Some Theoretical Perspectives about Learning and Teaching

Posted on July 24, 2010


Author:  Sanjay Goel,


[A background reference: Great Gurus’ Wisdom – What Socrates, Galileo, and Einstein said about teaching?]

Ostrow refers to Dewey’ observation “when knowledge is framed as something one receives, holds, and then releases, the message to students is that all knowledge is preexisting. The world needing to be known is as it is, and no more. We thereby train a populace that could not be more ill-equipped for an active responsiveness to a fluid, constantly changing world.” Winston Churchill opined “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like to be taught.” Honan  narrated a speech by Hamilton Holt, president of Rollins College, “… Holt declared that Yale and Columbia, which he had attended in his youth, taught him virtually nothing. … learning takes place most profoundly when students are led to make personal discoveries, often with other students, rather than when inundated with facts and called upon to remember them in examinations.”

While traditional lectures may be an effective pedagogy for some students in some classes, it is probably not the most effective way to teach most classes. Northwood et al  have paraphrased Woods’   comparison of traditional teaching with Problem Based Learning: “In a traditional program, students embark on learning by being told what they need to know, learning it, and then being given a problem to illustrate how to use what they have learned. This is a linear, teacher-centered process. Conversely, in PBL, the learning begins with a problem, students identify what they need to know, they learn it, they apply it to the solution of the problem and, most likely, they generate more problems and more learning needs in this cyclical process.”

Merrill  has suggested that ‘Information is not Instruction.’ A major characteristic of learning is that it is active and interactive. In their work, some authors stress that learning is a social activity, and have suggested that teachers must assume new roles of facilitating and mediating learning rather than merely imparting information, as is done in orthodox classrooms. The authors further stress students’ interacting and learning with and from others. Each student can make unique contributions to his/her own learning, and the learning of others because of his/her experiences, knowledge, and cultural background. Engagement theory, proposed by Shneiderman et al, is based upon the idea of creating successful collaborative teams that work on ambitious projects, and all student activities involve active cognitive processes such as creating, problem-solving, reasoning, decision-making, and evaluation. Incorporating social learning theory into their experiment, some other authors report that peer coaching provided the learners the benefits of enhanced knowledge, cognition, and meta-cognition.

Schank opines that much of human reasoning is case-based rather than rule-based, and to be really valuable, generalization has to be constructed by learners themselves. Having a broad, well-indexed set of cases is what differentiates the expert from the textbook-trained novices. According to him, generalizations that are told, have no place to sit in memory, and no cases to tie together, are quickly forgotten from lack of use. Arias et al and Fischer have studied various design domains, and have concluded that the knowledge to understand, frame, and solve problems evolves during the problem solving process.

Instructional design theory database project and the ‘Theory Into Practice Database’ (TIP)  provide excellent explanation of several theories related to instructional design theories and learning. Instructional Transaction Theory, Open Learning Environments, Constructivist Learning Environment, Anchored Instruction, Case Study Method of Instruction, First Principles of Instruction, Collaborative Problem solving, and Problem-based Instruction encourage an open-ended learning environment with emphasis on self-learning to promote critical thinking, and heuristic based learning in ill-defined domains. Cognitive Apprenticeship and Learning by doing recommend that in order to develop real-life problem solving ability, classroom content should have a real-life context and learners should be engaged in performing and reviewing the tasks. Elaboration Theory recommends teaching of broader concepts before narrower concepts, and teaching of procedural and heuristic tasks should follow an expert’s way of thinking. Four Component Instruction Design Model recommends that complex cognitive skills can be developed by engaging the learners in concrete whole process tasks.

Cognitive Flexibility Theory posits that the traditional linear teaching may be ineffective for ill-structured knowledge domains. Aptitude-Treatment Interaction posits that highly structured treatment is good for low-ability students, but hinders high-ability students. Random Access Instruction also stresses upon the need to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge in order to respond to a varied and changing situational demands. These theories recommend that for developing this flexibility, especially for ill-structured domains, rather than using over-simplification, compartmentalisation, and transmission of knowledge, instruction should support its context dependence, multiple representations, construction, and interconnectedness.

Many of the attitudes, perceptions, and values considered to be important for software development activities cannot be assumed to naturally develop as a natural result of traditional computing education. Change of attitude, perceptions, and values necessarily requires deconstruction of some of the existing beliefs. Kort and Reilly  view learning as a spiral process of construction and de-construction (of misconceptions) phases through positive as well as negative emotions. As per Cognitive Dissonance Theory and also the Structured Design for Attitudinal Instructions, instruction can be designed to create short-term dissonance such that it facilitates the learners to first recognize the need to change attitude. Collaborative Problem Solving, Situated Learning and Caring Community of Learners leverage cooperative learning for fostering social and ethical knowledge along with conceptual and procedural skills.

Levels of Processing recommends deep processing for facilitating durable learning of the material. Landamatics  recommends the usage of guided discovery and expository teaching to develop higher-order thinking skills. Bateson proposed four categories of learning that result into change of action, underlying assumptions, or the motivating factors depending upon the levels of reflection. Deepening levels of reflections open up newer solution spaces for problem solving. Biggs and Collis  proposed five-level taxonomy, Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) in terms of increasing structural complexity and abstraction.

Andragogy, initially defined as “the art and science of helping adults learn,” has taken on a broader meaning since Knowles’ first edition . The term currently defines an alternative to pedagogy, and refers to learner-focused education for people of all ages. It postulated that as learners mature, their motivation as well as perspective shift from external to internal and from postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application respectively. The andragogic model asserts that five issues be considered and addressed in formal learning. They include:

  1. Learners need to know why they need to learn something.
  2. Adults need to learn experientially.
  3. Adults approach learning as problem-solving.
  4. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

UNICEF has identified planning, gathering resources, connecting learners to activities, connecting learners to each other, guiding and observing and a focus on equitable participation as key items for increasing the level of active learning in classrooms.


1.  Theories that can help teachers/trainers/e-learning designers to think like educators, help students to improve their learning ability, and also help Software Developers in developing domain competence and readiness


3.   Phenomenon of Learning – A Unified Explanatory Theory

4.   Two Core Principles about Learning: What every teacher and student must know about education theory



Keywords:   Software Engineering Education, Computing Education, Computer Science Education, Engineering Education, Information Technology Education, Information Systems Education, College Education, Higher Education, Professional Education


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