How does learning happen?

At some stage in my life I learned to tie my own shoe laces and to write an essay; I learned the difference between an artery and a vein, and I learned how photosynthesis works; I learned to do algebra, and to dance; I learned to taste the difference between a pinot gris and a Chardonnay, and I learned to be a critical thinker.

How did I learn these different things?

There are a variety of theories that isolate and explain the mechanisms by which we learn. Here is a short and incomplete summary of a selection of learning theories (and some useful distinctions related to these theories).

Note the subtle similarities and differences between some of the theories. Also note that some of these theories might apply only to particular kinds of learning outcomes and not others, or to one context but not another, and some are less plausible than others. And, as a final caveat, note that the theories are explained in very different ways by different people, so don’t take my short simplification as the final word about these theories.


Transmission learning: We learn by having ‘knowledge’ passed directly to us, perhaps by reading it or being told it by someone else. It is common to think learning happens via transmission, but it is a fairly implausible theory for anything but the most simple learning. Maybe I learned the definition of ‘alive’ by being told it, but I certainly didn’t learn to dance by being told how. And I didn’t really learn the definition of ‘alive’ until I had at least applied it to a few different cases to test I understood.

Constructivism: We learn by doing something with what we are told, shown or experience. Learning is not passive as the transmission learning implies, but active. There can be no learning from direct transmission until students construct an understanding of what they are hearing/seeing, or until they fit the new idea in their cognitive schema. I don’t learn the definition of the word ‘alive’ until I assimilate it into my already existing knowledge, and apply the term to all the other things I already know: dogs are alive, rocks are not. Thus learning is something I do by constructing my understanding, not something done to me.

Deep and surface knowledge: Sometimes we distinguish between different kinds of knowledge or understanding gained from different types of learning. Mere transmission is often associated with surface knowledge, where the learner might be able to parrot back what they were told, but they can’t apply it or use this knowledge. Another way to think of this is as ‘fragile knowledge’ (Perkins) – the knowledge you remember for long enough to write down in the exam, and then it evaporates. On the other hand, once I construct the knowledge for myself, I could be said to have deep knowledge, or to understand.

Additive vs. Transformative learning: If learning is the result of my active construction, then there are two ways I can construct what I learn. I can add a new piece of knowledge into my existing framework, fitting it with what I already know (Piaget calls this assimilation). For example, I already know many things about NZ and I can just add in the latest population figures. On the other hand, I can learn by transforming my entire framework of knowledge. For example, imagine the first time you realise that not only are there the numbers 1-5 but also half and quarter. You cannot merely add this new knowledge into what you already knew, but you have to change your whole conception of numbers (Piaget calls this accommodation). After we make the transformation we cannot even imagine what it was like to have the simple view of numbers which only recognised whole numbers and not fractions. We learn by transforming our understanding, by transforming the framework which we use to make sense of all information.

Cognitive dissonance: Transformative learning often requires some sort of challenge. To transform our cognitive frameworks we must first encounter a problem that causes us cognitive dissonance – we can’t make sense of this new information or this new experience by using our old cognitive framework. So, we experience confusion because of the dissonance between what we thought we knew and what we are now confronted with. This means that moving though some sort of cognitive doubt or discomfort is necessary for transformative learning. We start with stasis in our old conceptions, then we are confronted by something problematic, and we transform our old conception to something new. Many might call this confusion, but I prefer to call it puzzlement as confusion is a negative problem to avoid, while puzzlement is a positive problem to embrace. (Piaget)

Inquiry learning: We learn as the result of a personal inquiry process. We have a question, or a problem or issue we want to resolve (some sort of personal cognitive dissonance), and learning happens as we resolve this. For example, if I am merely told that photosynthesis is how plants get their energy, I don’t really learn anything – at best it is fragile knowledge. However, I will learn photosynthesis at a deeper level if I first wonder about how plants get their energy (they must get it somewhere, but they can’t eat like animals, so how do they ‘feed’?), and then I read about photosynthesis. If I then continue to pursue my question and wonder how photosynthesis is different from eating, and whether it is like eating sunlight, then I will get even deeper learning. So, the implication of this theory is that we should help our students to identify problems that they experience as live questions that they want to resolve. Then when we tell them new knowledge, or they read about our topic, they will answer their questions and learn in a deeper way than they would by merely being told something. (Dewey)

Experiential learning: We learn by doing. More precisely, we learn by doing something mentally or physically, then experiencing the consequences, reflecting on these consequences, and then doing something different as a result. For example, I learned what is hot by touching burning objects, experiencing the pain, then mentally recording ‘fire’ as hot and so not to be touched, and my actions are dictated by this experiential learning from that point onwards. (Dewey)

Behaviourism: We learn by having our behaviour reinforced. If we do something and good things follow we learn to do this, and if we do something else and bad things follow we learn to avoid this. It is the carrot and stick view of learning. For example, if I get a gold star when I help someone else, I learn to help others. But if I get sent to sit by the flag pole because I swore, I learn to avoid swearing.

Social learning: Social interaction is necessary for learning. We learn by participating in a social environment with particular social behaviours (e.g. asking each other particular kinds of prompt questions like ‘why do you think that?’), and then internalising this social discourse (so I start to ask myself ‘why do I think this?). We learn by taking a social interaction like giving feedback, and making it an internal cognitive process. (Vygotsky)

Self-efficacy: We learn by developing confidence in our ability. When we doubt our ability to learn something or to do something we are blocked from learning this. As we develop confidence in learning something or doing something, we are more able to do it and to do it well.

Feedback and improving: We learn a skill like writing or solving equations or dancing by first attempting and failing, then getting feedback, adjusting and improving, getting more feedback, and so on, until we have mastered the skill. The feedback can be direct feedback from the world – if I fall over when I try to turn in a particular way, then I will do it differently next time – or it can be feedback from someone like a teacher who can tell you what you are doing well and what needs refining.

Practice to be an expert: As well as the cycle of feedback and improving we also learn by practicing a skill. We start practicing as a novice when it requires a lot of mental energy (think of your concentration when you first learned to drive a car), then with further practice you become competent (you pass the test) and with further practice you automatise the skill and become an expert where you no longer have to devote conscious mental energy to doing the skilled activity (driving while having a conversation with someone in the car). The end result might be reflective practice which is an effortless process of problem solving and innovation (Schön), or it might be ‘flow’ where we enter a highly focussed mental state where we can unconsciously act, absorbed in our activity (Csikszentmihalyi)



About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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