Learning Frameworks

The question raised last time was what kind of a framework do we need to construct to get a better grasp on learning in all its varied and wonderful manifestations?  I have a PhD in physics, not in education, so I am not an expert on learning, except maybe for what I absorbed from observation and reflection.  Indeed, when I finished my terminal degree, a very long time ago, content was king.  We were deemed fit to teach because we demonstrated subject matter expertise.  Pedagogy was not even a distant afterthought, and there was certainly no training related to it in the degree program.  That often produced the kind of  situation depicted in one Big Bang Theory episode where Dr. Cooper gets crucified unmercifully on Twitter while doing a guest lecture to graduate students.  And that hadn’t really changed much when I started to teach full time, which isn’t all that long ago.  Because my degree was in physics, which is about as relevant to business as parapsychology, I was given the designation of clinical professor.  That meant that despite my degree I could still be considered a subject matter expert by virtue of my industrial management experience.  Good pedagogy was still considered self evident.

Since I was fascinated by learning, I began to learn about it what it is, how and why it happens on my own.  Here’s a distilled version of what some of the scholars who have probably forgotten more on this topic than I will ever learn have come up with:

First there are the domains of learning: cognitive, psychomotor (behavioral), and affective (attitudinal).  Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a very useful guide for this approach.  Benjamin Bloom was an educational psychologist, initially at Penn State University and later at Chicago University, who modeled learning activities into a framework of categories in which activities of increasing complexity built on activities below them.  In the cognitive domain, for example, learning starts with knowledge (recall) and progresses through comprehension (interpretation), application (use in a new situation), analysis (separation into components) and synthesis (building from elements) to evaluation, (making judgments).   My observation is that in academia, at least in the business school in which I taught, the cognitive domain was the only one considered seriously: we equated learning with knowledge and ignored behavior and attitude; at least we made no effort to teach about learning in those domains.  In 2003, L Dee Fink at the University of Oklahoma published a book,Creating Significant Learning Experiences, in which he  proposed a taxonomy which integrated the three domains into significant learning experiences.  I didn’t discover this material for several years, but when I did I found it to be so much more intuitive and compelling that I tried to get it incorporated into a required course for all incoming graduate students in which we touched on learning.  It was a hard sell; Bloom was so firmly entrenched that when I left some were still teaching Bloom’s taxonomy, some Fink’s, and some both.

Then there are styles of learning, usually given as visual, auditory and kinesthetic.  Initially these were postulated as dominant ways different individuals learn: some of us want to see it in writing or pictures in the textbook, on the whiteboard, or in PowerPoint; some learn better by listening to a lecture, and some have to experience it hands-on for it to really stick.  Applying styles to individuals has been challenged recently—the papers basically say that one of those modes might be more appropriate for a specific kind of material, such as you aren’t going to learn to play the piano just by watching and listening—but it is the material, not the individual, to which the styles apply.  Nonetheless they are still a popular way of looking at learning.  There are even tests available on the web which let you determine what your dominant style of learning is.  So I think styles are appropriate for our framework.

Besides styles, there are learning intelligences.  We used to be satisfied with just an IQ—intelligence quotient, which again purports to measure cognitive ability.  Then Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, introduced some multiple intelligences in a book in 1983.  Someone who seems deficient in one, such as IQ, could in fact be superior in another.  One example I recall is the little girl who couldn’t seem to memorize necessary material until the teacher let her set it to dance (bodily-kinesthetic).  Then she never faltered.   Gardner’s multiple intelligences include visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, and naturalist (added later).  This adds another dimension to our framework for learning.

After intelligences comes theories of learning.  And the number and list of these depends on what source you use.  We’ll start with the major categories from behaviorist, cognitivist, constructivist, motivational, design, descriptive, identity, media and miscellany.  Each of these has subtending theories along with the major proponents for each, such as Csikszentmihalyi for Flow as a motivational theory.  Clearly one could make a career just learning about learning theories.  What we will do is to note the diversity of learning theories as part of our framework, but only dive into those that appear to offer immediate value for what we want to learn next.

So we now have domains (3), styles (3), intelligences (8), and theories (47), giving us an enormous number of possible combinations (3384) in our four dimensional framework.  If we took just one combination per day, it would take almost ten years to progress through the whole set.  But probably not all of them make sense, or at least there’s some redundancy: some of the intelligences, for example, seem to have styles embedded in them?  And our goal here is not to be exhaustive (or exhausting), but to simply construct a framework in which we can draw on the existing body of knowledge to discuss steps to foster personal initiative in learning.  What we want to do is to build learning, tools and methodologies for learning, going forward.

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