What is learning?

Updated: Jun 10

We know it is important because we spend so much of our lives doing it, and we spend so much money to achieve the learning we want for ourselves and our families; but do we know what learning actually is?

A universally agreed definition of learning is difficult to come by, so in this and subsequent articles we will outline some of the theories available, and try to come closer to a robust definition.

Learning is seen and defined differently by an array of educators depending on the learning theory that they ascribe to.

For some, learning is the acquisition of attitudes and behaviours from others and/or the surroundings. It is considered to be more than what is done in school (Bruner, 1999; Sweller, Ayers and Kalyuga, 2011) and said to occur as a “life-long” process (Rushton and Suter, 2012). For others, it is the passing down of knowledge, beliefs and values from one generation to another (Dewey,2014).

For Sweller (2022), “Learning is the storing and processing of information” and the ability to “get lots of information into the long-term memory”. It is transformational, described as having no purpose and spontaneously arising.

There are four commonly accepted learning theories.These can be briefly defined as:

- Behaviourism: using positive and negative reinforcement to condition behaviour.

- Cognitivism: learning as an internal mental process, recognised through changes

in the mind.

- Constructivism: the construction of knowledge usually in social settings.

- Connectivism: a digital-age theory of learning through forming of connections.

This paper will focus on the learning theories of Behaviourism and Cognitivism.


Behaviourism is considered a foundational learning theory. It has over 100 years of history with its popularity peaking in the mid-1970s (Woollard, 2020). Although the theory is still popular today (mostly in early year settings) it has been eclipsed by the more contemporary theories of Cognitivism and Constructivism - the former is considered its successor.

Behaviourism “focuses upon the behaviour of the learner and the change in behaviour that occurs when learning takes place” (Woollard, 2020). These changes occur through response to stimuli received from the learners’ interactions with the environment and others. This response (or new behaviour) is what is considered learning.

Behaviourists believe that when born, our mind is “tabula rasa” (a blank slate) and through stimulus we learn and develop. To encourage the desired change, behaviourists use a process of conditioning. This was first demonstrated by Pavlov in the 1950s during his famous Dog experiment. In this Pavlov was able to condition the secretion of saliva from the glands of a dog at the sound of a ringing bell.

His process can be briefly described as:

- Introduction of stimulus (food)

- Response to food stimulus (salivation)

- Pairing of food stimulus with new stimulus (a bell)

- Original stimulus removed (no food, just bell)

- Conditioned response (salivation to sound of bell)

This process was later proven to work with humans by John Watson during his unethical experiments with a young child named Little Albert who was made to develop a strong fear response to a laboratory rat. While his work was ethically flawed, it did provide a starting point for Mary Cover Jones who developed Behavour Therapy to remove fear responses. Watson claimed that, through the shaping of an environment, he could mould a child into whatever he wanted to (Watson, 1913). This process is still used regularly in classrooms under the term “positive reinforcement”. In many classrooms, behaviourist techniques are used to teach students, motivate them to learn and reward them for their learning. This is regularly done with stickers, points, prizes and praise. There are also forms of negative reinforcement although these are less popular and less well-regarded.

This theory is traditionally teacher-led, with the student considered a recipient of knowledge. Students are taught through repetition, association and modelling, highlighting the importance of appropriate teacher behaviour (Newton, 2020b; Woollard, 2020).

Criticisms of this learning theory include the consideration that while it was a robust attempt to make psychology more scientific by measuring behaviours without reference to a mind, there is now so much more information available about the brain and learning that behaviorist description is too simplistic.

Behaviourism focuses on: outcomes, boundaries, incentives, rewards and punishment. Key features include: repetition, positive reinforcement, modelling and copying.

Associated theorists: Ebbinghaus, Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike and Skinner.


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