Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists … in their own words.
At the start of this stimulating book, its editor, Knud Illeris, presents his own definition of learning as “any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change and which is not solely due to biological maturation or ageing” (p.7) – in effect, learning is what helps us move forward in life, and can be the result of any number of conditions, within ourselves and in the world around us. He goes on to discuss his own perspectives on learning, deriving from the work of the famous psychologist of learning Jean Piaget, concluding that “learning is a very complicated matter” and emphasising that “analyses, programmes and discussions of learning must consider the whole field if they are to be adequate and reliable” (p.18).
Needless to say, there is no single right answer to the question of how learning happens, and one of the great attractions of this book is that it offers great variety of possible answers in what are, for the most part, quite readable and relatively brief discussions of different viewpoints, by the actual authors of those ideas. It is therefore both authentic, and accessible, and even if it does not enable us to understand the “whole field” of learning theory, it provides an excellent introduction.
There is no doubt that this is an excellent reference book for the student of education, which would provide a firm grounding for the discussion of learning theory in any exam or thesis. But equally, this book is a rich resource for readers with a more practical or immediate concerns who would like to know what the experts have to say. It is full of ideas, and contradictions, and new directions to follow up, and can be dipped in and out of, in no particular order, and would be all the more rewarding for reading in such a way.
As engaging starting points, I would suggest Elkjaer on Pragmatism, Mezirow on Transformative Learning, Wenger on A Social Theory of Learning (as well as his colleague Lave, on The Practice of Learning), Gardner on Multiple Approaches to Learning, and Peter Jarvis’s chapter on Learning to Become a Person in Society. There are, on the other hand, chapters which I personally find quite hard work, such as Tennant on Lifelong Learning as a Technology of the Self, which I felt disinclined to read through on this occasion, but might at another time find easier to connect with. This book can be read in an exploratory way, and you certainly don’t have to read all of it in order to realise its qualities.
If one reads just the opening two paragraphs of Etienne Wenger’s chapter on A Social Theory of Learning, the value and pleasure of this book present themselves very clearly. In a few lines, he captures the key problems with traditional views of education (as experienced in any context, at any age), and then immediately offers the prospect of a positive way forward by proposing that learning is a part of everything we do, and that it is “essentially a social phenomenon”. He then goes on to discuss the concept with which he is most associated – that of “communities of practice”, most helpfully emphasising that “a social theory of learning is … not exclusively an academic enterprise” (p.216). Equally helpfully, he concludes by outlining a few key theories of learning that together constitute the theoretical landscape within which his own particular theory is situated. Above all, this chapter is alive and alight with its author’s enthusiasm for ideas that might help us make sense of the real world. And this is true, in fact, of the whole book.
There is much to relish and benefit from in this book, and in the end its only fault – which of course is not a fault at all – is that at times it seems like there is far too much to relish and benefit from, so that it is hard at times to know what to think. But so long as it is read for the stimulation of your own thinking, rather than for definitive answers, it should prove to be an invaluable and long-term intellectual companion.
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