Learning Theory

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D, 3

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Author
Angela Usha Ramnarine-Rieks
Agreement Description

Learning theories are closely associated with motivation. The question that we wrestle with is not only how our library members seek information and learn, but also what motivates them to do so. Although there are a number of motivation theories discussed (for example, intrinsic– extrinsic orientation theorizes that some people create their own rewards, such as satisfaction of curiosity or simply interest in a given topic). This type of reward is intrinsic, which are satisfaction, feelings of accomplishment, and control. Rewards such as praise or a receipt of a prize are typically regarded as less effective than intrinsic rewards (Small et al., 2004).

Given the ubiquity of online content and the increasing number of entry points into the digital information “universe,” it has become necessary to move beyond existing models of librarianship and address the unanticipated issues that are emerging both inside the profession and within the members that the library serves. As noted earlier in the Atlas, our mission must accommodate learning theories and therefore individual learning. However, there is a pronounced absence in understanding learning in preparation as a librarian. Dempsey (2006)

noted that libraries must co-evolve with the changing research and learning behaviors that exist within the myriad electronically networked spaces. The problem is that, as librarians, we tend to focus on the impact of technology on libraries; the real long-term issue is how technology will influence the learning behavior of our members, as well as expectations for the ways in which information is created, codified, accessed, and distributed. By successfully establishing a role supporting learning, libraries will increase the potential of expanding their community.

Critical use of information resources is fundamental to education; therefore, we stress on members abilities to use libraries and information resources critically. With the new generation of computer- literate members and the vast amount of information available in both print and electronic formats, the necessity to develop the ability to use authoritative information resources in the library is paramount. Consequently, we find that academic libraries now assume a far greater role in assisting students to locate and evaluate information critically by teaching information literacy. As Kwon (2008) notes, there is immense emotional challenges that students—the Millennials or Generation Y who are considered to be competent and comfortable about their online-networked environment using blogs, Facebook, and integrated activity with technology every day—are uncomfortable, confused, and intimidated in an unfamiliar, huge academic library. However, I tend to agree with the musings of Weiler (2005) that academe, libraries, and indeed the entire world are currently in the middle of a massive and wide-ranging shift in the way knowledge is disseminated and learned. We cannot just blame it on technologies negatively impacting the development of students’ cognitive skills but recognize and embrace the change.

Recently, we have been seeing increasing research showing that games can provide a rich experience while providing the ability to navigate virtual worlds, in which complex decision making and the management of complex issues might resemble the cognitive processes that they would employ in the real world (Ducheneaut et al., 2006; Squire, 2005; Stokes, 2005). Games are engaging because they give us enjoyment and pleasure; give us intense and passionate involvement; give us structure; give us motivation; give us doing; give us flow; give us learning; give us ego gratification; give us adrenaline; they spark our creativity; give us social groups; and give us emotion (Prensky, 2001, p. 144). There are many studies on the use of games in educational activities, and they indicate that it has the potential to support learning. This will be covered in greater detail in the Atlas. However, there seems to be a limited understanding of how learning takes place and how that learning can inform the design of effective educational games and aid its integration into contemporary environments like libraries. There are many learning theories that can be used as underpinnings for exploration of libraries as facilitators of learning.

Overview of Learning Theories

Human learning and the importance of social structures has long intrigued scientists involved in the development of learning theory (e.g., Bandura & Walters, 1963; Durkheim, 1893/1984; Miller & Dollard, 1941; Tönnies, 1887/2001; Vygotsky, 1978; Weber, 1922/1978; Wellman & Berkowitz, 1988). As the understanding of human learning became more refined, theorists began to explore the impact of the social environment on an individual’s learning and development. At the time it was conducted, much of this research was rooted in the psychological school of thought that confers primacy to the learner’s mind. In essence, these psychological conceptions of learning focused on the premise that learning is an individual cognitive process (e.g., Pavlov, 1927; Piaget, 1954; Skinner, 1938; Thorndike, 1901; Wundt, 1897). This individual-centered perspective of learning persisted as the central dogma of learning theory well into the 20th century.

Social Interpretations to Learning

In the early part of the 20th century, an alternative interpretation of learning emerged; instead of considering learning as predominantly an individual psychological process, research supported the notion that learning happens within, and as a result of, social interactions. The idea of learning based on personal experiences is attributed to Dewey and Lindeman. Dewey’s (1916) contended that “the social environment is truly educative in the effects in the degree in which an individual shares or participates in some conjoint activity. By doing his share in the associated activity, the individual appropriates the purpose which actuates it, becomes familiar with its methods and subject matters, acquires needed skills, and is saturated with its emotional spirit” (p. 26). Similar to Dewey’s comments, Lindeman (1926/1961) proclaimed that “the resource of highest value in adult education is the learner’s experience,” and “if education is life, then life is also education” (p. 6). Likewise, he predicted “the approach to adult education will be via the route of situations, not subjects” (p. 6), and, finally, “experience is the adult learner’s living textbook” (p. 7).

