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2.6 Learning in general

In order to explore, describe and attempt to understand how students perceive learning using the grounded theory approach I outline in Section 3.2, it is important to set out first what my perception of learning is. How do I view things? What are my preconceived ideas? What prejudices might I have? In this section then, I'll provide an overview of my perceptions.

With my background in teaching physics, it will come as no surprise that I am on familiar terrain when dealing with concepts such as electrical current for example, defined clearly and unequivocally as rate of flow of electrical charge. It doesn't matter how far you dig into the 11 200 000 results from a Google search, that is all you will find. It has been around for a while and stood the test of time. Performing a similar exercise looking for a definition of learning however provides a far more bewildering array of potential contenders. Atherton (2011) synthesises the following common characteristics however: a (permanent) change in behaviour influenced by interactions with one's environment ... where individuals are concerned. He acknowledges that learning can also be associated with organisations, which introduces an additional layer of complexity. Smith (1999) suggests we can view learning either as a product (a set of outcomes resulting from a series of experiences) or a process (the steps we take in undergoing some sort of transformation). Viewing learning as a product might cause us to lean towards scientific or quantitative studies, pre- and post-test analyses and searching for efficacy of interventions to improve those outcomes. Explorations of the process of learning however have generated a wealth of theories, models and frameworks to describe, explain and help understand this process. These theories fall into three broad paradigms:
  1. Behaviourism in which learning is seen as responses to external stimuli generated within an environment.
  2. Cognitivism focuses on the internal mental processes which shape our developing understanding of our surroundings.
  3. Humanism puts the learner at the core and their natural desire to fulfil their potential.
Some also cite constructivism as a separate paradigm, though since it describes ways in which individuals actively construct meaning, it can be argued as bridging cognitivism and humanism (as social constructivism).

More recently, theories of learning have begun to see the learning process as external to the individual. In situated learning (Lave, 1982), it is the active participation in structured social frameworks that engender progression. Connectivism sees learning taking place throughout the network of which an individual is a part and with which s/he is connected. (Siemens, 2006)

Alongside these theories attempting to explain the process of learning, sit a host of frameworks and taxonomies which seek to break down learning into a series of tasks, activities or objectives, often classified according to levels of demand, complexity or rigour. Describing learning behaviours or characteristics in this way helps educators in devising learning programmes or assessment frameworks. A timeline, albeit not exhaustive, of these works can be found here.

I set out this tableau only to illustrate the background with which I enter this study. I do not intend to view the data which arises in this study through any of these particular lenses; they are the lenses after all framed by the work of others and my interests here are what the students think ... assuming of course they are not familiar with Vygotsky, Skinner, Bandura et al.

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