Although the process of learning is generally complex it is not entirely unpredictable, and its genuine importance to human culture and the advancement of technology and life makes it a most worthy subject of study. This pursuit has been approached from a variety of perspectives, the five most prominent being (a) behavioral (accepting only observable performance as evidence of learning), (b) cognitive (with a focus on memory structures and mental processes), (c) constructive (emphasizing self-constructed mental representation and discovery), (d) human (recognizing the learner as a whole person and independent agent), and (e) social (acknowledging the learner as a member of society and the social influence on individual learning). From these various approaches to the study of learning have emerged a great many theories attempting to explain how learning occurs. And yet, from among all these, there does not seem to be even one that is both broad enough to account for all types of learning, and yet specific enough to be maximally useful in practical application. Perhaps this dichotomy is the reason for the apparent gap between existing theories of learning and the practice of instructional design. The example of a shift toward principles in the fields of clinical psychology and language teaching, and the work by David Merrill to identify and validate first principles of instruction, has inspired in me an alternative way of thinking about learning theory that might help to close this gap.
Accomplishments of the Present Study
In the present study, the need for a principle-based approach to learning theory has been articulated. More than thirty five prominent theories of learning from the behavioral, cognitive, constructive, human, and social traditions were subjected to a textual review and constant comparative analysis in search of common themes that represent universal and fundamental principles of learning. These two criteria were used as the methodological lens to identify specific instances—local to each learning theory reviewed—of more general principles of learning. Ten themes were identified: (a) repetition, (b) time, (c) step size, (d) sequence, (e) contrast, (f) significance, (g) feedback, (h) context, (i) engagement, and (j) agency. Can it be said conclusively that these principles are universal and fundamental? Any unbending and absolute claim is not warranted from the evidence reviewed. However, assuming the reader is willing to accept the unavoidably subjective analysis and interpretative nature of the present study, one fact is certain: the principles identified are present in various forms in multiple theories of learning, spanning more than a century of time. Several hundred quotations from the original sources of literature in which the reviewed theories are presented have been selected, categorized and documented to provide an audit trail of supporting evidence for the themes identified. They are available by request to anyone who wishes to draw their own conclusion. In my own evaluation thus far, by way of thought experiment and comparison of the model against observed events in real-world learning, the principles do appear to be both universal and fundamental, as long as one considers not only the isolated moment of learning observed or experienced, but also all that has been learned or experienced prior to that moment.
All items of evidence supporting the results presented in chapter four are linked to specific quotes accompanied by reference citations that direct the reader to the very page of the source from which they are taken, thus providing a means for an in-context evaluation of the original intent and meaning of each quote. No pretense is made that my own interpretation should be unanimously or blindly accepted, and no attempt is made to obscure the trail that I have walked. In fact, on the contrary, I have gone to great lengths of time and effort to illuminate it and provide a roadmap. Perhaps of greater importance though, is the intent of the present study. My goal is not to summatively conclude the final chapter of the history of learning theory, but rather to write a preface for its continued advancement. In fulfillment of this goal, and as a further contribution, I have attempted to organize the principles identified into a practically useful tool by setting them into a conceptual framework of learning that is defined by the ten principles identified in chapter four that facilitate learning, plus four additional principles of my own introduction: (a) one that states the possibility of progression (potential), (b) one that accounts for orientation of learning toward a specific goal (target), (c) and two structural principles (change and practice) that provide organization for some of the facilitative principles. This principles-of-learning framework highlights important relationships between the principles and constitutes a practically useful tool for (a) communicating about the learning process, (b) evaluating instructional products and methods, (c) diagnosing very specifically why a particular product or method fails to result in effective or efficient learning, (d) developing effective instructional products and methods, and (e) conducting research to investigate meaningful hypotheses suggested by the framework. Additionally, it has been explained how the principles-of-learning framework might be used in the creation of domain-specific theories of learning, and suggested that this might be its most valuable application of all.
