Historical Overview on the Development of Learning Theories
There are several theories that describe how a person learns. These theories stem from the fact that the learning ability of one person is unique from the other. Learning is a relatively permanent modification in behavior to include the observed activity and the internal processes involved such as thinking, attitudes and emotions. Some studies also include motivation as part of the definition of the learning process. The manifestations of learning cannot be noticed immediately in the observable behavior of an individual. However, the manifestation takes place after the educational program is introduced to the person (Dunn, 2002).
The origins of instructional theory could be traced back as early as 1910 through the effort of educational psychologists John Dewey and Edward Thorndike. Dewey developed a link that connects psychology and practical learning theory in the education setting while Thorndike investigated the learning principles that could be applied to the teaching process immediately. It is also Edward Thorndike who pioneered and organized several instructional design principles to include task analysis and teaching techniques through his research and student evaluation methods (Tennyson, 2010).
In most of the 1960s, instructional research was founded on behaviourist learning models and theories. Several empirical studies were made to determine the most effective way to implement a stimulus-response-reinforcement model or operant model to make sure that the proposed learning outcome is achieved. One of the main objectives of instructional research is focused on the methodology particularly on the analysis of task and development of behavioural objectives for learning. Some of these task analyses include (1) determining small, additional skills or subskills that the learner must acquire to ensure successful instruction; (2) preparing behavioral goals that would result to the acquisition of subskills; and (3) sequencing subskills acquisition in the order that would most lead to successful outcome. The idea of individual differences in the behavioral model focuses on how to operate the environment that will determine student differences (Tennyson, 2010).
However, in the late 1960s, studies revealed that programmed materials were less effective than conventional materials because students found program materials uninteresting. Further, the principles of learning were found to be untrue particularly the complex learning task that were given in the classroom. In the 1970s, findings were contradictory to the proposed design of instructions in the 1960s on the role of behavioral principles such as feedback, rewards, sequencing and the role of the definition of objectives in the learning process. These findings pave the way to the cognitive approach to learning throughout the 1970s. Brunner moved away from the stimulus-response reinforcement model to develop instructional designs based on the mental processes of learners (Tennyson, 2010). Instructional design theories covered a wide range of perspectives as the individual ideas of psychologists and educators were pursued.
Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism
Some of the major learning theories include behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. Behaviorism puts emphasis on the idea that learning is a sequence of stimulus and response actions in the learner. The role of teacher or instructors as a modifier of behavior and setter of situations in which learning is reinforced by desired responses that are being exhibited (Taylor, 2004). Behaviorism was demonstrated in the study of Pavlov where he discovered that more experienced dogs start salivation when they see a person feeding them even if that person arrives without food compared to younger dogs. This response to a certain stimulus is called classical conditioning. Pavlov’s findings indicate that the older dogs learned to associate the sight of the person feeding them with salivation (Taylor, 2004).
Cognitivism on the other hand considers unobservable phenomena or the thinking process of a person. The theory is founded on the concept that learning happens when the learner processes the information. Piaget was the pioneer of cognitivism. His theory suggests that as a child grows, so is his cognitive structures to include mental maps or linked concepts as a response to experiences that occur within their environment, to develop their conceptual reasoning. As the child passes through developmental stages, his concepts about reality and how it operates are also constructed. Learning only materializes once an individual assimilated the learning into his existing cognitive structures. Bruner on the other hand suggested three components to learning a subject: acquiring novel information, transforming information through analysis, and evaluating the information whether it is correct or not. In cognitivism, the learner permits the torrent of thoughts in the direction that the conversation takes. During a conversation, new information is acquired, transformed and evaluated the learner through his involvement in the scenarios (Taylor, 2004).
The constructivism approach to learning covers the learners’ ability to solve real life practical problems. This theory suggests that our reflections and experiences allow us to create our own understanding of the world. Malcolm Knowles, Carl Rogers and David Kolb are some of the most notable constructivists to date. Knowles studies puts emphasis on adult learning theory which refers to the learner’s focused education in which the education is considered for all ages. Knowles theory on pedagogy also suggested that it is the teacher who directs learning and it is also the teacher who decides what, when, and how will the subject be learned. On the other hand, Carl Rogers’ client centered therapy deals with the non-directive role of the therapist that encourages the client to develop a deeper understanding of his self. Roger’s puts emphasis on the student centered approach to learning indicating that teachers as facilitators of learning provides learning resources and shares both feelings and knowledge with the learners. David Kolb believes that experiential learning is associated to the intellectual origins of an individual. The learning process commences once a person carrying out a particular action sees the effect of such action. Understanding the effect of the action allows the learner to anticipate the action once the same stimulus is reintroduced to the learner. It is also in this way that the learner understands the general principles embedded within the action thereby leading to its implementation. In certain cases, the learner is allowed to experience potentially dangerous experience where the learner eventually reflects and discuss how to manage such situations (Taylor, 2004).
Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Social Cognitive Theory
There are several psychological disorders that impede the normal flow of learning process in an individual. According to Carpenter et al. (2002), a normal developing infant shows signs of early social cognitive skills during their developmental stages such as joint attention, communication gestures, gaze and point-following imitation and referential language. Infants share the attention coming from the others and eventually follow such then eventually establish a certain behavior and then they direct the attention of the others and return to establishing their behavior.
Autism spectrum disorders exhibits both deficiencies in the cognitive and social interaction of an individual. Individuals who are suffering from autism and schizophrenia are marked by disabilities to perform social function to include poor social network, social skills and even difficulties in maintaining employment. Further, deficiencies in social cognition such as poor theory of mind or problems detecting emotions in social effector are some of the identified contributors to the said social dysfunction.
