Perspectives on philosophical backgrounds of learning theories

The question of learning is inherently intertwined with the question of knowing. Already the earliest philosophers of our Western culture, the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, disagreed on what knowledge is and how it can be acquired. The question is tied to both ontological issues concerning the nature of reality and epistemological issues about how we can acquire knowledge about it. While Plato relied on the power of thought in terms of abstract rational thinking in epistemological questions, Aristotle emphasised the role of empirical observations in our environment. This problem between acquiring knowledge through ideas of our mind or through observations was later explicated by Rene Descartes in the 17th century. He studied the so-called mindbody dichotomy, a schism between the immaterial mind and material body, which later became known as Cartesian dualism.

In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant wanted to pass the traditional epistemological problem and wrote the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. His aim was to show that both our mind and body have an important role in our knowledge formation. While our senses give us information about our environment, our mind works on this information both by affecting how we perceive it and by changing based on the bodily sensations. Thus, our reason is not pure in the sense that it is shaped by our prior experiences and thoughts. Similarly, our sensations are not pure because our mind shapes what we notice and how we interpret our sensations. This was the beginning of a new way of thinking about knowledge and learning, and the current constructivist theories are more or less based on Kant’s thoughts. The philosophers of the 21st century have also tried to overcome the old mind-body-problem. For example, Lakoff and Johnson (1999, p. xi), who build on Kant and French existentialists, for example Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre, state that the whole Cartesian problem has been wrongly formulated. We should have never separated the mind from the body, but instead we should view them as a coherent whole. Our body sets the limits for our cognitive capabilities and correspondingly our mind has an effect on how we interpret our environment and behave in it.

In addition to the philosophers’ thoughts and analyses about concepts of the nature of reality and knowledge, the methods of natural sciences have had a tremendous effect on our understanding of human thought and learning. Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species in 1859 (Darwin, 1979), which had a great impact on the study of human thinking and behaviour. Establishing a link between humans and other animals gave completely new tools and hypotheses to explore behaviour, learning, and individual differences. Psychologists started to make experiments on animals (e.g., Skinner, Watson) hoping that the results would be applicable to human behaviour. Positivists believed that all questions could be solved by empirical observations and inferences from the results of empirical experiments. The strongest effect of positivism on educational theories has been a theory called behaviourism, according to which behaviour can be predicted and controlled if exactly the right operations are applied.

According to Murtonen, Gruber, and Lehtinen (2017), the most profound problem of behaviourism from the viewpoint of learning is the behaviourist epistemology. Since behaviourists considered the mind as a black box that cannot be opened, they were not interested in discussing epistemological questions. Nevertheless, they still made assumptions about the mind. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1998) describe the behaviourist conception of the mind as a mental filing cabinet where separate pieces of knowledge are stored. This type of conception can be seen in various attempts to create taxonomies of learning outcomes where knowledge is seen as memorised pieces of information which then can be applied or evaluated in different ways (for taxonomies, see, Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964). These models neglect the important development of the last decades in research on learning and cognition, which highlight the crucial role of knowledge structures and mental models in higher order learning (Murtonen et al., 2017).

One of the most influential theories that have impacted our understanding of learning is Piaget’s (1972) theory of cognitive development or genetic epistemology as he called it (see also Chapter 3). The theory shares some of the Kantian ideas but instead of proposing static categories Piaget describes how advanced cognitive structures are gradually constructed from primary reflexes through different stages (Piaget, 1972). The stage theory has been heavily criticised during past decades (e.g., Carey, 1985), but very recent findings of the development of basic cognitive mechanisms (executive functions described later in this chapter) seem to support Piaget’s description of general stages of thinking (Carey, Zaitchik, & Bascandziev, 2015). However, later philosophical and empirical research show that humans have much more differentiated innate and embodied predispositions for learning and development than just primary reflexes, which are assumed as starting points for higher cognitive stages in the Piagetian theory. Fodor (1983, 1985) developed a theory of the modularity of mind, according to which “perceptual processes are computationally isolated from much of the background knowledge to which cognitive processes have access” (Fodor, 1985, p. 1). According to Fodor’s theory, the human mind has many innate abilities which allow us to cope in different areas of life. Learning is thus based on these basic cognitive functions in the brain, also in adulthood.

Concurrently with the heyday of empirical research and positivism, different types of philosophically inspired ideas, which later became known as sociocultural views, arose elsewhere. Pragmatists Dewey (1938, 1944) and Mead (1934) developed theories about the relationship between a learner and an environment, paying attention to different types of factors than the empiricists in their tests with animals. Dewey explored development and learning in practical situations and also the cultural factors involved. Mead concentrated on social interaction and its’ effect on learning. These both are related to the work by Vygotsky, whose sociocultural theory is partly situated within the Marxist philosophical tradition (Vygotsky, 1930/1978). Language is crucial for development in Vygotsky’s theory both in individual problem solving situations and in social interaction. One very important concept of Vygotsky’s theoretical thinking is the zone of proximal development, which describes a level of development where a learner cannot yet solve problems without the help of the more experienced teacher, adult, or other helper. The sociocultural view has laid the basis for the more recent theories of collaborative learning (Dillenbourg, 1999), such as the knowledge creation (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995) and collaborative knowledge building in collaborative networks (Hakkarainen, Palonen, Paavola, & Lehtinen, 2004), which are powerful, especially in explaining learning in adulthood contexts (for analogical conceptualisations in adult cognitive development research, see Part I in this book).

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