MODELS OF THE LEARNER
© 2001, 2004, Elena Qureshi, M.A. M.Ed. Ph.D.
There is a body of educational research that emphasizes the importance of
consideration of the learnerís role when writing instructional objectives
(Smith, 1999). New models are being proposed for instruction that are
learner-driven and learner-centered. In this manner, frameworks can be
developed that may allow instruction to be designed in a way so that
students can maximize their learning and teachers can meet expectations of
A teacherís model of the learner will influence their perceived role of a
teacher (Morton, 2000). Depending on how the learner is viewed, research
identifies five models: Tabula Rasa model, Hypothesis Generator, Nativism
model, Constructivist model, and Novice-to-Expert model.
Model 1: Tabula Rasa
One of the conceptions of human nature is known as
"human nature as tabula rasa." Tabula rasa model refers to the theory of
John Locke, an English philosopher, whose works, like those of Rousseau, had
a considerable impact upon our Founding Fathers. The central notion is that
human nature is essentially a blank slate. We are born into the world with
no knowledge, and without having any disposition to do good or evil. What we
become depends entirely upon the affect of the environment. If we control a
child's environment we can make him become what we wish (Shermis,
1998). This idea was picked up by some German
philosophers and also by turn-of-the century psychologists such as Pavlov,
Thorndike, Watson, and in the mid-century by Skinner.
Skinner claimed that children come into the world with a tabula
rasa -a blank slate-bearing no pre-conceived notions about the world or
about language, and these children are then shaped by their environment,
slowly conditioned through various schedules of reinforcement. Skinner also
claimed that learning in general could be programmed. You can teach anything
by a carefully designed program of step-by-step reinforcement. Skinner
characterized the learner as being similar to a battery, in that it
continually emits behavior, while the environment selects certain behaviors
based upon their consequences.
Andrew and Issacs (1995) criticizing Skinnerís model of pure behaviorism,
noted that it denied the importance of internal states in learning. Murphy
(1997) suggested that where behaviorism emphasized observable, external
behaviors and, as such, avoided reference to meaning, representation and
thought. Other researchers (Chomsky, 1971; Graham, 2000) pointed out that
one remarkable feature of human behavior that Skinner deliberately rejected
was that people creatively make their own environments. The world is as it
is, in part, because we make it that way. Skinner protested that "it is in
the nature of an experimental analysis of human behavior that it should
strip away the functions previously assigned to autonomous man and transfer
them one by one to the controlling environment" (Chomsky, 1971, p.198).
Critics also say that behaviorism oversimplifies human behavior and that it
sees the human being as an automation instead of a creature of will and
purpose (Graham, 2000).
In the behavioral approach, learning, according to Murphy (1997), is
conceived as a process of changing or conditioning observable behavior as
result of selective reinforcement of an individual's response to events
(stimuli) that occur in the environment. The mind is seen as an empty vessel
or as a mirror reflecting reality. Behaviorism centers on students' efforts
to accumulate knowledge of the natural world and on teachers' efforts to
transmit it. It therefore relies on a transmission, instructionist approach,
which is largely passive, teacher-directed and controlled.
One of the models of teaching and learning based on the Skinnerís model
is instructivism. According to Fardouly (1998), the instructivist approach
is characterized by the following features:
∑1 Students learn as a result of instruction so they
should be instructed in what to learn.
∑2 Learning is a stimulus-response association that shapes
∑3 Goal oriented learning.
∑4 Goals are structured into a learning hierarchy from
lowest (memorization) to highest (analysis and synthesis).
∑5 Learning tasks reduced into individual components.
∑6 Tasks must be mastered independently and then assembled
(task and skill analysis is carried out to break down skills into
their component parts).
In a typical behaviorist classroom, students are passively involved in
receiving all necessary critical information from the teacher and the
textbook (NCREL, 1995). Rather than inventing solutions and constructing
knowledge in the process, students are taught how to "get the right answer"
using the teacher's method. Students do not even have to "make sense" of the
method used to solve problems.
