Thursday, 26 April 2018

Learning Theory Pt 1: What is a 'learning theory'?

(This page is part of the EBTN 'Theory of Learning' project. 
Please help us develop by commenting at the bottom of the page.)

What is a 'learning theory'?

1  What is a theory?

1.1 A theory is:

  • a set of statements which helps explain a wide range of observations
  • an observation of the patterns in the evidence
  • a generalization of observations.
  • a useful model of the reality

1.2 To be useful it must:

  • be self-consistent
  • explain most observations
  • make predictions which can be tested 
  • not be disproved by evidence

2 What is a 'learning theory'?

It is a theory which explains the learning process.  A model of the learning process.
To be useful it would need to:
  • be self-consistent
  • explain observations made by teachers, classroom and cognitive science experiments 
  • make testable predictions about teaching methods which should improve learning 
  • have little evidence which contradicts the theory

2.1 Theories develop over time

We can never say that a theory is certain - it is always just the best explanation we have at present. If experiments based on the predictions of the theory show that the prediction was wrong, the theory may need to be revised.

2.2  Can a learning theory make definite predictions?

Theories in physics and chemistry can make predictions which are always right or wrong.  Teaching is more a biological or social science.  Individual differences mean that predictions about individuals are not possible.  However, we can say that 'on average', such-and-such a method will be more effective.
Teachers will need to use their professional judgement to assess whether a method is working with them, their students, their subject.

2.3  Can learning theory tell us how to teach?

The learning theory is only part of the story.  We could say that the theory is the 'science of learning which supports the art of teaching'.

Next: Pt 2  Why have a learning theory?


  1. 2.3 I agree that theory is best represented as the "science of learning which supports the art of teaching" and would prefer it to be expressed :learning sciences which support/inform effective teaching and learning"
    I do not think it is accurate to think of teaching as "the art of teaching".

    1. Is teaching an art, a science or a craft? I quite like this:

  2. 2. I am enthused by the latest theories relating to learning. However, I do feel that there are many obstacles to implementing such research within a School environment.
    The attitude of the Headteacher, the pressure on the timetable and delivery of an ever changing GCSE and A Level syllabus, lack of resources, Teacher workload - all serve to stifle innovation and creativity, which is what Teaching is crying out for!

    2.3 I have always regarded Teaching as an art. The sage on the stage! Much of a Teacher’s success depends upon the personality of the Teacher - the ability to engage with their pupils!

    1. Agree with Nigel - there is learning theory and there are theories of teaching within various levels of rigid parameters superimposed by administrations who too often disregard how the process fits the structure.

  3. 1.1 I would like to add something to the effect that a theory is 'An inference to best explanation', as this seems to represent the current thinking in science. (see 2.1)
    1.2 Theories must be self consistent.

    1. Do you not think your 1.1 is already covered?
      I have added something about self-consistent as we currently have a range of non-self-consistent theories and a shared theory would need to be self-consistent!

  4. I agree that learning theory is the science of learning that supports the art of teaching.

  5. I've always considered teaching to be an art and would now probably say that it is an art based on science. We can't ignore what we're learning about the brain, but equally we can't assume that this knowledge will lead us to a theory of learning that applies to all.

    1. The theory should apply to all, but, as in medicine, the teaching methods used with individuals may need to vary.
      Are you happy with 2.2 which covers this?

    2. Brain pathways are made more viable with rehearsal yet the enticements are not universal to ensure novelty and inventiveness for survival of the species. There is learning and there is teaching - not the same process; the teacher is in a state of constant awareness and reflection, besides knowing the subject or information, the teacher must know the student and be willing and able to access multiple approaches to convey information and encourage expression of understanding for the assessment of learning.

  6. In 1.2 it is stated that a theory , not disproved by evidence. According to science truth is not permanent. And what we may regard as truth now will be challenged by new evidence. Allowing us to get closer to the truth. This is how knowledge develops.

