Asking “how do we learn?” is an important question to consider because, if we are able to unpick the processes that underpin this, then we can better understand how it is that we can (hopefully) teach and learn better.
When thinking about how people learn, we might take the view that we are all capable of being trained to behave or carry out tasks in a certain way, in reaction to particular circumstances, contexts or stimuli, and given the necessary motivation and reward. If this is the case, and if successful learning is quantified as a displayed behaviour, then teaching and learning could be reduced to a didactic relationship in which the learner is taught, through repetition of task and reward, to develop a behaviour that becomes habitual. In some cases, particular types of activity can be learned by rote in this way, and this can be a satisfactory outcome. Learning to drive a car, for example, and the variety of mini-tasks that form part of this activity, can be learned in this way and performed in a manner that looks instinctive, and seemingly at a sub-conscious level. In the same way, times tables can be taught and learned by rote, with children parroting the correct numbers in a repetitive fashion and seeming to know their times tables. What this, however, does not show is that a child understands multiplication as a mathematical function, how it is applied and whether they can independently apply it in the correct context. What we are then allowing for here is the way in which “learning” multiplication is perhaps a deeper functional activity and that there are, in this sense, different levels of learning depending on the type of activity or task. A behaviourist approach to teaching and learning posits the idea that humans are all capable of being trained to behave, act, or react, in a specific manner but when thinking about how people learn, I would suggest that this is merely one layer of the process which looks at it through the lens of the human as a manipulatable machine, upon which the consciously functioning, self-aware person can be virtually bypassed in order to be programmed by an external source.
Taking into account the learner, and the complexity of how learning is processed beyond a set of observable behaviours, seems to be a more satisfactory approach to thinking about and explaining how people learn and the approaches taken by humanist and cognitivist schools of thought seem to give space for these factors. The cognitivist stance allows us to begin to pick apart the ways in which the learner assimilates learning into their already complex patterns of experience, knowledge and understanding of the world, and to explain how learning fits within the processes in the brain that underpin this. The explanation of schema theory, and the way in which people have to fit and assimilate new knowledge within their own frames of reference, provides a necessary layer to the behaviourist explanation. It allows for an appreciation of whether learning can take place more effectively when grounded in contexts, and communicated in language, that are at least recognisable if not comfortably familiar. In this sense, we can see that teaching must take into account the both the content and the learner’s position in relation to it, along with the negotiation that takes place between these factors in the learning process.
Finally, the humanist exploration of teaching and learning seeks to place the learner at the centre of the process in a much more holistic sense. Through this lens, we can take into account the variety of factors at play on the person through, for example, the necessary fulfilment of broadly common needs to the potential for learning to change a person through student- (rather than teacher-)led activities. This approach to explaining learning in some ways flips the behaviourist position on its head, highlighting the importance of the learner in the process and the idea that it is the learner themselves that should be at the centre of any discussion about learning, ahead of both the thing being taught/learned, the teacher teaching, and their delivery of it.
It would seem that, when considering the question, we begin to delve into some overarching themes around thinking about humans, and human behaviour, in general. Approaches seem to focus on specific elements of the activity in order to demonstrate their importance, whether it is the learner, the teacher, the context or the activity. I would suggest that they all have something to tell us about teaching and learning, and the way in which we might understand and approach it, and therefore taking and applying particular elements in the right context would seem to be the most beneficial approach.