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Theory: Learning Theory on a Crash Course

Kathy Sierra's A Crash Course in Learning Theory is intended to provide an overview of the most important elements of learning theory used in her work. The article is an aspect of what is referred to as a "learning blog" in which "secrets" are given away in "teaching people to do what you do." PDF Summary of A Crash Course in Learning is also available.

When I see the word "theory" in close proximity to "learning" I tend to move on to something else. Admittedly, this is not the best response but it is a fact that we have already built mountains of theories about learning. Theories of learning also tend to originate from a small group, that is, the research community of academics. Thus, explorations of learning are biased and stunted by research methodology. In any case, let's have a look to see what a crash course in learning theory might be...

Learning: What is the Perspective Being Discussed?

The word learning can be defined in a variety of ways. For example, Edward Hall explored learning from the perspective of cultural awareness - a different perspective than Candace Pert's explorations of the bodymind. Both of these perspectives are immensely valuable, both explore unique viewpoints on learning, both seek to expand our awareness of learning and promote a healthy sense of diversity in our understanding. Neither author attempts to enforce a specific definition of learning, nor do they concerned with elaborating a specific theory of learning. Marshal McLuhan's probe into the medium is the message offers another perspective on learning.

It is far more important to build a wide variety of perspectives on learning from as many different viewpoints as possible than it is to build yet another theory of learning. The first process invites creative thinking and keen observation of everyday life, the second is more focused on the analysis and reduction of controlled and often artificial experiences into abstract representations.

The perspective being adopted in A Crash Course in Learning seems to be generally focused on cognitive science. That is, most things in learning eventually come back to ideas about the mind and the brain. This is not wrong in any way, but it is limited. Here are some key phrases I found in the article that reveal the perspective on learning being addressed:

  • Teaching as a Means to Build Audience: "Teaching people to do what you do is one of the best ways we know to grow an audience--an audience of users you want to help." The idea of teaching is closely aligned with the notion of helping, in this case, helping people to do what you do. This implies that the teacher is an authority that makes decisions on what content people need - a fundamental mistake in education systems.

  • Content as the Source of Learning: The idea of building an audience (marketing and branding) is captured in the notion of a learning blog, "But I assume (since you're reading this blog) that you ARE into helping your users kick ass. So to make content that's worth your time and attention, I try to make this a learning blog."

  • Learning is Something That Can Be "Delivered": "And although it's geared toward blogs/writing virtually everything in here applies regardless of how you deliver the learning--you can easily adapt it to prentations, user documentation, or classroom learning." Teaching and learning are not the same things. People do not learn simply because they are in close proximity to teaching. The phrase deliver the learning really seems to refer to something closer to teaching, or perhaps instructional design.

So in helping people, there is a clear sense of a prerequisite in "delivering the learning." That is, there is a clear presence of instructional design and the word learning here is heavily immersed in this perspective.

Learning as Theory

The idea of a theory is to explain why things happen they way they do and/or to provide a consistent framework to describe specific kinds of phenomenon. In more general terms, a theory is a model of reality and therefore makes the assumption that what it is describing actually exists. Neil Postman clarifies the end effect of theoretical thinking:

... all theories are oversimplifications, or at least lead to oversimplification... That is the function of theories - to oversimplify, and thus to assist believers in organizing, weighting, and excluding information. Therein lies the power of theories. Their weakness is that precisely because they oversimplify, they are vulnerable to attack by new information. When there is too much information to sustain any theory, information becomes essentially meaningless.
- Neil Postman in Technopoly : The Surrender of Culture to Technology

From this perspective, any theory of learning is an oversimplification - a means to organize, weight and exclude information in order to assist believers in that theory. Perhaps one of the most revealing ways to demonstrate this fact is to notice the absence of the personal experiences of the theorist who lays claim to a theory, and the even more noticeable absence of actual learning experiences. Instead, we read abstractions, concepts, statistics - we view models, processes and methods - we build a unique vocabulary around words like teaching, curriculum, instruction, instructional design, educational technology, evaluation, assessment, learning styles, lifelong learning and so on. There is a neurotic quality to this. Theories have an immense capacity to avoid the confluence of everyday life, and in doing so avoid meaningful connection the practical realities of people's lives.

The Brain and Learning

Candace Pert explores the physiology of learning and notes that, from a scientific perspective, the mind cannot be understood or treated separately from the body. To emphasize this fact she uses the term bodymind. Richard Restak reaches out from the physiology of the brain to explore how everyday life experiences can impact the physical structure of the brain. Both of these scientists are consciously extending their traditional scientific discipline in new and dramatic ways. Both of these scientists refer to the authentic experiences of people and do not limit themselves to theoretical approaches.