Model 2: Hypothesis Generator
Cyr (1999) noted that Hull's theory of behavior was the first in the
history of psychology to give a formal and comprehensive explanation for
behavior. This theory could explain behaviors whether normal, abnormal,
animal or human. According to Mills (1998), Hull centered the theory on the
belief that a correlation existed between behavior and the environment, even
at the most primitive level. Hull was confident that when a primary
reinforcement preceded an event it was the primary reinforcer that was the
catalyst for that event to occur. Hull (1934) suggested that the concept of
habit formation had a variety of patterns. Hull theorized that there were
two major types of habit: one characterized by a series of divergent action
choices, radiating out like a fan from a single stimulus each leading to a
distinct reaction, and the second characterized by a convergence of a number
of acquired action tendencies from a separate stimuli, all upon a single
response (Cyr, 1999). Hull suggested that first type was responsible for the
variability of responses in trial and error learning. Each of the divergent
tendencies were incompatible with each other, meaning that the organism was
not capable of operating more than one choice at a time. According to Hull's
theory, the second type of habit formation, convergence, was responsible for
explaining the subtle forms of animal and human adjustments. Hull contended
that convergence was of great importance biologically because it saved an
organism from the trial and error learning process, by having the ability to
react to new stimuli as it arises. Hull further suggested that when it came
to dangerous situations the habit formation of convergence could make the
difference of life or death to an organism.
According to Hullís theory (1934), humans are characterized by
intentionality that is they choose experiences. Furthermore, they generate
hypotheses and interpret their experiences in terms of their notions about
the world (Morton, 2000).
Hull (1935) formulated a number of postulates (or laws), which explained
the variables essential for learning (Ibrahim, 2001). Of these, it is his
fourth postulate, which is important in explaining learning. It defined the
upper limit of the habit strength, a concept developed by Hull. This was
done in terms of relationship between three variables which were:
1) the magnitude of need reduction,
2) the time interval between response and reinforcement, and
3) the time interval between the conditioned stimulus and the response.
Though Hull has propounded a very vigorous theory of learning, the
concept of habit strength is the highlight of it. Thus it is habit strength
that mainly causes learning (Ibrahim, 2001).
Model 3: Nativism Model
In Developmental Psychology, nativism is defined as a theory that says
that we are born with certain capacities to perceive the world in particular
ways. These capacities are often immature or incomplete at birth but develop
gradually. For example, we are born with the capacity to learn language. One
of the supporters of this theory is Chomsky.
Chomsky argued that children come into this world with
very specific innate knowledge, knowledge that includes not only general
predispositions and tendencies but also knowledge of the nature of language
and the world (Linuma, 2000a). Furthermore,
children are born with a built-in device of some kind (LAD) that predisposes
them to language acquisition - to a systematic perception of language around
them, resulting in the construction of an internalized system of language.
Chomsky (1975, p.7) also believed that genetics controls not only the
nature of human language but human knowledge and belief - `our systems of
belief are those that the mind, as a biological structure, is designed to
construct.' If there were topics for which mankind failed to come up with
satisfactory scientific explanations after trying for a long time, this,
according to Chomsky, might be because the true theories of those topics
were not included in the class of theories that human minds were
biologically capable of formulating (Sampson, 2001).
In a review of Skinnerís book on verbal behavior, Chomsky (1959) argued
that some behavior (linguistic behavior, in particular) has to be understood
in terms of internally represented rules. These rules are not products of
learned associations. They are part of our native psychological endowment as
human beings. Chomsky charged that behaviorist models of language learning
could not explain various facts about language acquisition, such as the
rapid acquisition of language by young children, which is sometimes referred
to as the phenomenon of "lexical explosion." A childís linguistic abilities
appear to be radically under-determined by the evidence of verbal behavior
offered to the child in the short period in which he or she acquires those
abilities. By the age of four or five (normal) children have an almost
limitless capacity to understand and produce sentences they have never heard
before. The basic rules or principles of grammar, therefore, argued Chomsky,
must be innate.
Keil (1999) noted that the problem of behavioral capacities outstripping
individual learning histories to which Chomsky had referred, seemed to go
beyond merely the issue of linguistic behavior in young children. It
appeared to be a fundamental fact about human beings that our sensitivities
and behavioral capacities often surpass the limitations of our individual
learning histories. Our history of reinforcement often is too impoverished
to determine uniquely our behavior. Much learning, therefore, seems to
require pre-existing or innate representational structures within which
Palmer (2000) in his critical review of Chomskyís nativism noted that
Chomsky shares a number of fundamental assumptions with behaviorists and
other experimental psychologists. Chomsky believes that organisms are a
joint product of their genetic endowment and individual experience and that
the experimental approach of the natural sciences is appropriate for the
study of language. Chomskyís goals, however, are different from those of
behaviorists. Chomsky, according to Palmer, is not particularly interested
in verbal behavior itself, influenced as it is by the circumstances of the
speaker, rather, he is interested in the ``essential nature'' of human
beings that enables us to acquire a language. Specifically, Chomsky wishes
to discover those elements of our nervous systems implicated in language
that are genetically coded, hence ``universal.'' Chomsky called these
elements ``universal grammar,'' a name that suggested the researcherís view
of the task accomplished by these innate mechanisms: providing a set of
rules to be used in speech production and comprehension.