    1. Do you think that this point is sufficiently made in 2.1?

  7. There is much debate surrounding the different learning theories that already exist and the process of learning. It maybe regarded that it is the environment in which a person is, is the initial cause and influence of learning. Which in turn influences learning due to the context in which learning took place. And must then be replicated in order for learning to be tested. I can direct you in the direction of other learning theories but my point is using the term learning theory is it the most appropriate as there is so many out there? If you are delving into the world of cognition theories, which is a complex field, can you actually create one size fits all that all teachers will truly understand and can engage withwith?

  8. Using the term 'Learning Theory' is, I agree,a bold step. However, The central point of this project is the assertion that there is now a single theory (with sub-sections, perhaps) which explains the learning process and the evidence about what works and what does not.
    I think the criticism of 'one size fits all' can be applied to teaching methods or courses, but not the theory itself.
    For example: the theory will show the central place of prior knowledge in determining what should be taught to a particular pupil - so it's one theory, but many outcomes.

  9. I agree with much of what is written here. However, I also take Jacqui’s point about the idea of a one size fits all theory. Intended or not, learning in the classroom is not always the same as learning that takes place outside the classroom. I think the challenge is going to be to create a theory that is broad enough to explain ‘learning’, while still being specific enough to be useful. As this is a Theory of Learning for the education profession, it could be argued that we have already narrowed its scope. Many teachers employ aspects of inquiry, discovery-based, game-based, or self-directed learning (with varying degrees of success) and I think a good theory of learning will seek to explain why or how these practices, in addition to more teacher-directed methods, are sometimes, but not always, effective. I also think a good learning theory will define what constitutes learning.

  10. Part 1

    In relation to the discussion around the art and science of teaching – teaching and learning are symbiotic – they cannot exist independent of one another. Both are creative processes in which elements of science and art are used (generally intuitively) and the end result is learning. Further to this is the fact that teaching and learning is relational – as the teacher and learner engage in the meaning making process they learn about each other and the more they learn about each other the more they are able to co-construct meaning.

    Part 2

    1.1: anything goes – no – there needs to be a cohesive theory which enable for professional coherence. I work in international schools where I battle what we call the suitcase curriculum – if we had a widely accepted ‘learning theory’ then the way in which this is discussed bring it back to learning. Having a clear learning theory moves away from the anything goes – my favorite tricks position.

    1.2 Giving government power – having a cohesive theory gives us a common language

    3. Would a theory empower or disempower teachers – creating a common language would empower teachers as it would bring all to the same table to explore and understand learning. Even if the discussion is around agreeing or disagreeing with the theory.

  11. Too many teachers still talk to the children instead of providing investigative opportunities. I disagree with this. Investigative work is not always appropriate, teachers need to be sources of knowledge, not the only one of course.

  12. Whilst this has its place, there needs to be a mixture of both with good opportunitiesfor students/pupils to apply what they have been told.

  13. I definitely agree that teaching is part art. I believe that it is a performance that can be improved with deliberate practice.
    In regard to having a theory of learning, a lot more people (including heads, senior leaders and teacher educators) need to be aware of what is already well tested.
    Harrington stated that, "If you can't understand it, you can't control it. If you can't control it, you can't improve it."
    If we can all gain a little more understanding by having a shared theory of learning, then we can go a good way towards improving teaching and learning.
    by Dave Ruddle

  14. This seems like a good project so far, and has triggered some thoughts that may be of interest:
    Re: 1.1, 'a set of statements...', perhaps we could be ambitiously aiming for 'the simplest set of statements...', and maybe the theory itself would be 'an explanation of the patterns in the evidence' rather than just 'an observation of...'?
    Coming from a physics/electronics background, I like the idea that last point of 1.2 could reflect ideas such as '...consistent with reliable evidence, and capable of being disproven by evidence'.
    At the risk of using fashionable rather than stylish language - perhaps in section 2 it should be 'make testable predictions about teaching *and learning* methods...' as I firmly believe you don't need to be taught in order to be learning (although it may help a teeny bit!).
    On a more general note, maybe there should be some indication that a learning theory should be based on sound biological principles, or at least be attempting to make progress in that direction, and finally (phew!) I think it would be nice to acknowledge that a good learning theory should have something to say about when and why cases may not fit 'the average' and if so, 'then what'?

    A lot to throw out there in one go, but hopefully some of it is useful. Happy to hear other ideas.

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