There are many different theories of education, all of which have some merit. After studying many theories, both in class, and through personal study I have chosen four which I believe are the most applicable in today’s society. I will discuss Thorndike’s Connectionism Learning Theory, Rumelhart & Norman’s Tri Modal Learning Theory, Bandura’s Social Learning Theory and finally Lave’s Situated Learning Theory. The two primary theories involve structured instruction, the final two rely upon the exposure of different elements of the environment and human nature. I will then compare the theories, highlighting their variances, whilst also focussing upon their application to life.

Connectionism Learning Theory

Connectionism, the learning theory of Thorndike, suggests that learning is the result of associations forming between stimuli and responses. He theorises that these connections, or “habits”, become strengthened or weakened by the nature and frequency, and that certain responses may also come to dominate others due to rewards.

Thorndike’s Connectionism was meant to be a general theory of learning for animals and humans. He was especially interested in the application of his theory to education, including mathematics, spelling and reading measurement of intelligence and adult learning.

The classic example of Thorndike’s stimulus-response theory was a cat learning to escape from a “puzzle box” by pressing a lever inside the box. After much trial and error behaviour, the cat learns to push the lever to open the box. This connection is established because it results in success, as the cat escapes from the box. The law of exercise specifies that the connection was established because the connection occurred many times (the law of effect) and was rewarded (law of effect) as well as forming a single sequence (law of readiness).

The 3 laws discussed above are the essence of the Connectionism Learning Theory, The Law of Effect applies when responses to a situation which are successful will be strengthened and become habitual responses to that situation. When a series of responses can be observed, the Law of Readiness can be assumed, and finally, The Law of Exercise can be observed when connections become strengthened with practice and weakened when practice is discontinued.

Therefore, Connectionism involves a response to any given stimulus, which, when rewarded, can be practised, and the response learned. This idea of practice is also evident in the next educational theory I shall discuss, Tri Modal Learning.

Tri Modal Learning Theory

D. Rumelhart & D. Norman (1978) proposed that there are three modes of learning: accretion, structuring and tuning. Accretion is the addition of new knowledge to existing memory. Structuring is the application of knowledge to a task, and tuning is the adjustment of knowledge to a specific task usually through practice. Accretion is the most common form of learning; structuring occurs much less frequently and requires considerable effort; tuning, or practice is the slowest form of learning and results in expert performance.

This is a general model for human learning, although it was originally proposed in the context of language learning. Norman has applied his theory using the example of learning morse code. Initial learning of the code is the process of accretion. Learning to recognise sequences or full words represents restructuring. The gradual increase in translation or transmission speed indicates the process of tuning.

Thus, the general idea of Tri Modal learning surrounds the input, or accretion, of knowledge via instruction, the application, or structuring of the knowledge, and finally, as also seen in Connectionism, the tuning, or practice of this knowledge.

The past two theories I have discussed involved the actual feeding of information to the individual. The next two theories are the opposite, the individual has more control over what they learn, and the tutor merely chooses the exposure the individual will receive.

Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory of Bandura emphasises the importance of observing and modeling the behaviours, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. Bandura (1977) states: “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” . Social learning theory explains human behaviour as attention, including modelled events and observer characteristics, retention, (such as motor rehearsal), motor reproduction, including physical capabilities, or self-observation of reproduction, and finally motivation, including external and self reinforcement .

The Social Learning Theory has been applied extensively to the understanding of aggression and psychological disorders, particularly in the context of behaviour modification. It is also the theoretical foundation for the technique of behaviour modeling which is widely used in training programs.

The most common examples of social learning situations are television commercials. Commercials suggest that drinking a certain beverage or using a particular hair shampoo will make us popular and win the admiration of attractive people. We model the behaviour shown in the commercial and buy the product being advertised.

Therefore, Social Learning involves the observation of admirable things, which are thus modelled, or mirrored. Similarly, Situated Learning involves observation, but rather than people, it surrounds the effects of the environment on the individual.

Situated Learning Theory

Situated learning is a general theory of knowledge acquisition . It has been applied in the context of technology-based learning activities for schools that focus on problem-solving skills

Midwives, tailors, navy quartermasters, meat cutters and alcoholics; all of these have been proved to have learned via the Situated Learning Theory. In all cases, there was a gradual acquisition of knowledge and skills as novices learned from experts in the context of everyday activities.

Lave argues that learning as it normally occurs is a function of the activity, context and culture in which it occurs (ie., situated). This contrasts with most classroom learning activities which involve knowledge which is abstract and out of context. Social interaction is the most important aspect of situated learning, as learners become involved in a “community of practice” which forces them to acquire certain beliefs and behaviours. As the student moves from the border of this community to its center, they become more active and engaged within the culture and assumes the role of expert. In most cases, situated learning is unintentional rather than deliberate. These ideas are what Lave & Wenger call the process of “legitimate peripheral participation.”

Therefore, knowledge is aquired through observations of the environemnt, and social interaction, leading to modelling, or mirroring, as also evident in Social Learning.