Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Why We Need Learning Theories

I often find myself engaged in a discussion around the importance of learning theories. Newcomers to the industry are curious about why training design should be based on learning theories. Some are looking for the 'best' learning theory and others are wary of applying old theories in the age of digital and social learning. 

In general, I tend to stay away from academia. But when it comes to the area of learning theories, I think it is imperative that as learning designers we understand common theories of learning and are able to make good choices and educated decisions regarding the learning interventions we design. This becomes even more critical as we integrate technology, social media and informal methods into the design of learning and create blended learning programs. 

Whether we are aware of these theories and the related jargons or not, all teachers and learning designers approach training in a way that is governed by one of the learning theories. When we choose a particular way to teach, it has consequences related to how people learn. As learning designers, our goal is to make sure that learning is relevant and aligned to the needs of our audience. We also want to select and apply the right instructional strategies that help the audience achieve their goals. Once we become more aware of learning theories, we can begin to understand the process of learning, understand our beliefs about learning and challenge our assumptions around the methods and methodologies of learning.

Learning design should be based on learning theories because:

  • Theories provide a basis to understand how people learn and a way to explain, describe, analyze and predict learning. In that sense, a theory helps us make more informed decisions around the design, development and delivery of learning. 
  • There are different learning theories (behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, connectivism, etc.). These theorists have thought deeply about learning and contemplated and researched it extensively. Learning designers can leverage this knowledge to think critically about learning and education. 
  • Learning theories offer frameworks that help understand how information is used, how knowledge is created and how learning takes place. Learning designers can apply these frameworks according to different learning and learner needs and make more informed decisions about choosing the right instructional practices. 
There is no one ‘best’ learning theory because: 
  • Each theory offers a different way to look at learning and the essential ingredients that make learning happen. Using these theories as lenses, learning designers can understand and describe the role of the learner, role of the instructor/teacher/facilitator and how learning happens in different ways. Each theory has influenced and shaped instructional practices and methods and all new theories will continue to do so. 
  • Different theories provide the context of learning, underlying motivation and methods of teaching and these have implications for designing and delivering instruction. Also, different theories are best suited to different learning outcomes and different audience profiles. 
  • Since each theory comprises of facts and assumptions, learning designers must begin the design of training by first identifying the goal of training and then select the right theoretical framework that can help achieve those learning outcomes. 
If you'd like to learn more about learning theories and their impact on learning design, the following resources might be useful:

Taxonomy of learning theories by Ryan Tracey where he identifies key theories that apply to workplace learning, categorizes them according to common properties, and illustrates the relationships among them.

Learning theories for the digital age by Steve Wheeler where he discusses if old theories are still adequate to describe the kinds of learning that we witness today in our hyper-connected world.

Learning theories by Greg Kearsley and Richard Culatta where they describe the principles, application and examples of several learning theories

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