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How Do People Learn?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In the present section I want to look more closely at the question of how people learn.  It would be really helpful at this point to have some understanding of the process of learning – that is, what structures actually make learning more likely to happen.


The posting below, a bit longer than most, compares and contrasts two types of learning theories, behaviorism and sociocultural learning and how to combine the best features of both approaches.  It is from Chapter Two – Engaged and Involved Learners, in the book, Creating Courses for Adults: Design for Learning, by Ralf St. Clair. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 Copyright © 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Using Mind Mapping and Brainstorming Techniques for Study and Creativity


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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How Do People Learn?

One of the first questions that many educators ask when they are learning to teach is how people actually learn and, by extension, how the educator can design situations that help that to happen.  There are many theories about this, and having worked with them for some time, I am struck by the fact that these theories seem to fall into several types.  Only some of them focus on learning itself.  There are some that talk about why people learn – although claiming to be about learning, they are really about the reasons that lead people to attend classes.  Other theories look at what people learn – that is, why certain information and subject areas are attractive at certain times.  Both these types of theories are interesting and important, and I discuss them in the next section when I look at learner motivation and engagement.

In the present section I want to look more closely at the question of how people learn.  It would be really helpful at this point to have some understanding of the process of learning – that is, what structures actually make learning more likely to happen.  What, for example, is the process that allows people to go from knowing almost nothing about home decoration to being able to create well-planned living environments for themselves and their friends?  How do new employees pick up the explicit and the unspoken knowledge of how to do well in the workplace? When people move to a new country, how does a new language make itself known to them?

There are two very powerful groups of ideas regarding these questions.  The first is a cluster of ideas about behaviorism.  The central concept they share is that all learning always produces a change in behavior.  If you want somebody to ride a bike, the behavioral change that you are looking for is something like “this person can travel safely by bicycle from home to the shops, obeying all traffic laws and operating the machine correctly.”  Behaviorism is very attractive to many educators, because our actions as educators have demonstrable results and the outcome is absolutely clear.  This is different from many other approaches, which to some people can seem very wooly and ill-defined.

Behaviorism was originally developed to provide exactly this precision.  Psychology was the same discipline as philosophy until the late nineteenth century, when a group of scientists grew to believe that the use of experimental data might help them to break out of the inward-looking and slightly circular process of philosophizing about the way the mind works.  The successes were early and impressive, and by the early twentieth century some ideas had emerged that have since become part of everyday language and thinking.  A good example is stimulus-response theory, which suggests that when you provide a stimulus to a person they will react in a certain way (Watson, 1913).  By rewarding or punishing these responses, you can train the person to react in a particular way when faced with a set stimulus.  The reward or punishment can then be removed in almost every case and the shaped response will continue – in fact, the theory suggests that not rewarding or punishing every response will be more effective, because the person will internalize the process.  An example is red traffic lights. Almost all drivers stop at them almost every time, even in the middle of nowhere when there are no police and no visible risks to running them, because we have been trained to respond to the stimulus of the red light by halting, and when we have not stopped, we have usually experienced the disapproval of driving instructors or passengers (or even police officers).

Many educators have understandable concerns about behaviorism.  It can appear to reduce humans to machines with no internal life, simply responding to stimuli in the way that has been previously rewarded (Skinner, 1965).  Some behaviorist research does seem to suggest this is a fair way to view people, but there is also a range of behaviorist writing that applies the ideas in a humane way and that tackles issues of social justice (for example, see articles in the journal Behavior and Social Issues).  Another concern with behaviorism is that learning without an observable outcome simply does not count as learning.  This appears to discount learning about the arts in order to develop one’s appreciation of aesthetic experience, for example.  Although this can be framed as an observable outcome, it’s rather clumsy to do so.  On balance, these are both reasonable criticisms of behaviorism in its most extreme forms.  But the main implications of this approach to learning do not come out of the most radical applications; they are to be found in the central role behaviorist ideas play in typical educational settings.

