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Background and existing knowledge

The belief in the idea of formulating general laws of learning has dropped to zero (see Shuell, 1996; Weinert, 1996a,b; Reinmann-Rothmeier and Mandl, 1998; Terhart, 2003; Qvortrup & Wiberg, 2013a), and the field has been characterised by two approaches: on the one hand, some proponents of theories of learning tend to advocate their own viewpoint and see the perspectives as mutually exclusive and therefore incompatible; while on the other hand, some researchers try to unify the field into a comprehensive theory of learning (Illeris, 2006; Jarvis, 2006). The consequence is that definitions of learning are either narrow or broad. Application of theories of learning has spread into many different fields but the tendency is that there is a lack of development of the classic learning theories such as behaviorist, cognitive, pragmatic and socio-cultural theories. Often these theories are used with only few modifications in fields such as organisational learning, workplace learning, lifelong learning and areas of teaching. Exceptions within the field of education are e.g. transformative theories of learning (Mezirow, 1991) and Engeström’s expansive theory of learning (Engeström, 1987). Furthermore, it appears that the interest in learning within various fields does not inspire mutual inspiration, and consequentially that development of strong theory building is not brought about.

Looking at learning theories as a field of knowledge, learning is defined by various concepts and metaphors (Sfard 1998, Qvortrup & Wiberg, 2013), which describe interplay between different aspects or distinctions, e.g. between subject and object, individuality and context, inside and outside, thinking and action, cognition and body, etc. Sfard distinguishes between two categories of metaphors: acquisition metaphors and participation metaphors, which are useful in order to categorise current tendencies in definitions of learning, although considering the complexity of the field of learning theories the categorisation must be expanded and refined. This work has been started with the book Læringsteori & Didaktik (Qvortrup & Wiberg, 2013), inspired by Winch’s philosophical substantiations of theories of learning (Winch, 1998, 2012) and Cobb’s attempt to discuss the use of theory of learning in teaching contexts (Cobb, 2007).   

Looking at how empirical research and practice are linked to the theoretical perspective, there have been repeated attempts to derive instructional prescriptions directly from theoretical perspectives. Examples of this have occurred in the context of constructivism as a broad term: the theoretical assumption that learning is a constructive activity has been translated into instructional recommendations such as student-orientated inquiry teaching, problem-based teaching, and task-based teaching. Such attempts tend to focus on the teachers’ proactive efforts to support their students’ learning as interfering with the students’ attempts to construct meaning for themselves (Qvortrup & Keiding, 2013a; Hattie, 2009, p. 26, Cobb, 2007, p. 5). Such examples are results of a lack of a systematic distinction between reflections on learning theory and teaching theory).