The field of education is flush with multifaceted theories and paradigms, each with its unique perspective on the process of acquiring knowledge or skill. From Total Physical Response, to Field Dependency, to Principles of Encoding, the very existence of this multiplicity suggests that learning is both well understood and remarkably mysterious. Interestingly, the instructors of several of my Fall courses have been reluctant to promote theories of learning as lenses of assessment*, much to my dismay, and that of my cohort. Why is this so?
The answer is well-articulated by B. F. Skinner in "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?", published in volume 57 number 4 of The Psychological Review in 1950. Therein, Skinner argues of theories: "instead of prompting us to search for and explore relevant variables, they frequently have quite the opposite effect. . . . We are likely to close our eyes to [the problem of understanding learning] and to use the theory to give us answers in the place of the answers we might find through further study. It might be argued that the principal function of learning theory to date has been, not to suggest appropriate research, but to create a false sense of security, an unwarranted satisfaction with the status quo" (194). Still, I would suggest that even Skinner would be loathe to approach an assessment of learning in tablula rasa, without some semblance of a theoretical lens. His extreme position, nonetheless, serves as a clarion call for the use of theory as a vehicle to transport us to the edge of what is known, from where we must forge new paths of discovery.
As an exercise, our class utilized theories of learning to assess the websites and products of four companies addressing various educational and interactive challenges. Through this endeavor, it became clear that the application of learning theories facilitated rapid categorization and assessment of the products. However, when asked to consider what made these companies successful (or not), these same theories offered little support. As an additional exercise, we were asked to consider why Southwest Airlines or Federal Express were able to forge successful paths in entrenched markets. The answer (at least for the former), lies in their ability to understand the target audience and the conditions of the industry, and to apply creativity to determine a progressive solution (i.e. Southwest's concept of a uniform fleet servicing short, high-volume commuter flights).
Three weeks ago I proposed the Creative Domain as a missing dimension of learning in Bloom's Taxonomy. Professor Kim has suggested that my claim be augmented with a description of the levels of this domain, which, once established, could be used to inform as well as to assess creativity. Such an endeavor will require a great deal of observation and thought, but we can attain progress by working toward a definition of Creativity, as it applies to learning. Author Ken Robinson offers a compelling start during his TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk in 2006: "[Creativity is] the process of having original ideas that have value." He argues that Creativity is the one aspect of intelligence that can address what is likely to be an unpredictable future. Furthermore, and most critically, he suggests that Creativity is unlearned rather than learned. If this is the case, then it has serious implications for the field of education. Specifically, in order to foster creativity we would need to protect and nourish what preexists, rather than attempt to build creative constructs. A learning environment that would achieve this effect would create opportunities for taking chances, promote a culture where it is OK to be "wrong," encourage interdisciplinary vision and thought, and honestly embrace unique expressions of intelligence.
* One notable exception is Professor Kim's enthusiastic promotion of the classical Newtonian formula, F = ma as a learning theory. In short, m represents a learner while F is a measure of action or learning. In order to increase F, we need only apply a, an accelerating agent, to the environment. The directionality of the Force is dependent on the educator deriving a "contextualized 'a' for each student" rather than relying on the generic prescriptions of an established learning theory. This exercise in applying Newton's Second Law of Motion to learning theory prompts the question of whether a dynamic learning paradigm could be constructed based on a collection of physical principles.