Behaviorism helps us to understand two aspects of education.  The first is that all outcome-based education is based on a behaviorist approach. Just after World War II, Tyler (1949) wrote a very influential book on agricultural education and curriculum development.  It was the first popular work to talk about education by objectives, wherein the design of the program flows backward from the objectives.  Instead of starting the design process with the subject area or the interests of the educator, the idea was to start with what people wanted to be able to do at the end of the course.  Tyler wanted learners to be involved in setting the objectives, so his framework was designed not so much to impose a set way of thinking on people as to develop a clear map of the program with them. 

The second point is that all assessment is based on behaviorist principles.  This seems obvious when we are thinking about learning a concrete skill such as cooking a meal or making a birdhouse.  It also applies in more subtle ways, such as the ability to write a three-hour exam on liability law or provide a justified judgment of the quality of a nineteenth-century poem.  Unless there is some form of observable activity, there is nothing to assess.

Overall, I think behaviorism provides us with some important and useful tools and does not require human beings to be turned into robots.  These tools are not perfect, and they are not useful in every situation.  They provide some perspectives that can help with thinking through what we are trying to do as educators and how we will know when we’ve arrived, but they do not provide much guidance regarding the social aspects of learning.  For this, we can turn to another area of theory, called sociocultural learning, which was briefly mentioned in the preface to this book. 

Sociocultural learning approaches represent an attempt to understand the ways that people learn from others.  This does not have to be direct – there is no need to have somebody literally sitting beside you as you learn.  The point is that learning is always social, and it is embedded in our culture and our values.  You could argue against this, saying, “I learn best when I’m on my own on a beach, watching the waves and thinking about things.”  This may be true, but it is really hard for humans to escape the influence of society.  Not only are the words we use social constructs, but our entire languages are formed in cooperation with other humans.  The way we frame our thoughts is learned, so that even when we watch a natural phenomenon like a wave, the interpretation we give it is based in our shared experience of humanity.  This approach to learning underpins my own thinking and, of course, the ideas in this book.

There have been influential developments in this type of approach over the last twenty years or so.  The first is the idea of communities of practice.  This came out of research in the late 1980s on the way that people learn to perform a variety of tasks such as math (Lave & Wenger, 1991).  These studies led to the realization that one really effective way to think about human learning is to use apprenticeship as a model.  For any human activity there is a group of people who are really good at it and have been doing it for longer than most people.  For example, there is a group of people who are recognized as expert sculptors.  They can work in a variety of materials and make a variety of products.  If you wanted to commission a costly sculpture for your back garden, these are the people who you would go to.  They are the sculpture community of practice.

If somebody wants to join a community of practice, she starts off at the edges, trying to gain mastery of some simple abilities (perhaps cutting rocks, in this case).  Some people cut rocks on their own, whereas others do it as part of their entry pathway to the community of practice, such as in a class. If it’s the latter, which can be generally identified by the intention to join the larger community, it is called “legitimate peripheral participation” (Lave & Wenger, 1991).  The person takes part in activities similar to the work of the community of practice but recognized as being at a preparatory level.  Over time, the activities get more challenging, and the learner moves toward full membership in the community of practice, making simple structures with easy materials and then moving on to more expressive designs in more challenging media.  Another example is student teachers, who start off in field experiences, trying out a few simple things in an established, settled classroom, and over several years moving toward complete responsibility for creating the class.

In this model, learning represents the movement from peripheral participation toward full membership, and it is a dynamic process.  As people move further into the community of practice, they become more familiar with the key ways of doing things in that community.  However, this should not be seen as simply reproducing the existing sets of practices.  It is more about people learning how to use those practices to achieve their own ends.  This model of apprenticeship learning is about not only copying established members of the group, but also learning how they do what they do.  To continue the sculpture example, the point is not to be able to create the same sculpture as the expert sculptors but to understand what is required for the learner to create her own.  For the student teacher, the point is to understand the full range of techniques that can be used with a specific group of students and what the effects are likely to be.

Sociocultural learning supports the use of a problem-based approach to learning (commonly known as problem-based learning, or PBL).  This is where the learners are confronted with a challenge that is as authentic as possible and encouraged to work as a group to identify solutions.  In the education of doctors it could be a scenario such as “a forty-eight-year old male complaining of toe pain, works as a scaffolder, borrowed work boots from his female colleague.” In other contexts there is an endless range of scenarios; for example, in community development in a developing economy the focus could be agricultural or industrial issues.  PBL tends to be very popular with learners, in my experience, and it can be a really rich source of learning.