Linuma (2000a) analyzed what Chomsky's theory meant in terms of examining
electronic materials. The researcher noted that if one agreed that language
could not really be "taught" but only acquired, then the theory could not be
applied to materials that teach language. If one had developed a software
program to teach grammar or pronunciation, then, one was not on the side of
those who maintained a nativist theory, which holds that language is
unconsciously acquired. If one had developed software to increase
vocabulary, promote literacy, or develop better writing skills, one was
working with people who had already 'acquired' the basics of language in the
|The researcher listed the following implications of the theory for
|Natural language processing, that is, programming computers to
generate grammatical sentences and sensible discourse.
Providing input so that the learner could use those (much like a
child would) to generate grammatical utterances/sentences.
Using some of the aspects of language structure to help learners of
English see how the language works. Using these aspects to help second
language writers to develop their literacy skills.
Another supporter of nativism was Lorenz. The researcher first identified
the phenomenon of imprinting in young birds. Imprinting - a young bird
learns to follow a moving object, which is necessary for its survival.
Lorenz discovered that it need not be its biological mother - a young bird
does not innately recognize its mother, it could be any moving object.
Lorenz believed that imprinting was unique and it occurred once in the
bird's life and once it had happened it was irreversible. He also believed
that there was a Critical Period for imprinting, so unless learning occurred
during a particular period after hatching it would never occur. For Lorenz
the critical period for imprinting was the first few hours after hatching.
Model 4: Constructivist Model
Constructivism is a theory that challenges the traditional behaviorist
view that knowledge exists independently of the individual, that the mind is
a tabula rasa, a blank tablet upon which a picture can be painted,
and that learning is the resulting change in behavior due to reinforcement
The constructivist perspective asserts that learners construct knowledge
by making sense of experiences in terms of what is already known (Brandt,
1997). That is, learners transfer knowledge through experiences via mental
models that are used to assimilate new information into knowledge and
expanded mental models (Tobin & Tippins, 1993). Constructivists also hold
that learning is personal discovery, based on insight derived as a result of
the student's intrinsic motivation.
According to Smith (1999), the constructivist philosophy was a leading
perspective among progressive educators during the early half of the 20th
century and was part of John Dewey's paradigm of learning and instruction.
It derived from several theoretical traditions. Many attribute influences to
the work of Bruner, who holds that the work of the learner is an active
process in which the learner constructs new ideas based on previously
knowledge. Others have turned to the Vygotskyís research on the importance
of a social context and his practical notion of the zone of proximal
development. However, the most important influence today is from the work of
Piaget (1968) expressed an idea that human knowledge is essentially
active. According to the researcher, to know was to assimilate reality into
systems of transformations. Piaget was opposed to the view of knowledge as a
passive copy of reality. Knowing an object, according to the researcher, did
not mean copying it - it meant acting upon it. It also meant constructing
systems of transformations that could be carried out on or with this object.
Knowing reality meant constructing systems of transformations that
corresponded, more or less adequately, to reality. Piaget viewed knowledge
as a system of transformations that become progressively adequate.
|Hein (1991) identified the following principles of constructivist
|Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input
and constructs meaning out of it. The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in
the mind. Physical actions, hands-on experience may be necessary for
learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to
provide activities that engage the mind as well as the hands.
Learning involves language: the language we use influences learning.
On the empirical level, researchers have noted that people talk to
themselves as they learn. On a more general level, there is a collection
of arguments, presented most forcefully by Vygotsky, that language and
learning are inextricably intertwined.
Learning is a social activity: our learning is intimately associated
with our connection with other human beings, our teachers, our peers,
our family as well as casual acquaintances, including the people before
us or next to us at the exhibit.
Learning is contextual: we do not learn isolated facts and theories
in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our
lives: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe,
our prejudices and our fears.
