Is Learning Scientific or Organic?

Lafayette College, Organic Garden

Is learning scientific or organic? A scientific perspective suggests that learning is explained by how the brain works, is rationalized by scientific study. Organic learning on the other hand occurs through the culture in which one lives—where learning is derived from, or characteristic of culture and society.

The presentation, subtitled Learning Theory & MOOCs delivered by Boise State University professor Norm Friesen at a conference in Shanghai, presents the alternate viewpoint that learning is cultural—that learning comes about through experience and immersion in culture rather than by a process explained by scientific study of behaviors. Not a new idea, though it’s worth examining for two reasons: first, in light of the transformative influence technology is having on our behavior as a society and culture as we speak—and second, that current teaching practices are based on learning theories derived from scientific studies done decades ago. Considering these two factors, is there a disconnect in the practices and methods implemented at education institutions today? The presentation sheds light on this question—it’s thought-provoking, so much so I want to share it with readers.

Presentation Overview 
The slideshare with audio is about an hour-long; three-quarters of it focuses on learning theory which is the focus of the highlights outlined below. MOOCs were discussed briefly at the end of the presentation.

Learning as a Science
The idea of learning as a science began in the 1900’s with the American psychologist Edward Thorndike. Interested in learning, he laid the foundation for learning as science through his research on testing and exam procedures in industrial settings, and behavior studies that used animals as test subjects. Subsequent theories, behaviorism, cognitivsm and constructivism followed, all built on the similar premise that learning is biological, or mechanistic; the brain acts as a center for processing, storing, recalling and directing responses to stimuli. Over the last hundred years education institutions built practices, methods and policies around the principles of the theories. Teaching is a reflection of this scientific perspective; methods of instruction, assessment and testing embrace the theoretical principles.

In recent years, it’s gone further where the human brain is compared to a computer. Common terms used to describe learning and the brain include storing, processing, retrieving, short-term memory, etc. To that end, knowledge is taught in schools with the goal of maximum efficiency, technology often used as a method to increase efficiency, ie. automating teaching functions grading tests, essays and even feedback from robots in group work.

Learning as a Science: Examples
The scientific approach to learning, where the brain is viewed as the ‘processor’ of learning, drives our education practices, yet still the evidence of exactly how learning occurs within the brain is inconclusive. Friesen, in his presentation describes the science of learning, as “learning = x”.   There is no shortage of examples that reinforce the point that education builds on this scientific approach:

The American Psychological association devotes an entire section on its website to teachers: “Research in Brain Functioning and Learning: The importance of matching instruction to your child’s maturity level”.

Another organization, Learning & the Brain®, seeks to bring “neuroscientists and educators together to explore new research on the brain and learning and its implications for education“.

Learning is Organic
Friesen challenges the scientific viewpoint with a slide introducing culture as the driver of learning:

What if we were to say...
“We depend for survival on the inheritance of acquired characteristics from the culture pool rather than from a gene pool.

“Culture [would] then become the chief instrument for guaranteeing survival, with techniques of transmission being of the highest order of importance.” 

Friesen goes further and suggests that:

  • Learning is not cause and effect
  • Learning is cultural not scientific (brain as the machine)
  • Learning is contingent upon culture
  • Learning changes over time

There are two theorists that Friesen uses to support the perspective of considering a cultural approach to educating students—one is Jerome Bruner, a psychologist readers are likely familiar with, who is considered a cognitivist (thus supporting the science dimension). However, Friesen emphasizes that Bruner states that learning changes in fundamental ways based upon culture, example of technology.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 8.13.23 AM
Slide from Dr. Norm Friesen’s Slideshare, Learning Theory & MOOCs (2013)

Dr. Daniel Trohler is a scholar that studies the role of culture in education; Friesen shares Trohler’s perspective put forth in one of his book’s on the topic, The knowledge of science and the knowledge of the classroom Using the Heidelberg Catechism. In this example Trohler examines school textbooks over the ages and makes the point that pedagogy derived from science presents a constructed picture to students, that is a part of a whole, becomes an object of teaching for maximum efficiency.

Professor Friesen’s presentation is thought-provoking–my takeaway is how it challenges the traditional approach education. Professor Friesen doesn’t appear to suggest we abandon the learning science altogether, but he does present MOOCs as cultural technique of transmission. Though I suggest that the current-day xMOOCs  are an extension of classroom pedagogy, it is only the delivery format that is different. The same science is behind the methods used, ie. lecture, testing, etc.  It is the cMOOC format, developed by Downes and Siemens that reflects a different approach to learning, a cultural and organic approach accomplished  through a connected experience, where knowledge is constructed by the individual from existing knowledge within a network. Learning is pulled by the learner, and not pushed. This sounds like organic learning, a reflection of our connected and networked culture, doesn’t it?