At around the same time that Lave and Wenger were developing their approach, Jack Mezirow (1995) was working on the theory of transformative learning.  In this model of adult learning, people possess schema, or ways of looking at the world, that help them make sense of what they see in the world around them.  Usually they work quite well, but if things change, the person may face what Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma.”  At this point they not only are open to learning but also need to learn so that their world makes sense again.  Mezirow argues that the disorienting dilemma is almost always produced and resolved within a specific social context.  The examples he gives are deeply concerned with social justice and equity, arising from the differences between the way people think the world should be and the way that they realize it is.  So, for example, an individual might believe that an institution is “color-blind” until she sees a person of color being discriminated against; at that point she experiences a dilemma between her belief and her perceptions.  The only way to solve such a dilemma, argues Mezirow, is through learning.

To understand how people learn, we can pull these ideas together and produce a highly coherent working model.  This does not have the status of a grand theory of explanation, but it may be a helpful way to think about things.  Such a model would have these beliefs at its core:

  • Learning is a social process conducted, either more or less directly, with other humans.
  • People begin to learn by trying peripheral activities, then take on more complex activities as they grow in confidence and see other people perform them.
  • Individuals will repeat actions that are associated with a reward, including the approval of peers.
  • Even if the aim of the learning is not behavioral, having an associated behavioral outcome can make it easier to communicate and assess.
  • People learn most, and most profoundly, when faced with a dilemma or need to understand something relevant to them.

Based on these ideas, it is possible to sketch in a few thoughts about what teachers need to do to support learning.  They have to make sure that the point of the learning is clearly communicated to everybody involved and that there is shared understanding of what it means to get there. Educators need to watch for the actions that show that people are starting to move toward the aims of the learning and support those actions.  Learners need to have material structured in a continuum from easier ideas and actions toward more challenging ones, so when they have mastered simpler processes they can tackle the more complex ones that build on them (this is referred to as “scaffolding”).  The drive in learning is toward understanding and mastery, meaning that educators have to ensure that learners finish the course feeling that they have achieved these two elements.

In the introduction I suggested that responsible teaching recognized the following principles:

Encourage active learning.  People need to learn by doing wherever possible, rather than simply hearing or reading about how to do.

  • Allow people to have some control over their own learning.
  • Build connections between what is being learned and the experiences of learners, moving over time toward more complex ideas.
  • Encourage collaboration and conversation between learners.

I hope that the way these principles fit with sociocultural theories of learning makes sense.  If you accept the core concepts of the learning theory, these ideas about teaching are the necessary other side of the teaching and learning process.

None of this is particularly complicated or unexpected, and it may well seem obvious to you (especially if you are a parent), but it is sometimes surprisingly difficult to build a course that really reflects these simple ideas.  Often we get tangled up with aspects of teaching that aren’t necessarily helpful but that take a lot of time, such as conflicts among the learners or unreasonable expectations from employers, and it is easy to feel frustrated and drift away from these ideas toward a model that is more directive and teacher-centered.  One of the best possible exercises when that happens is to step back and let a learner lead a segment of the class. Not only will you learn something, but it can also be great reinforcement for the students to see that you trust them to know something about the subject and how to teach it.  Supporting learning is not about grabbing onto one theory and hanging on at all costs – it’s about pulling together different perspectives to inform the decisions we make with learners.  As an educator you will build up your own view of how people learn over time, as you notice things that do and do not work with different groups of people.  I am always surprised by the power of learning experiences and the levels of energy people are prepared to put into them.  The primary role of educators is to create the relationships and the context that can bring about this type of engagement.  In the next section we take a closer look at what engagement means and how it can be fostered.



Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mezirow, J. (1995). Transformation theory of adult learning. In M.R. Welton (Ed.), In defense of the lifeworld (pp. 39-70). Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Skinner, B.F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.

Tyler, R.W. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.