This shift in the conceptual understanding of learning eventually paved the way for the development of a social learning theory (Bandura, 1977). Presently referred to as social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986), the emphasis of this learning paradigm is that most human learning is derived from social engagement and is therefore integral to the sociocultural context in which that learning transpires. In recent years, social cognitive theory has been extended and applied to a number of related disciplines, such as organizational research (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Senge, 1990), educational issues (Cunningham, 2000; Jarvis, 1987), and social anthropology (Lave, 1988; Suchman, 1987).

Sociocultural Model

As we see, novel ideas on learning began to gain momentum, and this subsequently ushered in new areas of research on human learning. Significant developments emphasized the importance of the external environment on one’s learning; namely, that learning is a dynamic interplay between one’s sociocultural setting and one’s psychological processes. Vygotsky and Bandura played seminal roles in the further development of this perspective of learning research. Russian theorist named Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1978) developed a sociocultural theory of learning that emphasized the role that social institutions and culture play in a child’s learning. Vygotsky’s sociocultural model of learning asserted that society and culture not only influence what an individual learns, but they also impact the patterns of thinking that govern the learning processes; in other words, the social environment impacts how a person learns.

Related and somewhat contemporaneous to Vygotsky’s work was the creation of social learning theory (SLT) by Bandura and his colleagues in the 1950s and 1960s. As an extension of the psychological theory of learning that focused primarily on the mind of a solitary learner, SLT (Bandura & Walters, 1963) broadens the psychological paradigm by taking into consideration the influence of other individuals, as well as the sociocultural context in which the process of learning transpires. Bandura (1977) emphasized that learning takes place in social settings where individuals learn through the processes of observation, imitation, and modeling. The work of these researchers substantiates the idea that learning is a dynamic phenomenon that involves the complex social arenas in which humans interact.

Situated Learning

Standing on the theoretical groundwork of Bandura, Vygotsky, and others (for example, see also Akers et al., 1979; Miller & Dollard, 1941; Piaget, 1969; Sears, 1951), Lave (1988) extended the work on SLT by advancing the notion that the majority of learning (cognition) is “situated” in the activity, context, and culture in which it occurs. Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) further developed this concept of “situated learning” by explaining that, “the activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed … is not separable from, or ancillary to, learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned” (p. 32).

Social anthropologists first connected the concepts of social cognition and practice by introducing the premise of “situated learning” (Hanks, 1991, p. 14). According to Lave (as cited in Wenger, 1998, p. 281), social practice is the means to understanding the complexity of human thought that is situated in real-life settings. Lave and Wenger (1991) explicated this connection by contending that “a person’s intentions to learn are engaged [situated], and the meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a sociocultural practice. This social process includes, indeed it subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills” (p. 29).

Over the years, this interpretation of practice has become more intertwined with SCT. Addressing this progression, Barton and Tusting (2005) explained that “practice has become more central as a concept, and there is a definite shift from a cognitive psychological framing to one which is more in tune with social anthropology” (p. 4). In short, practice is the convergence of social engagement and human thought; it serves as the cultural context underlying, as well as the outward manifestation of human cognition and learning. Lave and Wenger described situated learning as an active endeavor in which the interaction of a community of individuals generates, not only the fundamental content of what is learned, but also the context, culture, and activities that govern this learning process. This perspective on learning provides a number of opportunities for theorists to apply and expand the situated learning construct regardless of the environment.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation

Lave and Wenger (1991) extrapolated the situated learning theory to develop several corollaries. They broadened the theory through the conception of legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). They explain LLP as “to draw attention to the point that learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and that the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the socio-cultural practices of a community.” “Legitimate peripheral participation” provides a way to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-timers, and about activities, identities, artifacts, and communities of knowledge and practice (p. 29). In other words, LPP explains that as new members participate more fully in the sociocultural practices of a group, they go through, not so much an apprenticeship, but rather a process of social integration and enculturation. In explaining this concept further, Wenger (1998) pointed out that the term “legitimate” is used to establish an entryway for belonging that is extended to newcomers and also that the meaning of the term can take many forms, such as “being useful, being sponsored, being feared, being the right kind of person” (p. 101), and so forth. They used the term “peripheral” to address the fact that initially new members learn at the periphery of the community before gaining in competence and participating more richly in the group’s experience. According to Wenger (1998), members learn not so much from the acquisition of knowledge, but from the process of legitimate social participation. Thus, social dynamics and context are paramount to learning within the confines of a community.