It is safe to say that is the cognitive functioning of the brain cannot be adequately understood in isolation. This means that learning cannot be fully appreciated through the lens of traditional cognitive science. A theory of learning built on cognitive science alone will lead to isolation and exclusion, not to mention the obvious abstraction that follows. Here is a quote that reveals the contradiction that follows from theory:

You can't create new pathways in someone's head... your job is to create an environment where the chances of the learner "getting it" in the way that you intend are as high as possible.
- from A Crash Course in Learning Theory
  1. Both Richard Restak and David Suzuki clearly state that we can in fact create new pathways in someone's head;
  2. An environment that is constructed so that the learner is "getting it" implies a one-way push of the teacher's content into the mind of the "learner" in a way that the two understandings are somehow more closely aligned. This represents the apparent "two-way" model being used as a "push" model;
  3. There is a false assumption that learning is primarily something that happens in our head. Of course, our "heads" are literally involved, but we do not learn with our heads alone, no matter what "environment" or presentation tools we use.
  4. There is a mercurial view present that the brain is the person - "Learning is much more effective if the learner's brain knows why what you're about to talk about matters. "

These kinds of assumptions about learning flow throughout the rest of the article. For example, we read that "learning is co-creation" and that means that "the learner's brain constructs new knowledge." Is knowledge "constructed?" Knowledge is something less than meaning. Knowledge is an abstraction, which means that two or more people have co-created in an abstraction. This problem is compounded with, "We are all visual creatures, and the brian [no - I'm not a visual creature, sorry] can process visual information far more efficiently than words." The fact is that the experience we are having is via symbols, and while there is a difference in the way we process words and visual images, they are both a form of intermediation and not the actual things they attempt to describe.

Learning cannot be reduced to mere symbol manipulation or content manipulation methodologies - nor can it be meaningfully captured by any theory.

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Note: Comments on all entries are closed after two weeks to prevent comment spam. You can e-mail your comment on any entry to . Please be sure to specify which entry your comment references. I will also consider suggestions for future entries. Your feedback is welcome.

Hi Doug,

"We're better off knowing whose lunch we're being fed whenever we're being informed."

This again speaks to the need for critical awareness - critical examination - critical investigation in learning. The idea of being critical is not to tear down or merely oppose authority, expertise, and so on, but to understand it - to push it further - so that its lines of force, and therefore its limitations, can be clearly seen.

Too often, critical examination is dismissed as pessimism or cynicism. It doesn't feel good. And too often, optimism is accepted as truth. It feels better. All three can lead us in any direction.

If we look at the assumptions at the core of education we can see a range of shallow thinking. For example, there is the assumption that organizing students by age, which is age segregation, is the best means to "educate" them. There is nothing to show this is true, yet millions of students proceed through this system - and the results can be devastating. We could look at a wide variety of assumptions like these via curriculum, instructional design, and perhaps the most popular at the moment, standardized testing.

Perhaps we have arrived at a different place than the article was taking us, but we making hidden assumptions visible is a very serious matter.


Hi Pearl,

"I constructed something entirely different from the text." That is as it should be.

"Why such resistance to the piece?" To be clear, if I resisted it I would choose to ignore it and not to write about it. I don't equate resistance with challenging and examining specific aspects of it. My intent was not to provide a comprehensive review, but to focus in on notions presented specifically related to learning theory. In addition, the comments left on the original article I found quite surprising, and I would suspect that Kathy might feel that such uncritical agreement is not helpful.

What you mean by, "I am with Chris L. on this" seems to imply a division of sorts - a taking of sides - an opposition. I ask this with complete respect - Why? What does this mean?


Hi Chris,

"Let a thousand flowers bloom." I agree.

I would also agree with you that there are a lot of things worth thinking about in the article. To emphasize an important point, my response was directed to what I believe are important assumptions being made about theory that do require critical examination. This is something different from the person or the products being presented. But the key point is, there are a lot of things worth thinking about.

I'm not exactly sure what "over thinking" pedagogy might be, but I sense it points toward a rift between what is being communicated via words and symbols and what is actually happening. In other words, the symbolic perspective being built around pedagogy is so dominant that other perspectives are pushed to the side? I am not trying to agree or disagree with you here, simply trying to explore it further. This is what is most important.

The title clearly indicated that the thoughts about learning theory were a "crash course." Kathy also clearly stated that what followed was not a comprehensive summary, but instead a list of possibilities for further investigation. Perhaps I should be reading more peer-reviewed scholarly articles, but I find them dreadfully boring. I haven't read one in many years now.

I appreciate this response.


Hi Doug,

"Most disconcerting to me was the amount of uncritical attention from teachers the "Crash Course" post received. " This is an important point.

It seems to me that the ability to investigate and examine things we believe in, our assumptions, our conditioning, is critical to learning. When I write I don't think it is important to encourage agreement or disagreement with what is being said. As soon as we agree or disagree with something we create a roadblock to further examination. If we can put the agree/disagree mode on hold then we give ourselves the opportunity to go into the words, and more importantly to go beyond the words. What has happened for me on a number of occasions is the realization that my own beliefs, assumptions, and conditioning had created a wide range of astonishing delusions that I treated as if they were fact.

