Phenomenon of Learning – A Unified Explanatory Theory

Posted on April 15, 2011


Author:  Sanjay Goel,


The mechanism of learning has been attracting the attention of thinkers in philosophy, psychology, education, and also computer science. Neuroscience ascribes ‘learning’ to the brain’s ability to change its structure. Behaviorists see learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience, and concentrate on control of the external environment. Cognitive psychologists perceive it as a relatively permanent change in mental associations due to experience, and believe that humans are capable of insight, perception, and attributing meaning. Social psychologists view it as a social enterprise, depending upon interaction between learner and his/her socio-cultural environment. Humanists emphasize the development of the whole person, and place emphasis on the affective domain. Constructivism stresses that all knowledge is context bound, and that individuals make personal meaning of their learning experiences through internal construction of reality.

My earlier article [1]  provides a chronological list of theories related to learning and the closely associated issues of intelligence, thinking, human development, curriculum design, etc. readers are encouraged to study these theories.  Some other earlier articles [2][3][4][5]   also provide the necessary background.  Different theories focus on different factors.    Based on numerous existing theoretical models and my own experiences as well as research [6][7][8], I   have developed  a unified explanation of the phenomenon of human learning.  It tries to integrate various aspects of learning into a cohesive  integrated explanation.

Though learning is natural, it is not automatic. It is driven by voluntary and/or involuntary efforts made in response to stimulating experiences. Such stimulating experiences create ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ‘learning contexts’ by inducing recognition of inadequacy of existing meanings.  These contexts catalyze the activation of operating learning processes. Learning is a natural multi-faceted process that helically progresses through making and rendition of meaning at progressively deepening levels. Meaning making and rendition processes unfold in a multi-dimensional space of physical world, community, culture, psycho-motor, cognition, emotion, attitude, and values.

Humans continuously make meanings about the external world, inner self, and the relationship of the two. Experiences are interpreted as mental objects by the human mind to create an individual’s meanings. Mental objects include thoughts, ideas, concepts, impressions, percepts, rules, images, notions, scripts, schemas, and so on. The combined strength of deductive, inductive, convergent, divergent, linear, nonlinear, critical, and creative thinking processes, as well as intuition, drive this interpretation. Symbols, notations, language, diagrams, and concept-maps are used to represent and create these objects.

We create meaning at different levels in different contexts. These levels range from superficial symbolic levels to deeper conceptual and revelational levels. A disjoint ensemble of inflexible and incoherent superficial meanings results in surface learning. Deep learning requires the learners to create integrated, coherent, and trans-contextually transferable meaning at deeper conceptual and revelational levels. Ability to apply, blend, and regulate thinking processes governs coherence, accuracy, richness, interconnectedness, and representations of mental objects, and hence, the level of meanings. Deeper meanings are characterized by richer representations. At the deepest levels of learning, meanings related to self, get well integrated with the meanings related to the external world. Prior meanings may expedite, impede, or even block the progress of an individual’s meaning making processes.

We render our meanings in abstract forms like models and theories, and concrete forms like artifacts, e.g., software and processes at varied levels of sophistication. Meaningful and creative renderings manifest learners’ deeper integrated meanings and refined rendering skills. Meaning making continues during rendition, and rendering skills themselves are refined through practice and newer meanings. The level of meaning, and also the form and sophistication of rendering, depend upon the richness of context and strength of operating processes of learning as well as learners’ nature, nurturing, and intrinsic motivation.

An individual’s value orientation and interests shape his need perception. Many of our efforts made for fulfilling our needs and other experiences create ‘learning contexts’ by inducing recognition of inadequacy of existing meanings. An individual’s value orientation, perceived needs, intrinsic motivation, and flow of emotions trigger, drive, and direct their meaning making process and efforts. Community and culture significantly influence value orientation, perceived needs, intrinsic motivation, and flow of emotions. Further, community and culture also provide the ground for creating shared meaning.

Repeatedly reinforced meanings, cultural norms, and social expectations affect the meanings about the inner self. Meanings related to inner self have strong influence on personal values, interest, attitude, intrinsic motivation, goals, and even perspective. Changes of self-related meanings affect individual’s efforts, and also their meanings about external world. Consequently, a practice of critical self-reflection on self-related meanings strengthens self-regulation of meaning making, and increases the efficacy of learning processes.

Wisdom is an outcome of trans-contextual meaning integration, self-awareness, openness based on awareness of competency limitations, and a concern for collective and sustainable well-being.


This understanding of human learning is at the root of a comprehensive multi-dimensional framework for designing pedagogical engagements [7] that has also been used to design some  instructional innovations and interventions [9][10][11][12][13].   I shall be very happy to collaborate with interested faculty (any discipline and subject) to help them transform their courses in the light of this understanding of human learning and  framework for designing pedagogical engagements.


[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

[2]   Some Theoretical Perspectives about Learning and Teaching

[3]   Two Core Principles about Learning





[8]    Sanjay Goel, An overview of Selected Theories about Student learning, Indo-US Workshop on Effective Teaching and Learning at College/University Level, IIIT Delhi, 10-12 Feb, 2011.

[9]   SERO Model for Inquiry Teaching in Software Development Education

[10]  Engaging Students in Puzzle Solving for Developing their Logical Problem Solving ability



[13]  Project-centric Evolutionary Teaching in Software Development Education

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