Coda: Learning Theories and Instruction

The English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), wrote in his 1734 An Essay on Man that, “The Alexander Pope by Michael_Dahlproper study of Mankind is Man.” I like to think that it is with the spirit of this line that learning theorists, instructional designers and others in the field perhaps approach the fundamental questions of how we learn.

For the past six weeks after writing my first post on my journey to become an Instructional Designer I have been introduced to a range of learning theories, concepts and styles that attempt to answer this basic question. Each theory and concept has merit and credibility to one degree or another, and I see my personal learning style or preference reflected in each. I tried with not much success, to firmly establish whether I am predominantly a cognitivist, constructivist or connectivist in my instructional design approach or some collage of them all, but every time I applied the template to myself or the instructional content that I was designing at the time I saw elements of other theories, concepts and styles emerge from the self-imposed framework like the skin of a large balloon being squeezed through a smaller metal grid.

The learning theories and concepts, behaviorist, cognivist, constructionist, connectivist, social learning, and adult learning all advance the discussion and help move us closer to understanding the fundamental question of what is and how we learn, but from my point of view, none of them provide and absolute answer. The half dozen or so learning theories, concepts and styles are for me at times like a nebulous swarming cloud of sub-atomic particles zipping around in a quantum state. They can apply and at the same time not apply depending on ones’ perspective approach and context at a given moment.

Yet, this is not a bad thing for as Pope alludes since we may never truly understand the nature of what it is to be human though the striving to understand the fundamental questions and issues in of itself is a worthy and even noble undertaking.  Thus, to some degree the learning theorists, instructional psychologist’s et al. who pursue this goal share much with the poets and philosophers of our modern era. When I look inward at my use of technology as a learning tool or conduit, I do fall into the connectivist camp given my propensity to create structured networks where I can store, retrieve and assimilate information. The ability to create my own learning personal network (LPN) has been a component of my learning approach long before there were commercially available search engines or even Internet repositories of data and information.

Paper filing systems, card catalogs, Rolodexes and the “bee’s knees” of them all were the compact personal organizers (leather bound of course) that became the signature branding item of the upwardly mobile professional.  Although I have a newer smart phone that rivals the computational capacity of a mainframe computer of the 1980s, and I admittedly cannot function without my mobile, I sometimes get a twinge of nostalgia for the analog systems as there is something a bit more authentic in handling real paper and writing notes in by pen.

For anyone who would like to read the full stanza from Pope’s  An Essay on Man which contains the famous line quoted above, here it is:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan

The proper study of Mankind is Man.  Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,  A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:  With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,  With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,  He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;  In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;  In doubt his mind or body to prefer;  Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;  Alike in ignorance, his reason such,  Whether he thinks too little, or too much;  Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;  Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;  Created half to rise and half to fall;  Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,  Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;

The glory, jest and riddle of the world.


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