5 Discussion‎ > ‎

5.4 Of how the findings relate to wider research

Having strived to ensure my emerging theory remained grounded in the data, it is perhaps timely and appropriate to review its place amongst the extant learning theories outlined in Section 2.1 and Appendix A. Sticking with the idea of the data remaining grounded, a good starting point might be Fig 11 in Section 4.3 in which participants and respondents associate learning. Rather than describing the act of learning, they tend to associate it with specific activities like writing, remembering or revising. Many of the most prominent activities associated with learning appear to be lower-order activities, as described in the cognitive domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) or at the unistructural (multistructural at best) level on the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982). In three separate studies exploring how higher education students or adult learners perceive learning, five (six) conceptions were identified:

Marton and Saljo (1976) suggested that students might adopt two different approaches to their learning:
  • Surface in which information is accepted tacitly and memorised as isolated collections of facts for future reproduction and
  • Deep in which new ideas are analysed, linked with current conceptions and enable explorations of new areas.
Analysing Figure 11 through this lens also suggests our participants and respondents most commonly view learning from a surface perspective. One of the characteristics closely associated with surface approaches is to concentrate only on what is required for assessments. The frequency with which 'exams' were mentioned by respondents increases the significance of surface approaches. In discussing an experiential activity in which students might be in a recreation of a World War 1 trench, T identifies what the important element was for her:

"It's alright being in touch with the people, if it will come out some way in the exam.  If it's just some extra bit of knowledge for them to have, then it's a bit of a waste of time."

We have to ask however whether this is an accurate portrayal of their learning experiences, or whether it only provides a partial picture. Higher-order activities or deep learning approaches are not entirely absent from the in vivo codes in Figure 11, but may simply be harder to articulate (or perhaps to photograph) and are therefore less prominent in the graphic.

Peeling away the layers in the findings allows interpretations in terms of other learning theories. We see aspects of behaviourism in the goal-oriented response of A:

"While learning it's not fun, but then when you get your results and you see that it's good, it's fun and it's paid off."

The diversity of activities respondents discussed and the value they ascribed to experiencing different approaches (practical, experimenting, visual, digital) leans towards Gagne's Conditions of Learning (1965) where the complexity of learning demands different instruction for, and processing by the learner. When M noted the way in which a science teacher was demonstrating an experiment:

"She [teacher] was demonstrating principles to us through practicals so it would sink in a bit more and help us understand."

we get to see an example of modelling found in cognitive apprenticeship and in one of the few references to learning beyond school, N could be said to be participating in a community of practice:
"And you know in PE lessons, sometimes people aren't as good or as experienced , well when you go to a club outside of school, most of the people are at your level and you get to play with people at your level so it helps you get better."

The reality is however that although we may be able to spot elements of different learning theories throughout the data, codes and memos, no single theory describes or explains how students perceive learning ... nor should we expect it to. No single theory of learning is capable of addressing the myriad of learning situations distributed throughout a single school day with its multiplicity of events, interactions and undertakings, let alone the learning which takes place in the wider world beyond school.

Although an all-encompassing theory of learning may be elusive and inappropriate for these circumstances, Alexander et al (2009: 180) assert that "any comprehensive theoretical perspective of learning should be constituted of at least four dimensions that are continuously interwoven and interactive, represented by the what, where, who, and when of learning." So does the substantive theory offered in Section 4.8 hold up to scrutiny in these terms?
  • What - the products and processes of learning. The former perhaps being dominated in respondents eyes by examination success, but the latter cuts across all five categories.
  • Where - refers to the amalgam of physical environment with social and cultural settings. Though this is clearly exemplified by the Locating Learning category, this may be where using photographic imagery is of particular help as we have concrete visualisations of the settings within which learning takes place.
  • Who - the biological, cognitive, experiential and affective characteristics of the learner are revealed to some extent in the way respondents Ascribe Worth and Gather Support. Returning to the data with this dimension in mind could prove quite revealing.
  • When - rather than being explicit, the temporal dimension weaves through the substantive theory with developmental (accumulation of information: "It stays in your head more and for longer" - I ) and socio-cultural (Gathering Support: "In the family picture, I think it's good to do that - reading to your younger sister, because she can build a relationship with her sister and when she's older and she has children, she'll be able to read to them" - O) threads.
So I would contend that Linking My Learning as a grounded theory can stand on its own right, and does not fly in the face of formal theories addressing learning in more general terms.