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You create your own thoughts. No one can think for you except you. You—and only you—have the power to construct thoughts in your mind. This is not some New Thought treatise on spirituality. It is a declaration about how you learn and how you think. While the idea that you create your own thoughts is a commonly accepted position in the early 21st century, it has not always been the case.

The four major learning theories are behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism and constructivism.  Behaviorism is concerned with observable, measurable and achievable objectives.  Cognitivism focuses on the internal mental state of the learner, constructs, symbols and schemas.  Humanism is concerned with the self-actualization of the learner and self-direction. Constructivism emphasizes the willingness, readiness and autonomy of the learner (Leonard, 2002).

Constructivism, a learner-centered paradigm, is widely accepted today. It works very well online because of its collaborative nature and its emphasis on environment. In constructivism the learner constructs knowledge by integrating prior knowledge with current content. Constructivism focuses on the importance of the learner rather than on the importance of the instructor. It works well with synchronous (the instructor is present) and asynchronous (the instructor is not always present) learning environments. These learning environments usually provide and support learner-centered instructional activities. Constructivism is about active rather than passive learning.

The theory of constructivism, which is not one theory but rather a school of thought, has replaced behaviorism and even cognitivism to a large extent in training and learning circles as the “in” theory of how we learn. Based on the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, constructivism works well with new technologies and social networking applications. Piaget’s work, usually termed cognitive constructivism, focuses on the individual’s internal construction of knowledge. Social constructs exist only to act as a framework for the internal construction of knowledge by the individual. Vygotsky’s work, on the other hand, is termed social constructivism. In social constructivism, all knowledge exists only in a social construct and is shared with others rather than existing only in the mind of the individual (Eggen & Kauchak, 1999).  It is a natural for collaboration and places the learner or “You” at the center of everything.

In a constructionist approach knowledge can be developed by learners and shared without necessarily having to pass through an instructor first. The role of the instructor is to act as a facilitator and not as a single conduit of information.  Constructionist theory includes learner motivation, inquiry, discovery and activity as important elements for success. Constructivism is widely accepted as the paradigm in adult learning circles and works well with andragogy.

Andragogy is the term coined to set adult teaching techniques and instructional methods apart from pedagogy or techniques used to help children learn, and it assumes that adults are actively responsible for their own learning. Malcolm Knowles is credited with the term andragogy, and in his book, “The Adult Learner,” he says, “Adults are motivated to learn to the extent they perceive that that learning will help them perform tasks or deal with problems that they confront in their life situations.  Furthermore, they learn new knowledge, understandings, skills values and attitudes most effectively when they are presented with the context of application to real life situations.” (Knowles, 1975, p.67). Other assumptions include:

  • Adults have a need to know “why” they are learning something.
  • Adults have a strong sense of self and make their own decisions about learning.
  • The experiences of adults play a greater role in the volume and quality of the learning experience than do those of children.
  • Adults are willing to learn and to do those things that help them navigate real life situations.
  • Adults are experience- and life-centered rather than subject-centered.

As a result of one of my colleagues cleaning out their office, I recently discovered a book entitled “Theories of Learning” by Hilgard and Bower, published in 1966 with an original copyright date of 1948. What was interesting to me was that the book never mentions constructivist theory. The entire book is based on behaviorism, stimuli and response. Toward the very end there is a mention of cognitive theory, motivation and personality theory, but nowhere does it mention constructivist theory—not even in the subject index.  So in less than a half-century, the paradigm of how people learn has changed radically. You are no longer considered an empty pail waiting to be filled with knowledge. Neither are you considered a computer, programmable through a hierarchical method of input, process and output. In a little over a half-century, the paradigms for learning have radically changed.

If only you can learn for you, and if only you can construct your thoughts, then what is a teacher or trainer supposed to do? The mission of trainers and educators has also changed under this new model. Subject matter experts used to be necessary for the dissemination of information—where else could you get the information you sought? Today this is no longer true. The internet brings information to our desktops and to our cell phones instantaneously. The new role of teachers, then, is not one of a subject matter expert. Their new role is to create of an environment that supports the construction of knowledge. Constructivist learning environments position the learner in a zone or a place that increases the opportunity for learning.  A well-constructed learning environment increases the probability that learning will take place. The teacher  is responsible for creating instruction and presenting content.

All of these changes in the theories of how people learn would be radical enough in and of themselves, but this has been no ordinary century. Computers, the Internet, and technological innovations of every sort have catapulted knowledge and learning experiences into expansive areas. The number of institutions of higher education that support online learning as being the same as—or superior to—face-to-face learning  jumped from 57% in 2003 to 68% in 2009 (Allen & Seaman, 2009).

The use of hypermedia and the ability to individualize instruction are realities. Hypermedia is a combination of video, audio, text, graphics and/or animations that can be linked together and delivered in a hypertext format. These technologies offer the ability to customize instruction for the individual learner and have made the individualization of instruction both feasible and practical.

In order to make technology useful for delivering learning materials, some knowledge of how the individual absorbs and processes information is imperative. The best possible classroom or online presentations or e-Learning modules are created by designing the instruction to support the learning. Whether the instruction is self-directed learning or a social collaborative experience, in many cases the interface for learning is some type of technology.

Most of these technologies have a visual component. Whether it is a PowerPoint presentation, simulation, web application or a homepage on Facebook, more often than not we are interfacing with technologies that use snf display visuals as an important part of the learning interface.  There is research that shows that we are becoming more and more visual. After all, the Millennials and younger generations are used to seeing pictures everywhere. They grew up with television, Playstation and YouTube, and they expect to see a visual interface when they communicate with each other and with the world at large.  So although you can’t learn them and you can’t teach them something they already know (Robert  Mager, 1997), what you can do is design good instruction. You can use powerful visual images to impact the way people learn. In short, you can increase the probability that the learner will learn by positioning him or her in the learning zone. The learning zone is a place that takes into account where the learner is and what we know about learning, and then creates an environment that supports the ability to learn. Using good visuals images designed with learning in mind is one way to do this.

This is actually not new news. Historically, many influential scholars have seen the importance of visuals in influencing learning.  Aristotle stated that “without image, thinking is impossible.” (Stokes, 2001, p.10).  Pictures preceded language, and language developed as a way to label and communicate pictures.  Even letters of the alphabet began as symbols with meaning.  These letters convey the verbal language of people in the same way that musical notes convey the language of music. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, recognized the impossibility of conveying volumes of data, so he translated the words into drawings instead. Visual representation has been recognized as a better way of representing things for a long time (Stokes, 2001).