Limitations of the Present Study
Like any research endeavor, especially those in the social sciences, this study is not without its limitations. On one hand, it stands susceptible to the risk of being dismissed for lack of novelty or mystery. As Anita Woolfolk (2010) observed, “In many cases, the principles set forth by educational psychologists—after spending much thought, time, and money—sound pathetically obvious. People are tempted to say, and usually do say, ‘Everyone knows that!'” (p. 10). However, Lily Wong (1987, as cited in Woolfolk, 2010) “demonstrated that just seeing research results in writing can make them seem obvious” (p. 11). Perhaps this is the very reason for which many of the principles identified in the present study are so often overlooked in the design and development of instructional products and methods, and in the practice of teaching. What really matters, of course, “is not what sounds sensible, but what is demonstrated when the principle is put to the test in research” (Gage, 1991, as cited on p. 12).
On the other hand, the nature of the present study is such that its results do not fall in the realm of empirically provable, undeniable fact, and thus it may be preemptively dismissed by those who prefer to consume only the tested-and-tried, shrink-wrapped, microwaveable, ready-to-eat products of waterfall science, rather than to participate in the process themselves and make a study of their own. With results such as those herein presented, and the proposed framework of principles of learning, I believe it is more fruitful and productive to play at the believing game, rather than the doubting game. “In the believing game we return to Tertullian’s original formulation: credo ut intelligam: I believe in order to understand. We are trying to find not errors but truths, and for this it helps to believe….To do this requires great energy, attention, and even a kind of inner commitment” (Elbow, 1998, p. 149). The results have not been proven, but a logical argument has been made, evidence has been cited in favor of the existence of ten universal and fundamental principles that facilitate learning, and those principles have been organized into a conceptual framework of learning with might now be tested, in whole, or in part, to see whether or not it is of worth.
Perhaps a more obvious limitation of the present study, however, is both the number of theories and the number of sources of literature that I could feasibly review within the limits of time and space available. As I expressed in chapter two, in my review of both printed and digital libraries, it had become apparent early on in my study that a man could quite literally spend his entire life reading, at his swiftest pace, never visiting the same lines of text twice, never stopping to rest, never stopping to eat, and never stopping to sleep, and still he could not possibly review all that has been written which bears interest on the subject of learning. I found this to be increasingly true as the study progressed. It was a constant challenge requiring a very disciplined effort to be judicial in the selection of what would and would not be included in my review. Though I covered as many theories as possible—and selected them based on pre-established criteria of clarity, stability, utility, impact, and durability—the number of theories not reviewed far outweighs the number that were.
Another limitation is the state of validity of the framework of principles of learning presented in chapter five. The framework itself is intentionally broad, so as to represent the complete process of learning. I have organized the principles identified in the present study and supplemented them with four additional principles to create a framework that I believe will be useful in many ways. The organization presented, and the relationships between the principles that have been described is the result of many iterations of stating, testing, and revising the principles and their relationships. In each iteration I checked the usefulness, accuracy, and clarity of the framework against test cases in the literature and test cases in my own experience as a learner and teacher, both reflecting on my own learning and observing the experiences of peers and students.
I have informally validated the framework many times using a range of different types of learning, several of which I subjected myself to for this very purpose. The types of experiences used for informal validation include, but are not limited to: learning to play a difficult song on the piano, composing original music on the acoustic guitar, and learning to play an electric lead guitar solo; learning a foreign language to the point of intermediate fluency, acquiring foreign language vocabulary, mastering difficult pronunciation of foreign language sounds, and learning to perform tasks in a foreign language such as selling English pronunciation classes from a cultural arts festival booth; skiing, kiteboarding, men’s gymnastics, and Latin fitness dancing; breaking old habits and establishing new ones; learning to brush my teeth with my left hand; electrical wiring, finish carpentry, and interior painting; gardening; professional photography; the buying, selling, and marketing of real estate; conducting due diligence in precious mineral investments; coordinating investment in joint-venture development projects; producing technical specifications for the design of software programs; conducting onsite customer training and managing technical support for pre- and post-sales activity in a high tech company; developing a deeper sense of gratitude; learning to respond with greater patience when treated unkindly by others; strengthening self-control and will power to deny physical appetite; and learning to walk and use my hands without feeling and very limited strength following an acute attack of inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (Guillain-Barre) . However, in spite of this fairly extensive informal validation of the framework against test cases in literature and personal experience, I believe the principles-of-learning framework is not in a state of polish, but rather, just good enough to warrant testing and use on a larger scale and by a larger audience. As Heider said,
We could go about this in the Baconian way, that is, by seeking further empirical and experimental facts. We side, however, with those who think that we shall not attain a conceptual framework by collecting more experimental results. Rather, conceptual clarification is a prerequisite for efficient experimentation. (Heider, 1958, p. 4)
Finally, as has already been acknowledged elsewhere in this report, the conclusions drawn from this study are based on my own subjective interpretation of the theories reviewed. Due to the volume of literature covered my reviews cannot possibly be considered comprehensive in either breadth and depth. I have tried to select a divers set of theories that would lend multi-dimensional perspective to the process of learning. I have tried to go deep enough with each to capture the major themes, and even some of the more important subtle ones. I have tried to not misrepresent the position of the theorists in any way. However, this report cannot be considered a replacement for the body of literature that has been reviewed. Through the experience of my own study I have developed a great respect for those who have dedicated several years of their lives to the study of only one or two of the theories that have been reviewed in the present study over the course of only a few years. A great deal has been written on the process of learning. Many times during the course of this study I have had to very consciously fight the desire to read more, and to read more deeply, instead focusing my attention on those theories and sources of literature would be of greatest value. I have learned for myself that there are many valuable insights from learning theorists throughout recorded history—including a vast wealth of knowledge that has been produced in the past 125 years alone—that have been lost to the overwhelming majoring of present generation practitioners and, like gems in the earth, await rediscovery.
