Both nationally and internationally, there is an increased political focus on learning and a “call for harnessing knowledge about learning and applying it more systematically to education” (Dumont, Istance & Benavides, 2013). Teachers are expected to provide students with opportunities and strategies for learning (Nordenbo et al., 2008; Hattie, 2009; Christiansen, 2011; Mehlbye, 2004). The difficulty is that a variety of understandings of learning has evolved and the field of learning theories has become massively complex with different foci, founders and proponents, schools, and disciplinary approaches (see Qvortrup & Wiberg, 2013), and there exist no considered and practice-based reflections on how to move from learning, learning objectives and learning theory to teaching, teaching strategies and teaching theories. There is a need for a modernised and refined conception of the field of learning theory, with focus on the interplay between teaching and learning. The proposal of the project ‘On the Definition of Learning’ is that clarification, discussion and development of fundamental units of analysis within already developed theories of learning are needed in order to get closer to understanding the phenomenon of learning. In the title of the project it is important to note the ‘on’, which refers to how difficult it is to deal with a definition of learning, because definitions of learning are dependent on the basic assumptions they build on as well as the historical context and situations they are developed in. The phenomenon of learning has been an object of various disciplines of research and fields of interest, which have conducted empirical studies as well as stated various definitions and conceptualisations of learning. Therefore, if we aspire to understand the phenomenon of learning in the current situation we must see it as a function of different definitions of learning, which originate from different units of analysis situated within different fields of research and interests such as educational settings, organisational learning, digital learning and lifelong learning. As a result of the multi-faceted landscape of theories and definitions of learning there is a lack of mutual inspiration between the different fields, interests and positions. The consequence is that the development of a refined understanding of learning is difficult. Furthermore, there is a need to investigate the interplay between theories of learning and the phenomenon of learning in order to discuss the validity of theoretical and empirical investigations of the phenomenon of learning, and a need for clarification of how theories of learning contribute to improving students’ learning and teachers’ facilitating of learning.
The project addresses the research question:
An investigation of how various theories and definitions of learning currently spreading across different positions and fields provide us with various ways of identifying learning as an empirical phenomenon. The investigation will clarify and develop the learning theory field and our understanding of how theories of learning contribute to improving students’ learning and teachers’ facilitation of learning
Three areas in need of development can be identified. The first area, theory building within the learning theory field, is a presupposition for the third area, which focuses on combining theories of learning with theory and practice of teaching. The second area concerns the identification of the phenomenon of learning in the empirical field and builds a bridge between the first and the third area, avoiding the direct way from theoretical perspectives to instructional prescriptions.
The first area is theory building within the learning theory field. There is a need for mapping and categorising the different areas where theory of learning and empirical research into learning have evolved since the concept of learning spread from education to many other fields. The project will focus on how various theories of learning provide us with various ways of identifying learning in order to identify learning situations in the context of teaching. This requires knowledge of the structure and characteristics of the field of learning theory and of the epistemological and ontological frameworks of specific theories. This area of theory building will facilitate a synthesis that moves away from individual ‘pure’ theories of learning, towards learning theories as a field of knowledge and theoretical reflections on learning as a central discipline in education research and practice.
The second area is the study of the relation between learning theory and empirical research concerning learning and human change. The project will investigate the interplay between theories of learning and the phenomenon of learning in order to discuss the validity of theoretical and empirical investigations of the phenomenon of learning. The project will clarify how learning theory and concepts can prove useful in regard to certain contexts, interests, problems and situations – i.e. ‘viable’ (von Glasersfeld, 1996), ‘operationally useful’ (von Foerster, 1984), or in the form of ‘ideas as plans of operations to be performed’ (Dewey, 1990). In this respect, knowledge in terms of concepts, ideas and theories may represent an instrument of finding one’s way around (Terhart, 2003).
The third area is theory building within the field of teaching theory. Research suggests that a theory of teaching includes both a theory of student learning and a theory of teacher behaviour (Hattie, 2009; Terhart, 2011). Repeated attempts have been made to derive instructional prescriptions directly from theoretical perspectives. There is a need for a considered and practice based approach to development of teaching theory on the basis of research knowledge in the field of learning theory (Richardson, 2003; Sfard, 1998; Cobb, 2007). The project’s understanding of teaching relates to the discussion between the German and Scandinavian tradition of didactics and the Anglo-Saxon curriculum tradition. It is inspired by Hopmann (n.d.), Hopmann, Westbury and Riquarts (2000), and Gundem and Hopmann (ed.) (2002), who prepare the ground for dialogue between didactics and the curriculum traditions (see also Qvortrup & Keiding, 2013a, b).