Communities of Practice

Another extension of the situated learning paradigm is Lave and Wenger’s (1991) formulation of the community of practice (CoP) model. In an attempt to rectify further the relationship between social learning and practice, Lave and Wenger (1991) conceived the notion of CoP. There are many success stories of CoP in industry and business organizations. In advancing the CoP construct, Lave and Wenger (1991) conceptualized learning as a form of participation in a “culture of practice” (p. 95). That is, as individuals engage in life’s activities, they are learning in association with others engaged in common pursuits. Lave and Wenger (1991) pointed out that together the terms “community” and “practice” constitute a new concept that transcends the meaning of each of these terms considered in isolation. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) asserted that a CoP is a specific type of social structure with a specific purpose; that is, at its core a CoP is an action-oriented “knowledge structure” (p. 41). Since its conception, the CoP concept has been a consistent topic of interest. In general, a CoP can be defined as an association of individuals who share a common interest or concern that they collectively negotiate, learn about, and undertake.

Drawing on his work with Lave, Wenger (1998) contended that CoPs are formed by a group of action-oriented individuals who share a unified history, identity, and sense of purpose. Considering this description, CoPs can emerge in almost any setting in which common interests or concerns exist. Accordingly, CoPs can function within, or be applied to, a vast number of contexts, even libraries. In fact, Wenger (1998) made explicit the ubiquity of CoPs by pointing out that everyone belongs to at least several CoPs, and that they (CoPs) are widely distributed. Furthermore, some CoPs are transitory and ephemeral, whereas others are permanent and fixed. Wenger (1998), and later supported by Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002), state that these informal associations of people (CoPs) have existed since the dawn of humankind, and, furthermore, that these enterprises are so pervasive that sometimes the very group that created them hardly notices them.

Facilitating Collaborative Learning

As early as 1977, Dervin stated that the core standards and practices of the library profession need to move toward a new model that will help librarians facilitate interactions among individuals, groups, and “information through more informed perspective.” Libraries typically still tend to locate users at the end of their process flow, where they are offered carefully mediated information given to them by professionals well versed in identifying “authoritative sources.” In keeping with Dervin observations, the notion of carefully parsing out authoritative information to “end users” needs to be overturned in such a way that the primary focus of library professionals is directed toward the users themselves as the source of problem contexts that can then be addressed by the reappropriation of existing resources to meet a specific emergent need. In the same manner in which individual-centered perspective of learning persisted, libraries need to address the individualist focus that currently exists in the library environment. Buschman (2003) notes that customer-driven librarianship presents information as a commodity and “abandons the notion of the library as a sharer of information and a place of creativity . . . where information’s value does not erode because it is shared, and in fact, can sometimes increase in value” (p. 120). The concept of library member as customer privileges the individual over the social and undermines our role in sustaining and enhancing the democratic public sphere. A common thread that unites these observations challenges the individualist model and more effectively theorizes, supports, and assesses the social aspects of librarianship. Providing physical spaces where people can do collaborative work is but just a first step toward a new future for libraries.

Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences

One can argue that the individual cognitive process is important, and collaborative structures should not ignore these important theories. I agree that the concept that conceives of knowledge as individual mental states is important, but is that the end of the learning facilitation? As highlighted by Hjørland (2004), the “individual’s knowledge structure” is not the starting point, but instead we also need to “look at knowledge domains, disciplines, or other collective knowledge structures.” Therefore, individualistic perspectives such as learning styles and multiple intelligences should not be tossed out of the mix but incorporated.

Consider this: Would you say that you learn better by visually seeing something, by hearing, or by acting out the information you receive? Everyone has different learning styles and learns by a combination of ways, but one type is usually dominant in each individual. The concept of people having different learning styles was initiated in 1921 by the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who proposed the theory of different “personality types.” This theory was expanded to education by determining that these individual personality types have varying ways of learning. Gardner (1993) developed the theory of multiple intelligences. His work is closely related to Jung theory but more specifically addresses intelligence rather than personality. He identifies seven intelligences: verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, visual–spatial, body–kinesthetic, musical–rhythmic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. And there are more that he did not identify. Interestingly enough, traditional education emphasizes only two of these areas: verbal–linguistic and logical–mathematical. Educators have recognized that only a small percentage of the general population prefers to learn by reading. These discoveries have helped tremendously in establishing continued interest in active learning techniques that attempt to capture the learning abilities of students relying on other intelligences.

While learning styles and intelligences affirm the need for instructors and training to recognize the importance of individual learning differences and to use methods that help create a climate that increases the potential learning for all trainees, human concepts and human knowledge are a result of human cooperation and communication. Hjørland (1997) sees that individual knowledge structures can only be understood based on a group-oriented analysis of language users (p.122). As Epperson (2006) noted, librarianship must negotiate a delicate, dynamic balance. He noted that, on the one hand, dialogic education is predicated on an understanding of, and engagement with, the learner’s social context, needs, interests, and capabilities. On the other hand, education and, by extension, librarianship cannot be bound or limited by the marketplace expectations of the learner or member.

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