In this week’s Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge (PLENK) 2010 course we looked at the many theories of learning which are documented in educational literature.  How do we learn?  Is it through direct instruction?  Exposure to certain discrete forms of knowledge?  Adaptability of the human mind?  Negotiated condition?  Theories of learning do not provide answers to the complex question of how we actually learn, but they do provide a vocabulary and framework for thinking about it Hill (2002).  One of my professors has suggested that it is most helpful to explore theories of cognition, epistemology, and learning together as they are intimately related.

Understanding of Cognition

Cognition is the science of how the mind processes thoughts and ideas.   The predominant models of knowledge acquisition which attempt to understand how the human mind works include:

  • Information Processing Model (Mind as Computer)
  • Parallel Distributed Processing Model (Mind as Brain)
  • Situated Cognition Model (Mind as Rhizome)
    (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996)

The information processing model considers that the mind processes information much like a computer would process data.  (Driscoll, 1994 quoted in Dabbagh 2005)  It suggests that information must be processed in a linear fashion to become part of one’s human memory.  The parallel distributed model takes into account the multiple pathways of information flows which occur in the mind.  The situated cognitive model seems to take into account the shared or negotiated nature of knowledge within the environment, social interaction, and culture. I would best align myself with the situated cognitive view as it embodies the distributed nature of cognition which I have come to understand through the works of Cole (1996), Pea (1993) Vygotsky (1978), and Wertsch (1998).

Understanding of Knowing

Epistemology refers to “the nature of knowledge and how we come to know things”. (Driscoll, 2001 quoted in Siemens, 2006)  The main perspectives include:

  • Empiricism—the belief that knowledge is acquired through the five senses
  • Nativism—the belief that knowledge is innate or within the individual at birth
  • Rationalism—the belief that knowledge is a function of reason
  • Constructivism – the belief that knowledge is socially constructed by individuals rather than discovered via the world

My understanding of cognition should give a good indication to my understanding of what it means to know.  My epistemological perspective can best be described as socially constructed.  I believe that truth and knowledge are dynamic, negotiated and socially situated in our culture.

Understanding of Learning Theory

Learning theory attempts to describe what is happening when learning takes place.  The main perspectives on learning theory include:

  • Behaviourism
  • Cognitivism
  • Cognitive constructivism
  • Socio-cultural constructivism
  • Connectivism

(Siemens & Tittenberger, 2009)

Ally suggests that behaviourist strategies can be used to teach the ‘what’ (facts) through didactic text, cognitive strategies can be used to teach the ‘how’ (processes and principles) through engaging with content and contemplating possible use, and constructivist strategies can be used to teach the ‘why’ (higher level thinking that promotes personal meaning and situated contextual learning) through an understanding of the value to teaching and learning materials. (2004:7)  To this I would add that connectivist principles can be used to teach the ‘where’ (how to create and foster networks and access/scrutinize high quality content) through a centralized point to gather around high quality resources and tools.  For a full description of these theories refer to the PLENK2010 Week 4 Readings.

See the matrix below for an example of how I understand cognition, epistemology, and learning theories to fit together.

Distinguishing Uniquely Human Learning

I have been taught to think about learning as a psychological change in behavior and mind as a result of social experience coming from the Vygotskian school of thought.  What we learn uniquely as human beings are ideas and concepts which help us to better describe and understand the world around us.  So very differently then copying and mimicking behavior; that which we see in the animal kingdom, humans have the ability to share culture and ideas through language, culture and tools.

Distinguishing Learning Theory from Teaching Theory

An important distinction to be made is the difference between learning theory (an understanding of how people learn), and teaching theory (pedagogy or teaching strategy). A good example to frame this discussion is the basic example of a teacher teaching didactically in a classroom. This is her pedagogic approach to helping the students understand the topic.  In this case the teacher believes that the students will learn what she is telling them through guided instruction or a drill and practice pedagogy.  This pedagogic approach may stem from the instructor’s behaviorist view of how people learn.

Some of the students in the class may be taking notes, one might be recording the lecture and listening intently, and one might be creating a diagram.  Whereas activities such as taking direct notes indicate a more behaviorist type of learning, other students create their own meaning through constructing diagrams using symbols or creating mindmaps which help the student learn in a more cognitive manner.  Learning strategies are up to the learner. By creating notes and diagrams the learner is externalizing what they understand and creating new tools (Vygotksy, 1978) for themselves to refer to later.  How much of the actual content is remembered is debatable, but the act of creating tools for understanding and remembering, if organized effectively, become part of the student’s knowledge resource base.  Perhaps you could go on to say that these artifacts become part of the students personal learning network.

My key assumptions regarding the way in which people learn are as follows:

  • People learn by interacting with the best possible people, resources and tools in a given context
  • People can be convinced of best practice through example
  • People want to work at their own pace and within their own specific and limited time
  • By addressing people’s needs/wants/desires you can help change their practice

I believe that learning is a complex and potentially spontaneous event which uniquely occurs within all of us through the use of tools and conditioned by our environments. I find the notion of mediation via tools (Vygotsky, 1978) a useful one as it allows us to think about how we interact, share and understand the world around us.

The PLN and Theories of Learning

In the PLN students can interact with content and people they have attached themselves to.  Learning can take place as these interactions result in changed attitudes or performance.  The learning theory which seems most relevant to students interacting with the PLN is construtivism, as students construct an understanding of the world through interactions and navigations through their PLN.  Connectivist principles also are represented in the course ecology, but I have a hard time justifying connectivism in relation to my underlying beliefs about cognition and epistemology.

The main concern with students exploring their way through a PLN is the potential lack of a more knowledgable other (Vygotsky, 1978).  There still needs to be some organization or structure to support the learning situations we create.  The PLENK course is a good example of an online course which makes use of individual’s PLN while providing access to experts to help guide the contruction of our understanding based on selected readings and thoughtful discussion.


Ally. M. (2004). Foundations of educational theory for online learning. In T. external link: Anderson & F. Elloumi, F( Eds). Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University, (online book). p3-31. Available:

Dabbagh, N & Bannan-Ritland, B (2005) Online learning: Concepts, strategies and application. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.

Duffy, T.M. & Cunningham, D.J. (1996). Constructivism: Implications for Design and Delivery of Instruction. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.). Handbook of research for educational communication and technology. (pp.170-195). New York: Macmillan Library Reference.

Hill, W.F. (2002). Learning: A survey of psychological interpretation (7th ed), Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA.

Siemens, G. (2006) Connectivism: Learning Theory or Pastime of the Self-Amused?  November 12, 2006  University of Manitoba (Unpublished)

Siemens, G.& Tittenberger, P. (2009). Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning. Available external link: (Accessed 26 August 2009).

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind In Society: The Development Of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Cognition, Epistemology and Learning

CC BY 4.0 Cognition, Epistemology and Learning by Michael Paskevicius is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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