5. Epistemology and Theories of Learning

5.2. Epistemology and Theories of Learning

Most teachers in the school/k-12 sector will be familiar with the main theories of learning, but because instructors in post-secondary education are hired primarily for their subject experience, or research or vocational skills, it is essential to introduce and discuss, if only briefly, these main theories. In practice, even without formal training or knowledge of different theories of learning, all teachers and instructors will approach teaching within one of these main theoretical approaches, whether or not they are aware of the educational jargon surrounding these approaches. Also, as new technologies and new modes of teaching such as online learning, technology-based teaching, and informal digital networks of learners have evolved, new theories of learning are beginning to emerge.

With knowledge of alternative theoretical approaches, teachers, and instructors are in a better position to make choices about how to approach their teaching in ways that will best fit the perceived needs of their students, within the very many different learning contexts that teachers and instructors face. This is particularly important when addressing many of the requirements of learners in a digital age that are set out. Furthermore, the choice of or preference for a particular epistemology or a particular theoretical approach to teaching will have major implications for the way that technology is used to support teaching.

In fact, there is a huge amount of literature on theories of learning, and I am aware that the treatment in this book is cursory, to say the least. Those who would prefer a more detailed introduction to theories of learning should explore Schunk (2016) or Harasim (2017). The aim of my book though is not to be comprehensive in terms of in-depth coverage of all learning theories, but to provide a basis on which to suggest and evaluate different ways of teaching to meet the diverse needs of learners in a digital age.

The important point here is that every theory of teaching or learning is underpinned by a particular assumption or understanding of what constitutes ‘true’ knowledge: in other words, by a particular epistemological position. In the following sections I examine four of the most common theories of learning, and the underlying epistemologies that drive them.