The DSM IV defined autism spectrum disorders as a qualitative damage in the social dynamics and communication. According to Sung et al. (2011), anxiety-related problems are the most common diagnosis for children and adolescent in school that suffers with ASD. Social phobia that is greater than those in typically-developing children is also one of the main characteristics of ASD. Some of the stereotypical behaviors include echolalia, twirling, rocking, flicking, hand flapping, and repetitive question that often increases as children becomes more distressed or anxious.
The diagnosis of autism sometimes overlaps with schizophrenia. Thus, it is important to delineate the diagnostic characteristics of the said disorders that significantly affect the learning process of an individual (Gottesman and Gould, 2003; Couture et al., 2010). Some studies show that those people who exhibit high-functioning autism are characterized by specific differences in the rate of social orientation. Some of the observable manifestations of high-functioning autism include a direct gaze to the face of another person at a slower rate. High-functioning autism has been linked with the genes and brain regions. While both high-functioning autism and schizophrenia are both characterized by distinct social cognitive deficiencies, those individuals with schizophrenia have impaired basic emotion perception and higher order of task in the hierarchies of the theory of mind.
Dichter and Berger (2007) demonstrated how the mind of an individual having an autistic disorder operates and how his cognitive control deficiencies and his social skills are affected through an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Their goal is to determine the how information processing of different faces at a certain direction influence brain activity in areas where cognitive control is augmented. Using a centrally-oriented arrow as a stimulus where incongruent arrows indicate how the brain region responsible for cognitive control functions in relation to the absence of social cognitive demands. Results show that the different arrow condition initiated an activity in the “bilateral midfrontal gyrus, right inferior frontal gyrus, bilateral intraparietal sulcus, and the anterior cingulate” in relation to similar arrow condition in neurotypical participants. There were also dissimilarities in the diagnostic group with respect to the patterns of activation in response to the arrow condition. In viewing the differences in gaze stimuli, the same response was given by neurotypical patients in the same region of the brain. However, high-functioning autism individuals exhibited a pronounced hypoactivation in the aforementioned brain regions. These results indicated that social-cognitive stimuli processes hinder the functioning of the brain regions during cognitive control task in autism.
Carpenter et al. (2002) demonstrated that most children with autism have difficulties with test related to attention as compared to other test related to behavior. Within the domains of attention and behavior, the typical pattern of sharing-following-directing was evident for typically developing infants. However, there were several positive intercorrelations related to social-cognitive skills on children with autism. Joint engagement was positively correlated with other skills except for attention following. Referential language was also positively correlated with other skills except communicative gestures.
Interventions for Social Cognitive-Related Disorders
Some children who have been clinically diagnosed of anxiety marks a distinct characteristic on information-processing bias. These children selectively join the threat-related information leading to the misinterpretation of a threatening situation. In the same vein, there are also children who are clinically diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder that have a weak central coherence or skills in integrating information into a clear picture that results to the flawed perception of the situation. Social information processing problems further contribute to the said predicaments that also results to further anxiety.
Psychosocial treatments for social cognitive impairments have been widely documented for people showing signs of anxiety and autism behaviors. One of the most documented treatments is the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The goal of this therapy is to help the individual determine and rectify cognitive deficiencies and distortions linked with anxiety to effectively build changes in the emotions and behaviors of an individual. CBT allows individuals to learn skills to modify thoughts and beliefs, and also facilitates individuals to effectively respond to problem-solving to improve the capacity of an individual to interact with others effectively and appropriately. As a result, the individual learns to regulate himself (Robinson et al., 1999).
The use of CBT in managing the anxiety of children with ASD has been evident in the study of Chalfant et al. (2007), which suggests that CBT lowers the levels of anxiety with ASD as compared to their control group, in which the involvement of parents are also found to augment the condition of their children to become better. Besides CBT there are also other intervention programs that facilitate the improvement of children with ASD. Social recreational activities have been also suggested to be beneficial for children with ASD. Through these events, children are given greater opportunity to socially interact and develop friendships thereby improving their social skills. The effect includes the enhancement of self-confidence, self-worth, and lower anxiety to develop a long-term mental and physical health (Sung et al., 2011).
Carpenter, M., Pennington, B. F. and Rogers, S. J. (2002). Interrelations among Social-Cognitive Skills in Young Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(2): 92-106.
Chalfant, A. M., Rapee, R., Carroll, L. (2007). Treating Anxiety Disorders in Children with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Controlled Trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37:1842–1857.
Couture, S. M., Penn, D. L., Losh, M., Adolphs, R., Hurley, R. and Piven, J. (2010). Psychological Medicine, 40: 569–579.
Dicter, G. S. and Belger, A. (2007). Social Stimuli Interfere with Cognitive Control in Autism. NeuroImage, 35: 1219–1230.
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Sung, M., Ooi, Y. P., Goh, T. Z., Pathy, P. Fung, D. S. S., Ang, A. P. et al. (2011). Effects of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy on Anxiety in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 42:634–649.
Taylor, L. (2004). Educational Theories and Instructional Design Models. Their Place in Simulation. Nursing Education and Research, Southern Health. Retrieved from: http://michaelstreets.com/sites/all/libraries/Documents/Educational%20Theories%20and%20Instructional%20Design%20Models.pdf.
Tennyson, R. D. (2010). Historical Reflection on Learning Theories and Instructional Design. Contemporary Educational Technology, 1(1): 1-16.