Learning is a hypothetical construct. It cannot be directly observed but only inferred from observable behaviour. Psychologists usually define learning as a relatively permanent change in behaviour due to past experience, or the process by which relatively permanent changes in behavioural potential occur as a result of experience.
While it is generally agreed by psychologists that learning is relatively permanent and due to past experience, theres much less aggreement about what changes in learning and what kinds of past experiences are involved. One important issue that divides psychologists is the extent to which they focus on overt behavioral changes as opposed to the covert cognitive changes.
Learning is confined to change within the lifetime of each human being or non human animal. In the case of learning each of the perspectives tends to focus on different aspects of a phenomena, define it differently and so ask different questions. This is because different psychologists make different assumptions about what particular aspects of a person are worthy of sudy, and this helps to determine an image or model of what people are like. In turn this image or model determines a view of psychological normality, the nature of development, preffered methods of study, the major causes of aabnormality and the preffered methods and goals of treatment.
The cognitive approach to psychology arose in part due to dissatisfaction with behaviourism. In particular it was felt that the more complex functions of the mind such as language and thinking could not be explained in terms of stimulus response (s-r) relationships. Cognitive psychology however, also grew out of a series of technological and theoretical advances in both computing and mathematics that saw connections between people and complex machinery, such as computers, notably, that both could be understood in terms of information processing.
Cognitive psychologists believe it is possible to describe what is in the head (i.e what is called the mind) at a functional level (in terms of what the mind does) and at a process level (how the mind does what it does) without having to specify how such functions and processe3s are physically instantiated in the brain. The cognitive perspective on learning typically studies how individuals in isolation confront and make sense of particular learning tasks, the essential challenge being to understand what is going on inside the individualâ€™s head. Category learning demonstrates the cognitive approach to learning very clearly.
Bruner (1956) carried out experiments in which participants were asked to categorize nonsense cards that varied on four attributes (shape, size, shading and border). Paricipants were asked to identify attributes that were common to the cards. Through follow up interviews Bruner concluded that the process undertook by participants was one of hypothesis testing, and that two distinct strategies (successive scanning and conservative focusing) were determined.
In the successive scanning strategy participants entertained one hypothesis at a time and continually tested it until it was shown to be in error. Participants would then move on to the next plausible hypothesis and start tesing. The trouble with such a strategy is that each new piece of information carries with it few clues as to what the right hypothesis is. For example , a positive answer does not mean the hypothesis is true, there may be other hypotheses compatible with the evidence accumulated. Equally a negative answer gives relatively few clues as to what the right hypothesis might be.
In the conservative focusing strategy participants sought to eliminate classes of hypotheses by choosing instances that differed in only one way from the previous one. In this way through successive choices of instances the relevance of each attribute to category membership is determined. As each piece of new information rules in or out whole classes of hypotheses conservative focusing proved to be a much more effective strategy for participants to use.
However as Brunerâ€™s (1956) experimental design consisted of abstract material, it could be criticised for lacking ecologicaL validity. When the experimental design consisted of meaningfull material, it was found that participants took longer to categorise, the researchers concluding that prior knowledge interfeered with logical possible sorting that would tend not to occur in the real world. None theless one can question how well these results generalize to more natural learning situations.
Murphy and Allopenna (1994) using meaningfull material found that relevant background knowledge was used to link attributes thematically. The experimental design consisted of meaningfull categories, wre category members had lots of attributes in common linked by a theme. Murphy et al. found that were participants saw the theme linking the members, they learned these categories more quickly, than when compared to to members that could not be related to a theme. Thus participants did not need to learn the attributes of each category member, instaead they could use their knowledge of the world to infer a particular theme.
Kaplan and Murphy (2000) experimental design consisted of categories, were each category member possessed only one shared attribute in common to a theme, and five members that were irrelevant. Murphy et al found that participants learned theme related categories more quickly than categories that were not related to a theme.
For Bruner et al people learn concepts via a process of generating and then refining hypotheses in the light of further evidence. Chomsky and Fodor on the other hand from a more philisophical perspective have challenged the cognitive viewpoint arguing that categories are not at all learned, and that our concepts-our ideas of categories must be innate. The idea that categories are innate or learned is not anew one, however from an evolutionary point of view one could argue that it would be adaptive to be able to categorise since we have the necessary cognitive architecture to facilitate this. The fodor Chomsky argument is complex one that centres on whether learning actually takes place when we put items into categories, or whether we are simply drawing on knowledge that we allready have, in which case no new learning has occurred. Chomsky and Fodor (1980) argue that there must be innate capacity to be able to choose one hypothesis over several other equally related hyotheses, when all of which are compatible with the evidence. This however is an extreme view, and can be criticised on the basis that knowledge develops and changes so learning must be involved. Though cognitive psychologists accept that we have some innate capacity (natural at birth), much of our capacity to categorise is learned.
Thus the cognitive perspective is characterised by the experimental method and related to the learning of individuals in isolation. It further supposes that language is merely a means of communicating meaning and understanding which is derived through information processing in the brain. Although cognitive psychologists are concerned with modelling the processes, much of this relies on deduction from behavioral evidence derived from experiments and follow up interviews. 1134
Sociocultural psychologists are not concerned with modelling infformation processing. Sociocultural psychologists regard learning as a mediated process that takes place at the interface between the learner and the tools which he she uses to learn. These tools may be physical (such as computers) or indeed psychological, the most important of which is language.
In the sociocultural perspective understanding and meaning are created through the use of language in interactions between individuals. Thus, observational studies are the principal method of sociocultural psychologisrts inrterested in learning.
What saljo (1999) would term discursive practices are key to learning in the sociocultural perspective and have been studied extensively particularly in school children. Mercer (1995-2000) has conducted a number of naturalistic observations in which school children working in groups have been observed. Their interactions were videotaped and their discussions analysed to identify the discursive practices that contributed to their learning.
Mercerâ€™s work has been extended to consider the different social situations in which learning occurs and the challenges that face young people in adapting to new social settings in which the objectives of social interaction are nuclear.
Jackson (1987) makes the point that when children start school, they actually have to make sense of school in order to take advantage of the associated opportunities for learning. Thus learners have to learn how to learn.
In this perspective much work work is in the hermeneutic and involves qualiataive study of human interaction through naturalistic observation studies as opposed to fromal experimentation. Through conducting observational; studys in naturalistic settings, the study has graeter ecological validity. It is a holistic approach and is not concerned with a focus on narrow processes such as categorisation. It is concerned with interactions between individuals rather than learning processes within individuals.