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Language Learning Theories

Language Learning Theories


The modern psychological study of learning can be dated from the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909), whose well-known study of memory was published in 1885. Other early studies of learning were by Edward L. Thorndike (1874–1949), whose dissertation on problem solving was published in 1898, and Ivan Pavlov (1849– 1936), whose research on classical conditioning was begun in 1899 but first published in English in 1927. These theories focused on explaining the behavior of individuals and became known as behavioral theories. These theories use a stimulus-response framework to explain learning and dominated psychology and education for over half a century. Because behavioral theories focus on environmental factors such as reinforcement, feedback, and practice, they conceptualize learning as something that occurs from the outside in.

Behavioral theories provide very good explanations for certain kinds of learning but poor explanations for other types of learning. Operant conditioning, for example, is better than other theories at explaining the rote acquisition of information, the learning of physical and mental skills, and the development of behaviors conducive to a productive classroom (i.e., classroom management). In these situations, the focus is on performing behavioral tasks rather than developing a learner’s cognitive structure or understanding. Although classical conditioning frequently is dismissed as irrelevant to human learning (Pavlov’s initial research paradigm involved dogs salivating), this type of learning provides by far the best explanation of how and why people, including students, respond emotionally to a wide variety of stimuli and situations. The many types of emotional reactions acquired through classical conditioning include: anger toward or hatred for a particular person or group, phobias to a particular subject area or to school itself, and infatuation with another person. However, they are very poor at explaining how individuals come to understand complex ideas and phenomena.

But environmental factors are not the only ones that influence learning. Serious consideration of other perspectives began to enter mainstream psychological thinking about learning during the 1960s. For example, people clearly learn by observing others, and a learner’s belief about his or her ability to perform a task (i.e., self-efficacy) plays an important role in their learning. In 1963 Albert Bandura and R. H. Walters published the first formal statement of social-learning theory in their book, Social Learning and Personality Development. Social-learning theory has clear roots in behavioral theory but differs from these theories in significant ways. During the 1980s the theory became known as social-cognitive theory. Although essentially the same theory, the new name more accurately reflects the cognitive features of the theory and aids in differentiating it from behavioral theories of learning.

During the 1970s and 1980s conceptions and definitions of learning began to change dramatically. Behavioral theories gave way to cognitive theories that focused on mental activities and the understanding of complex material. An information-processing metaphor replaced the stimulus-response framework of behavioral theories. These theories emphasized that learning occurred from the inside out rather than from the outside in. During the late 1970s John Flavell and Ann Brown each began to study metacognition—the learners’ awareness of their own learning, an ability to reflect on their own thinking, and the capacity to monitor and manage their learning. During the mid 1980s the study of self-regulated learning began to emerge (see Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001).

Then, especially during the later 1980s and the 1990s, these cognitive theories were challenged by theories that emphasized the importance of social interactions and the sociocultural context of learning. The work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) first became available in North America and along with the work of anthropologists such as Jean Lave began to have a major influence on theories of learning. Individuals were seen as initially participating in peripheral activities of a group (known as legitimate peripheral participation)before becoming fully integrated into group activities. Apprenticeship became a metaphor for the way people learn in natural settings. The notion that people learn by observing others, first articulated in social-cognitive theory, was expanded in a new context.

Traditionally, learning has been viewed as something that occurs within an individual. Individuals may participate and learn in groups, but it is the individual person that learns. With few exceptions, the educational systems in Europe and North America have adopted this perspective, if not entirely with regard to instructional practices, certainly in the evaluation of student performance and the assignment of grades. Many psychologists and educators currently consider learning to be a phenomenon that is distributed among several individuals and/or environmental affordances (such as calculators, computers, and textbooks) or situated (existing or occurring) within a “community of practice” (or community of learners). Both a social and a material dimension are involved in this distribution (Pea, 1993). For example, a student may use a calculator to help learn how to solve a three-digit multiplication problem (the material dimension) and/or work with another student to understand the proper procedures to follow (the social dimension). In either case, the student is not learning totally on his or her own but is taking advantages of resources (affordances) available in the environment. If the student is not able to solve a subsequent problem without the aid of the calculator or another student, then it is possible to see the distributed nature of learning. In such situations, participation or activity rather than acquisition becomes the defining metaphor (Greeno, 2006).

The evolution from behavioral to social to distributed to situated theories of learning was accompanied by new conceptions of knowledge (for a good discussion of these changes, see Schraw, 2006). Traditional theories conceive of knowledge as a commodity capable of being transmitted, more or less intact, from one individual to another. According to these theories, knowledge is something an individual acquires; when a student successfully learns it, he or she can reproduce the knowledge in its original form. In contrast, more recent theories conceive of knowledge as something each learner constructs or creates afresh rather than something that is assimilated in its preexisting form. According to current theories, truly “objective” knowledge does not exist, although something similar exists in the form of collective knowledge within a particular culture or discipline. Knowledge resides in the community of learners (individuals) that creates it and is distributed among members of the community and the various environmental affordances available to the group. Because each person constructs his or her own understandings, the knowledge they acquire is unique. Communities and cultures are composed of individuals with common understandings, and these groups provide opportunities for new members (e.g., children) to construct similar knowledge of the world through schools and/or a variety of informal activities.

The 1990s were dubbed “The Decade of the Brain,” and huge advances were made in neuroscience and how the brain relates to human behavior and learning. The study of how the brain relates to learning is in its infancy (for an introduction to some of the issue, see Bransford et al., 2006). An understanding of how the neurophysiology of the brain affects learning and cognition will add greatly to our understanding of human learning and have a large influence on future theories of learning. Nevertheless, a psychological component to these theories will remain critical for learning in educational settings. Education as it is presently understood is based on psychological processes and interactions capable of being influenced by instruction, and it seems likely that psychological interventions will continue to be important for the foreseeable future.




  1. Frank says:

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