Theories on How we Learn
If learning is the process by which we incorporate ideas and information into our memories, then learning theory aims to describe the nature of the process and offer insight into how teaching can be improved. There are several modern co-existing theories on how we learn, each offering answers to one of several questions - what, when, why, and how.
To answer the question of "what" we learn, we know there are four types of information acquisition: transmission, acquisition, accretion, and emergence. Transmission is the transfer of knowledge from one person to another by demonstration, guidance, or direct instruction. It's the traditional way that we envision teaching, but it really only accounts for a small amount of what we learn in our lifetimes. Acquisition is conscious research, guided by the learner. This includes exploration, experimentation, and curiosity. Accretion is a gradual, sometimes subliminal, acquisition of knowledge. This is the primary source for learning about language, habits, culture, and social rules, and it accounts for most of the things that we know. Emergence results from internal reflection. It is the construction of new ideas or theories based on a synthesis of existing knowledge, and it is the primary source of originality.
Piaget's theory of cognitive development answers the question of "when" we learn. According to Piaget, children develop according to stages. The rate of development depends on the fulfillment of intellectual and emotional milestones, each stage building on the successful completion of previous stages. The specifics of Piaget's theory have been improved by further research, but Piaget's stage-oriented view of development remains the most prominent theory of when learning occurs.
Why do we learn? Many people have never asked this question. Lev Vygotsky's theory of Social Cognition offers interesting insight into the reasons behind learning. According to Vygotsky, learning occurs primarily because of cultural influence. The social cognition learning model posits that children learn because culture teaches them both what to think and how to think.
How we learn has been a widely studied and, at times, a hotly debated topic. The earliest modern model of learning is B.F. Skinner's behaviorist theory. Behaviorism is the theory that positive and negative reinforcement influences and controls learning. According to Skinner, negative reinforcement, also known as punishment, will discourage behavior, while positive reinforcement, like praise, will encourage it. Animal studies strongly support the behaviorist model. Animals learn very quickly to avoid the button or lever that delivers a shock while pressing the button that delivers the food. Many psychologists dispute behaviorism's ability to tell the whole story. After all, human beings respond to more than just rewards and punishments. Many cognitive scientists have dismissed behaviorism because of its perceived inability to explain the intricate methods of learning and cognition in which the human brain engages. Additionally, it fails to explain how the social environment affects learning. The idea that behavior can be explained without referencing sociocultural influences is a tenet of behaviorism, leading to a theory that most scientists dismiss as too narrow. A person's behavior depends on more than just the rewards and punishments that they have experienced throughout their life. Noam Chomsky, a famous linguist, dismissed behaviorism for its inability to explain language acquisition in children. Language seems to be learned without being explicitly taught.
All of these theories can co-exist because they attempt to explain different methods or types of learning. Each answers a different question, and together, they provide a broad understanding of the brain and learning.