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The first question in learning theory is ‘what is learning?’ What is learning and how do we know when it has taken place?

Instructivism is embodied in the Victorian classroom. Imagine rows of desks with a teacher at the front. Knowledge in this classroom means facts and processes. The teacher knows the facts and their job is to get that information into their students heads. Students are empty vessels to be filled. We know if they’ve learned them successful by seeing how many facts they can recall and how many problems that can solve correctly using the processes they’ve been taught.

Behaviourism is a way to get someone to undertake desired actions when they get the right prompt. The most famous example of behaviourism is Pavlov, who conditioned dogs to salivate by ringing a bell whenever they were fed. That’s a very simple form of a conditioned reflex, but there are more advanced examples. If a patient’s heart stops beating a trained medical professional reacts immediately – a pre-programmed response kicks in and enables a rapid, lifesaving response.

More recently, cognitive science has used our better understanding of the brain and how people in different cultures behave, to develop a theory based on mental representations – where we have knowledge structures which are based on our beliefs, the facts, processes and models of understanding. 

Constructivism is the theory that we build these knowledge structures from our experiences, when we think about our experiences, we adapt our knowledge structures to include these new experiences and so learning happens when our mental frameworks are changed. The richer our physical experiences, the more that we will learn from them. This is often known as Piagetian constructivism, after the theorist Piaget who is most associated with it. Learning happens within the individual’s brain.

Social contructivism on the other hand sees learning as a social and cultural activity. The learning environment, the people, the resources, the culture in which learning takes place, all contributes to what is learned. This means dealing with the learners prior knowledge – which may include misconceptions, and situating learning within a community. Learning, in social constructivism, has taken place when the learner can use it independently in the real world. A language student has learned French when they can identify that it is appropriate to speak to a person in French, and they can understand the response. 

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