History and Philosophy of Learning Theory
Introspection as the scientific method had to give place to behavioral psychology in the nineteenth century , which opposed mentalist approaches to the study of associative mechanisms in learned behavior  with rigorous observable laboratory experiments and animal behavior training as performed by B.F. Skinner  (Figure 1.). Associationists like E. Thorndike believed in biological processes which construe memory in the form of neuronal connections in the brain . Reinforcement, for example in the form of dopamine rewards, was considered necessary feedback for learning enablement . Today there is substantial evidence that learning can happen without this kind of reinforcement though . The classical conditioning (Figure 2.) through basic physical stimulation proven too simplistic, Ivan Pavlov introduced a second system allowing for linguistic inputs too . L.S. Vygotsky considered language as a requirement for the human ability to analyze the world by cognitively separating real-world objects from related conceptualizations . Signs and symbols allow a shared subjectivity, e.g., between teacher and student . Verbal animal behavior is studied to find roots for the development of human language sophistication .
Figure 1. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Quadrant
Figure 2. Pavlov’s classical conditioning
Cognitive Approach to Learning
Noam Chomsky criticized that animal verbal behavior might follow different principles that wouldn’t allow generalization attempts to human behavior . The lack of real-life conditions in the laboratory environments and the difficulty to repeat animal experiments in wild life , ethical constraints in animal research limiting invasive practices , utterly operant-mathematical approaches, and an over-emphasis on language opened the way towards cognitive approaches beyond the study of language . The negligence of instinct’s role, as proven by Konrad Lorenz to be relevant for imprinting mechanisms in learning (Figure 3.), also brought behaviorism into critique . Vygotsky’s developmental method of research of the human species was re-discovered . Around the same time, after the mid of the twentieth century, Jean Piaget’s schema theory (Figure 4.) introduced the concepts of assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration as the developmental cognitive principles of his influential genetics based philosophy .
Figure 3. Konrad Lorenz’ Imprinting
Figure 4. Piaget’s Schema stages
After 1980, intelligence, especially Howard E. Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Figure 5.) (but also, Robert J. Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence , as well as his personality characteristics related to thinking styles ), were taken into account in education programs . Autonomous learning raised from Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (Figure 6.) noticing that human behavior is about willful and context-dependent mental processes . Innate needs for competence, as described by Skinner , and Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory further contributed to the motivational aspect of learning .
Figure 5. Gardner’s multiple intelligences
Figure 6. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory
Piaget and Vygotsky both construct human development holistically from transactional, relational, and situational thinking perspectives . Such a constructivism also implies that education is about active learning rather than teaching , putting the focus on human growth experience instead of economic principles . Vygotsky with his socio-cultural approach to psychological development (Figure 7.) is, in my opinion, best reflecting Plato’s principle of “the meaning of the world is embedded in the experience of the world” (p. 399) reminding us that the theory of learning remains a dynamic and context-sensitive science going forward .
Figure 7. Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural approach
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