After over 40 years in second level education and adult education, the majority in adult education, I have come to the conclusion that the theories of human learning have come to a dead end some time ago.
Behaviourism: always had a problem with this school, but I respect Skinner’s Programmed Learning, which is, arguably, the basis of elearning design. Over the last 20 years, behaviourism has crystallised for me the difference between “learning” and “training.” More about this below.
Cognitivism: Essentially, this is the information processing model, or the “brain as computer” model. This model has become reified and for some an article of faith in the scientific canon. The desire to understand human learning from a scientific perspective, using scientific methods has lead to a cul-de-sac in the thinking about human learning. The holy grail of universal laws of learning must be just around the corner now that we have MRI scans to work with. This reductionist/positive approach leads to what was once known as atomism where any understanding is best illustrated by Vaucanson duck ( or “The Wonders in your Head,” which is propagated as an infographic ( You get silly things like “learning styles” from this kind of thinking. Being able to calculate does not mean that you are calculating machine, it does not mean that you continually process information in your average-everydayness activities.
Constructivism: This is more of a philosophical perspective and in some respects an effort to challenge the received discourse of cognitivism/behaviourism. It also seems to have a very broad net to corral a lot of diverse thinkers. Its problem is that it is judged against the reductionist perspective because it borrows some of the discourse of the scientific viewpoint, particularly epistemology, and the notion of “schemes” falls into the trap of reification. But there are some elements that one can work with.If the information processing model is correct, that there must be some sort of universal algorithm in the brain to be discovered, then it ought to explain religion, politics, love, hate, etc. It can never hope to do that. Such entities have a profound effect on human learning. Aristotle was wrong when he said that “man is a rational animal.” Man is an irrational animal by default, but capable of rational thought. It is this capability that leads us to believe that we are fundamentally a calculating, information processing biological machine. But then how do you explain Las Vagas, the stock market, and the Vatican?Having read Heidegger for over 30 years (it can take that long) I am convinced that we are primarily an interpretive animal, that we do not engage in calculative thinking in our average everydayness, including driving cars, getting on and off the “streetcar” as Dewey said. You don’t walk into a classroom and calculate its surroundings, its furniture, etc. That the brain is not the mind, that the Cartesian dualism screws up the thinking about human learning; that the 50+ theories offer nothing more to advance our understanding of human learning, that they have reached a full stop. Such theories were trying to explain the Mona Lisa as a series of different pigments in paint.Lastly, the flexibility of the English language is a problem. It accommodates synonyms that make the conversation confusing. For example, it is not unusual to find terms like “information” and “knowledge” interchangeable; “training” and “learning” is another. If we were to separate them, then information is public, like in text, pictures, audio, etc.. while knowledge is private and unknowable, even to the knower, as Polanyi said that “we know more than we can tell.” (Try interrogating a Subject Matter Expert (SME)). “Training” is for conformity, which is what goes on in education where thinking is limited to exams and to what is being taught. On the other hand, “learning” is subversive where thinking challenges what is being taught, challenges the curriculum and engaging in one on the latest memes “critical thinking.” All education is political.Just a thought