Photo Credit: ‘Lafayette Organic Garden’, Flickr: Lafayette College’s Photostream

Why Educators Need to Know Learning Theory

This is the second in a three-part series about Learning Design. The first post introduced the Learning Design Framework; a guide for educators to create optimal learning experiences for students by leveraging: 1) content resources, 2) collaborative web resources and 3) human resources. This second post focuses on learning theory and how it applies to not only course design, but educators’ role in creating excellent learning experiences for their students.  Note: this is a revised version of a post that appeared on January 19, 2014. 


We need to study learning theory so we can be more effective as educators. In this post I bridge the gap between learning theory and effective educators; describe why we need to start at A to get to B.  I also describe how a grasp of learning theory translates to knowledge of instructional methods, that moves educators towards creating optimal learning environments.  Post one of this series described optimal learning environments in the context of a framework that includes three dimensions of resources. Post three will include scenarios of institutions applying the principles of the framework, and in this post we take a step back to examine briefly the underpinnings of pedagogical methods.

This article covers three categories of learning theories, objectivist, constructivist, and connectivist.  Connectivism is relatively new [2004].  Its theoretical principles describe how learning happens within a networked and connected society. Objectivist and constructivist theories have, and continue to have, significant influence on teaching methods and practices in K-12, higher education and professional development programs. Connectivism on the other hand, is associated with learning in an open virtual space on the web, typically in massive open online courses or MOOCs.

The theories differ significantly in the perspectives on learning, though each has influenced and shaped instructional methods and practices to some degree. An example is assessment practices using standardized tests. This method is based upon principles of the behaviorist learning theory: instructor delivers content → student studies to commit knowledge to memory → completes an assessment → feedback is provided on his or her responses. This is one example I use here to [try to] emphasize the point that educators are better equipped to handle a variety of learning situations with an understanding of how these theories affect teaching methods.

Theories of Learning

Objectivist Theories
The objectivist learning category includes both the behaviorist and cognitivist theories. Each views knowledge as existing as an entity ‘outside’ the mind of the individual. Behaviorists’ suggest knowledge is transmitted to the learner without any interpretation or contextualization by the learner. Learning is reinforced in the memory through drill and practice. The founder of the behavioral learning theory, B.F. Skinner, conducted extensive experiments in the 1950’s of which several were dedicated to learning methods research. Skinner theorized that learning could be shaped by reinforcements that followed learner behavior; the principles were foundational to Skinner’s behaviorist learning theory.

The cognitive learning theory built upon the principles of behavioral learning theory. Cognitive psychologists focused on internal thought processes of the learner, not just the observable behaviours as the objectivists did. This theory emphasizes internal thought, focuses on mental structures and processes of the learner and its application to learning. Robert Gagne is an influential educational psychologist who developed the cognitive-behaviorst theory, which suggests learning is shaped by providing optimal conditions for learning. He developed the theory of conditions of learning and the nine events of instruction.

Constructivist Theories
The constructivist perspective took the cognitivist principles one step further by asserting that individuals construct knowledge from within, by engaging in problem solving, experiential and/or social learning experiences. Constructivism puts learners in the center of the learning process, and suggests that learners contribute to knowledge construction by activating prior knowledge and personal experiences. Learning is viewed as adapting one’s mental models to new experiences and knowledge. Several theorists that were part of the constructivist movement include John Dewy, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner.


Connectivism Theory
The very new learning theory, connectivism, developed by Stephen Downes and George Siemens is a response to society’s connectedness within a network of digital infrastructure. The connected approach views the student as the driver of learning; where the learner connects with, and builds knowledge via the connections [nodes] made within a network. Nodes can be resources or people. Connectivism is “driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital” (Siemens, 2004).  Connectivism is the theory behind massive open online courses, MOOCs. But MOOCs with a ‘c’ for cMOOC, which incorporates the connectivist theory, in contrast to xMOOCs offered through higher education platforms such as edX and Coursera that offer MOOCs that follow more of the objectivist, and some the constructivist approach.

Conflict in Theories
Constructivists’ and objectivists’ have different views on the conditions that contribute to learning, but of most significance is the difference in viewpoints of how (and where) learning happens—one views that knowledge is transmitted, the other that knowledge is constructed from within. The conflict between the two theories is ongoing. However, the root of the differences between the theories of constructivist, objectivist, and connectivism, is best described as a difference in epistemology—the nature, scope and development of human knowledge.

 Learning Theories and Instructional Methods 
The learning theory’s philosophy of how learning transpires as reviewed, does translate into a set of instructional methods. Below are characteristics of each of the three described above. Readers will likely be very familiar with most if not all.