One needs knowledge to learn: it is not possible to assimilate new
knowledge without having some structure developed from previous
knowledge to build on. The more we know, the more we can learn.
It takes time to learn: learning is not instantaneous. For
significant learning we need to revisit ideas, ponder them try them out,
play with them and use them.
Motivation is a key component in learning. Not only is it the case
that motivation helps learning, it is essential for learning.
Ryneveld (2000) suggested that in the constructivist theory the emphasis
is placed on the learner or the student rather than the teacher or the
instructor. It is the learner who interacts with objects and events and
thereby gains an understanding of the features held by such objects or
events. The learner, therefore, constructs his/her own conceptualizations
and solutions to problems. Learner autonomy and initiative is accepted and
Constructivists believe that learning is a process of sense-making, of
adding and synthesizing new information within existing knowledge structures
and adjusting prior understandings to new experiences (Jones, 2000).
Therefore, the meaning that each learner derives from a particular learning
experience is unique and each individual's experience is filtered through
their personal understandings, beliefs, and values.
Ryneveld (2000) pointed out that in constructivist thinking learning is
also affected by the context and the beliefs and attitudes of the
learner. Learners are encouraged to invent their own solutions and to try
out ideas and hypotheses. They are given the opportunity to build on prior
Learning is considered to be a social process (Jones, 2000). Learners who
are dissatisfied with their current level of knowledge engage others in a
sharing, comparing, and reformulating of ideas. Through a collaborative
process, learners restructure new understandings.
The constructivist classroom presents the learner with opportunities to
build on prior knowledge and understanding to construct new knowledge and
understanding from authentic experience. Students are allowed to confront
problems full of meaning because of their real-life context. In solving
these problems, students are encouraged to explore possibilities, invent
alternative solutions, collaborate with other students (or external
experts), try out ideas and hypotheses, revise their thinking, and finally
present the best solution they can derive (NCREL, 1995).
According to Brandt (1997), while the goal of constructivism is to
recognize and help facilitate the learnerís ability to construct knowledge,
when applied to teaching information retrieval on the Internet it also
provides the teacher with a structure for teaching. By focusing on concepts
and connecting them to mental models, instructors and teachers can gain both
confidence and control over the amount of material they cover in the small
blocks of time usually allotted to teaching and training. Integrated with
experiences that learners use to alter and strengthen mental models, a
constructivist approach to teaching information retrieval also gives users a
needed structure to get the most out of the Internet.
Model 5: Novice-to-Expert
Novice-to-Expert model that is reflected in the work of Norman (1993) is
based on analyses of novices and experts. It is more practical than
theoretical (Morton, 2000).
The way one makes the transition from novice to expert is one of the
important aspects of Normanís learning model. This especially applies to
learning a new skill. Norman's model focuses on a performance-oriented view.
To Norman, tuning is the key to becoming an expert, and it involves a great
deal of practice. Norman explained that "tuning is a slow process" and that
reaching expert behavior requires "a proper mix of accretion, tuning, and
restructuring (p.29, 36)." First uncomfortable, clumsy attempts at
performing a skill become, through tuning, easy, fluent attempts that
require little thought. Moreover, Norman stresses the fact that a skill must
be maintained through tuning: "expert behavior must constantly be retuned"
otherwise "performance deteriorates (p.29)."
Magno (1999) gave an example how Normanís model can be applied to the
expert skills (programming skill) the researcher had acquired. A specific
example given was learning the graphics commands for the Java environment.
When a person was first exposed to these commands, he/she used them in a
clumsy manner. Similar to Norman's model, it took time and practice with
various schemes before one became skillful in applying the right commands
for the right situations. As a novice, one would be emulating rather than
having ideas of oneís own. However, the more one practiced using the
commands, the less one had to use reflective thinking to apply them.
Eventually, one would be able to create more complicated effects with the
commands because one did not have to spend time thinking about the easy
cases. Magno (1999) noted that one could relate to Norman's point of
constant retuning even after one reached the expert level. The researcher
found that it took some time to "relearn" programming skills that were not
used in a long time.
Norman believed in the importance of motivation. According to Norman,
people could be lured into learning. The researcher suggested that educators
should use similar methods to those of the entertainment industry to do
this. The idea is to appeal to people's perceptual senses to gain their
attention and make them curious. "Once people are curious about the
questions..., they are...willing to do the work involved in pursuing the
answers (p.30) ." In this model, the important factors of motivation are fun