Directions for Future Application and Research
It has often been observed that a weakness in one situation can sometimes be a strength in another. Such is the case with the present study. While on the one hand the validity and usefulness of the principles-of-learning framework remains to be demonstrated, on the other hand, this provides a great many opportunities for applied research. For example, any one of the principles in the framework might be singled out and studied in isolation to better understand its dimensionality and effects—i.e., its various manifestations, characteristics, or forms and the individual role it plays in the facilitation of learning. Groups of principles might also be studied together, to examine their combined effects and the interrelations between them. And, of course, the framework can also be applied and studied as a whole, examining its usefulness for evaluation, diagnosis, and development activities. Of greatest interest to me, is the application of the principles-of-learning framework to create a variety of domain-specific theories of learning. This activity, I believe, will drive the model to maturation more quickly than any other, and is the initial direction for my own continued research.
A Note Regarding Quotes
The narrative of this dissertation is woven using many direct quotations from the theories reviewed. In fact, the use of quotes is extensive. I would like to say a word about this approach that I have taken. There are three important reasons for which I opted to use direct quotations rather than my own restatements or summaries. First, they provide a more direct grounding of the study to the context of existing theory. Second, direct quotes with page-specific references enable others to retrace and re-evaluate the study and its conclusions. Third, I felt that direct quotes would convey not only the meaning of the ideas but also their intent, by including both the style and manner in which they were originally articulated. I would ask the reader to take note , however, that my goal was not to create a patchwork theory of quotations, but to provide contextualized, specific examples, and to acknowledge the source from which the themes of the present study have been distilled. The unpublished words of Vygotsky reflect my own sentiment regarding the importance of applying oneself in a most individual and original way to provide a contribution to our understanding of learning. He said,
I don’t want to discover the nature of the mind by patching together a lot of quotations. I want to find out how science has to be built….In order to create such an enabling theory-method in the generally accepted scientific manner, it is necessary to discover the essence of the given area of phenomena, the laws according to which they change, their qualitative and quantitative characteristics, their causes. It is necessary to formulate the categories and concepts that are specifically relevant to them—in other words, to create one’s own Capital…[from unpublished notebooks]. (Cole & Scribner, 1978, p. 8)
It is my hope that what has been presented in this dissertation, especially the content of chapters four and five fits the bill of providing some real Capital to work with. Capital in the form of a foundation, which suggests central questions to focus subsequent efforts that will improve our understanding of learning and how it might be facilitated.
For the most part, the originators of the theoretical ideas which have been reviewed, have passed from this world and left only their legacy behind. On behalf of those whose bones lie in dusty coffins, unable to speak for themselves as to the accuracy of my interpretation of their ideas, let me be the first to suggest the possibility of great error in the same. However, in truth, my interpretations are of little consequence, for it is in the application of the principles-of-learning framework herein presented that its fruitful or barren nature may be proven. In the words of Edwin R. Guthrie (1960), “Theories are not true or false. They are useful or less useful” (p. x). Regardless of their root, and the soil in which they are planted, all ideas, in the end, must stand on their own. Ad vitam aut culpam.