Characteristics of Instructional Methods Associated with Objectivist Theories

  • Instruction is directive
  • Instructors transmit body of knowledge/skills to learners
  • Assessments: multiple choice, short answer tests, or essays and projects graded by rubrics or checklists
  • Students require prerequisite skills for advancing through curriculum
  • Instruction is sequential, linear, standardized
  • Efficient

And Characteristics with Constructivist Theories

  • Universal goals such as problem solving and critical thinking
  • Students generate knowledge through collaborative group work
  • Learning is not linear, often exploratory in nature
  • Prerequisite knowledge not always required or considered
  • Instruction emphasizes learning in experiential contexts
  • Learning is social
  • Assessment varies

And Characteristics with Connectivist Theory

  • Learning is primarily online, open, learners engage within network
  • Learning objectives are not pre-determined, emerge throughout the course, determined by learners’ needs
  • Variety of content sources on web, extensive, accessible
  • Learners are self-directed, independent, know how-to-learn
  • Prerequisites not required
  • Learning is often disorganized, chaotic

Implications for Creating Optimal Learning
Is one set of instructional methods better than the other? No—and this is the crux of the post, that there is a variety of methods that serve different learning needs. It’s the skilled and intuitive educator that analyzes a learning situation, leverages the resources at his or her disposal (as per the Learning Design Framework) and is able to analyze the situation and design the very best learning experience for his or her student.

“[Learning theories] outlined [above] suggest a set of instructional principles that can guide the practice of teaching and the design of learning environments. It is important that design practices, must do more than merely accommodate the [theory’s] perspective, they should also support the creation of powerful learning environments [specific to the student]” from Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning, Tam, 2000

Stay tuned for part three of the Learning Design series.


  • Tam, M. “Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning”, Educational Technology & Society 3(2) 2000
  • The Learning Design Framework, Online Learning Insights

Image credit: Theory clothing logo, by WestportWiki. Used under the Creative Commons share alike license.

New Online Teaching Model: Sage-on-the-Side?

Have you heard the online instructor [cheekily] described as a ‘guide-on-the-side’, contrasted with the traditional professor, known as the ‘sage-on-the stage’?  I’ve heard this term often –  my interpretation is that the ‘sage’ is the learned professor with great expertise and knowledge, the ‘guide’ the mentor or coach. The terms  ‘sage’ and ‘guide’ in this context, epitomize a collision between two  theories of learning, each with opposing views on the way we learn. The sage-on-the-stage labels a teacher-centered approach, essentially a directive teaching style, grounded in behaviorist theory. One such theory, developed by B.F Skinner, suggests the learner is a vessel, waiting for knowledge to be absorbed like a sponge. Contrast this approach to the constructivist model, of which educators Piaget, Bruner and Gardner support(ed), where the learner directs his or her own learning and ‘constructs’ knowledge by drawing upon his or her experiences and background while interacting with learning content.

What is the Sage-on-the Side?
I first came across the term, sage on the side while reading Campus Technology’s article ‘2012: What’s Hot, What’s Not’ which seems to describe the blending of theories of learning, constructivist and directive. Four technologists shared their views about upcoming learning trends and tools in educational technology. Consensus is, that college lectures as we know them, will transform given new technology (i.e. lecture capture, mobile devices), online learning and changes in learner styles.

We need a Sage AND a Guide
I do not suggest one theory is better than another – though I see parts of the theories being necessary in online learning as a new paradigm for college instruction emerges. Why?  First off, the  medium of delivery for online learning, the learning management platform (such as Moodle) forces change. And two, the learner has changed and the learning context. It’s no wonder that academia has been wary of online learning with this clash in ideologies. The instructor, (aka the sage) requires a completely different skill set for e-learning – he or she needs to be a mentor and the intellect. I  see the need for instructor’s knowledge (now more than ever) to be shared with students, especially since we have information available 24/7. These subject matter experts (sage or instructor), can help students discern, think and learn, but only with a skill set that can teach and communicate in the online environment.

Controversy about Online Teaching and Learning
Controversy about the quality of online learning should not be a new to most educators, but I suggest it is due in part to the lack of online skilled instructors. There has been a tremendous gap —- though top-notch instructors of face-to-face institutions may be excellent in the traditional lecture environment, they may be unprepared and lack the appropriate technical skills for teaching online. A new teaching model is needed – one that includes a subject matter expert with a specific set of competencies.

Essential Competencies for the Online Instructor
Colleges are beginning to recognize this need for additional skills and many have provided training programs and support. One such school, Penn State, developed Competencies of Online teaching Success, a video series geared to online educators to develop competencies for effective online instruction. University of South Wales, developed an excellent video series Learning to Teach Online, for online instructors.

Skills need by Online Instructors:

  • Communication skills for the asynchronous environment
  • Time management
  • Technical skills for LMS
  • Trouble shooter
  • Mentor
  • Instructional design skills to create an environment for online collaboration

I’ll leave you with a video from COFA, which describes how higher education institutions can adapt successfully to the changes and challenges of online learning.