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Four Kinds of Learning

Updated on May 12, 2012

Manager of many kinds of learning

Years ago, in the village school or in the one-teacher school in the outback, teachers were quite likely to be a well-known member of a small community. They interacted with the child for six years or longer and had some chance of creating a warm, personal context for learning, acting in loco parentis (as a parent substitute). People tend to learn easily in such a context.

Today, high schools are large and are organized (significantly) by subject department - not by class, year or other basis that encourages or prolongs teacher-student interaction. The contacts students have with a teacher (who usually commutes to work from another community) are made and broken several times a day.

The pattern is repeated with a new set of teachers the following year. Subject matter is usually all-important, not the formation of bonds between teacher and student.

This appears inevitable, in view of the role of schools. Given our complex society and such new media of instruction as microcomputers, it is necessary that students cope with a learning context that is less personal than that in which they accomplished their 'learnings-how' as little children. Schools thus provide- and depend upon- a more impersonal structure to promote learning, a structure that involves making indirect learning easier for the learner. Thus, it is necessary for someone of superior knowledge to take professional responsibility for decisions about what will be learned in what order, at what point the learning is deemed adequate, and what procedures and learning materials (such as books, maps, tapes, diagrams, etc.) might be helpful. Above all, unprepared learning requires motivational support. Whereas prepared learning is simply doing what comes naturally, learners of academic content most often need 'persuading' to learn indirectly. Such learning may therefore require an elaborate structure if it is to take place efficiently.

Sometimes, however, that structure becomes slightly too prominent; a little more warmth and intimacy might make learning in the third person that much easier. But then we have a conflict if (as frequently happens) intimacy and warmth get in the way of the role of manager. Whether we like it or not, the orchestration of all that structure makes the teacher a manager of/earning. The legal obligation is now less that of an absent parent and more that of a professional, who is held accountable to exercise 'reasonable care' and judgment.

What, then, are all these learnings that the teacher is to manage? What are the important roles of schools? Schools are places where, first of all, learning is to take place that would not otherwise occur. Mostly, such learning is unprepared, and relates to abstract and established knowledge. School learning might, however, also include quite different learnings, such as those that once occurred in the extended family but are now excluded in anonymous urbanized living conditions. Finally, schools address learnings that may occur elsewhere, such as the workplace, but which may more conveniently be learned in school. Our list of learnings looks something like this:

  • learning abstract knowledge at second hand;
  • learning to interact with other people - learning about feelings, values and morality;
  • learning about oneself - one's strengths, weaknesses and goals in life;
  • learning vocational and saleable skills;
  • learning how to make use of leisure time;
  • learning things throughout the lifespan that either did not exist when one was a child or were not learned for some other reason.

Four Kinds of Learning

All these learnings, as varied as they are, may be categorized under four headings:

  • cognitive learning, such as acquiring knowledge;
  • affective learning, or learning about feelings, values and emotions;
  • content learning, as set out in syllabuses, such as the topics treated in a particular history course;
  • process learning, which is concerned with how results are achieved. (What is happening to the way we think as we study history, physics or literature?)

Effective process learning can take place only on the basis of a firm foundation of content learning. Students have to know mathematics really well before they can derive new and elegant solutions. Nevertheless, there is an important distinction to be made, once the basic content foundations are laid, between content and process targets of learning. Too great a reliance on content learning results in a 'rear-vision mirror' approach to education. Trying to cope with the future on the basis of content learning is like driving by looking through the rear-vision mirror. If the road is straight (i.e. nothing is changing), it works very well. As soon as there is a change, the rear vision can no longer serve as a guide to future action. Alvin Toffler was, like McLuhan, a persuasive futurologist. If, as he puts it, 'Today's fact may be tomorrow's misinformation', then teaching the wisdom of the ages- content learning- would be wasteful of time and resources. That 'wisdom' is already decaying into superstition. Toffler believed that, on the affective side, students should be taught how to involve themselves more directly with the lives of other people, and, on the cognitive side, to develop strategies that will enable them to cope at first hand with novelty and the absence of precedent.

Four Functions of Schooling

Writers such as McLuhan and Toffler emphasis various aspects of schooling that need to be noted. We may put all these views together to obtain a two-way table: aim (process or content) by domain (cognitive or affective), as outlined in this table:

Domains and Targets of Schooling

 
(Content aim)
(Process aim)
Cognitive domain
1. Traditional subject matter and principles
2. Problem-solving approaches, disciplines discovery learning
Affective domain
3. Explicit teaching of traditional values
4. Values clarification; concern with feelings

Four functions of schooling may thus be distinguished:

  1. Content learning in the cognitive domain. This is the most widely accepted and traditional role of schooling. It involves the passing down of our cultural and scientific heritage, usually by expository teaching methods in the conventional subject areas.
  2. Process learning in the cognitive domain. This aspect always has been present in schooling, but usually with skills and strategies being limited to particular subjects. It has usually been assumed that in situations providing little guidance or formal structure - such as discovery learning- students will evolve their own coping strategies.
  3. Content learning in the affective domain. This used to be an explicit function of public schooling. Nowadays, State education systems often claim 'neutrality' in this area, whereas most private schools are quite definite about their emphasis on the teaching of traditional values. In fact, as we shall see many times throughout this book, it is impossible to be neutral. Official statements claiming neutrality are themselves value-ridden.
  4. Process learning in the affective domain. This area is of increasing concern- in both positive and negative ways. The aim is to provide experiences, such as group discussion, games and role-playing, that help students clarify their own ideas of right and wrong. For example, a problem might be presented that involves a moral dilemma where the guidelines from the community are in conflict both with each other and with self-interest.

Not everybody agrees that all four aspects should be the legitimate functions of public schooling, particularly as far as the affective domain is concerned. Our point is that responsible educators have at some time or another identified these functions of the school: they indicate the kinds of learning that may take place.

Teachers should be aware of them and of the conditions under which they may be promoted.

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    • Cheeky Girl profile image

      Cassandra Mantis 5 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

      This is a great hub! The 4 functions of schooling are quite revealing. You break it down very well. Excellent as always! :)

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 5 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Very interesting, never thought about the effect on learning of moving from the small friendly rural model to the impersonal, city model previously.