objectives are clear. On the surface, all of these attributes sound like reasonable approaches to successful learning. It also sounds very similar to the way many schools operate today. I know that one of the first things an appraiser looked for upon entering my classroom to conduct an observation was whether or not I had the lesson’s objective printed clearly on the board.
With its focus on how individuals come to know something, Cognitivism is an attractive learning theory for several reasons, too. First, there is an emphasis on well-organized and clearly structured instruction. Cognitivism takes into account the learner’s prior knowledge and the fact that each learner brings a different perception of the environment to the act of learning.
Constructivism departs from behaviorism and cognitivism in a major way: whereas behaviorism and cognitivism are objectivistic, meaning that the world is real and external to the learner. The goal of instruction in these two theories is to “map the structure of the world onto the learner. Whereas Constructivists believe that knowledge “is a function of how the individual creates meaning from his or her own experiences.” The Constructivist does not deny the real world, but rather claims that it’s the learner’s perception of the world that activates learning. So, to take the falling tree in the forest adage, the behaviorist and cognitivist would say it makes a sound. The Constructivist does not deny that the falling tree makes a sound, but the important thing is the sound it makes to the lumberjack.
As I stated in the beginning, learning is a personal endeavor. This doesn’t apply only to the external conditions we learn best in, but it also applies to our individual perceptions of the world and how new experiences jive with the prior knowledge we have. While I can relate to aspects of each learning theory, the importance of the individual’s mind working in concert with the external world to create meaning resonates most with me; therefore, I consider myself a constructivist.