For example, in your comments on Radical Constructivism, I could attempt to reinforce the quip that all theories are useless, which would be self-defeating and argumentative, or I could go into the perspective and see when - for me - they serve a purpose or help to predict events. But the key thing is to examine it - to investigate it - to find out what is really there - in relation to my own thoughts, experiences and memory. This, as you have said, speaks to the need for critical attention - a critical capacity in learning.

I am solidly in the "various points of view" category you mention. This entry is one point of view of many possibilities. The attempt here is not to let one point of view dominate, and it can be difficult. Twenty years ago, back in my days as an educator, I saw learning through the lens of education. While it certainly wasn't the only perspective I attended to, it was dominant. This was actually quite helpful since by pressing deeper and deeper into a single perspective on learning, I was able to clarify, for myself, the limitations of that perspective. There was, of course, a sense of disappointment as well, but all learning carries with it a sense of internal disruption.


Hi Jeremy,

"Is this not a valuable pursuit on her part?" Yes. While I am not familiar with the how-to books, I know there are times when I go out and seek a precise answer to a problem I am having. Often these problems are technical in nature, and getting a quick answer is helpful.

My reaction was neither to the person nor the products. My reaction was to theory itself and what seem to me to be a number of unexamined assumptions. These are two very different points of view.

I too have noticed the increasing writing about learning in the network. I can recall going through a similar personal dialogue ten years ago when I felt that learning had to be something more than I was doing inside of education. It's a dialogue that has captured my interest ever since. A good part of that dialogue for me has been intentionally finding ways to step outside of my own assumptions, which, at that time, were heavily biased by curriculum and instructional design.


I don't argue with anything Kathy Sierra had to say. As Chris points out, it was the title that grabbed my attention. If we assume that there is a learning theory, hers is adequate for bloggers and conference presenters. In fact, I liked the bit she included to deal with nitpickers like me: "This is not a comprehensive look at the state of learning theory today...And remember, this is a BLOG, so don't expect academic rigor." Kathy does a good job of translating cognitivist theory to a broad audience. I learn a lot from her. It's not easy to write about pedagogy without being didactic. Kathy's advice to tell stories, be conversational, use graphics and chunking, etc. are all suggestions that I can use.

As to Chris's comment about "overthinking pedagogy and reading too much in the literature," I'd say that we need more, not less of that among educators. Whether we know it or not, the world is always "filtered through a particular lens magnifying the particular connotations of a particular group" in the reading of any text. I believe that we're better off knowing whose lunch we're being fed whenever we're being informed, since we might then be able to make better decisions. My larger concern isn't with Kathy Sierra or cognitive science, which both have their useful points, but with teachers, politicians, educational policy makers, and voters who don't read any theory, but rely on "crash courses" to guide them in their practical decision-making for for classrooms because the consequences of those decisions are real and can be devastating for countless numbers of people. So, yes, I did take the article more seriously than it was intended.

She also mentioned using all senses. The article went into how to help people engage by putting out as many means for learners to get a good grip on the material, for them to reach out in the way that best suited them. I constructed something entirely different from the text. It's a crash course. One could spent a lifetime looking at every aspect. Was there something useful? For me, yes. It covered a lot of useful ground on how to communicate well by gearing to your audience. I'm with Chris L on this. Why such resistance to the piece? She had many good points.

I think you (and Doug) are taking this article far too seriously and not in the light it was intended. The word theory is a trigger for many people, particularly people who have spent too much time overthinking pedagogy and reading too much in the literature... suddenly the whole world becomes filtered through a particular lens magnifying the particular connotations of a particular group. Imagine that the post in question had no title at all-- it would still be incredibly useful for a lot of people and has a lot of things well worth thinking about. It's clearly not meant to be a peer-reviewed, scholarly article. Nor is it any more errant in stating things that are often (or sometimes) true as "fact" than anything you'll find in those same journals. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

I, too, paused when I read the term 'learning theory' in the Passionate Users post because the singular noun, theory, implies a monolithic subject. Theory is also a collective noun, but I don't know if people considered that in their readings of her "Crash Course" post. Although Kathy did say that "This is not a comprehensive look at the state of learning theory today," she didn't situate her theory within the larger body of social science research that learning theories draw from.

I've come to think of learning 'theories' as helpful for various purposes, but I differentiate them according to philosophical orientation and purpose. In his book, Radical Constructivism, Ernst von Glasersfeld defended his theory in part by pointing out that every theory has design limits beyond which it will not stand up. Theoretical models are inevitable symbolic constructions, and when we give them more weight than they merit, or apply them to inappropriate situations, we run into problems. Nonetheless, they serve a purpose in helping us to understand and predict events in the world we have created.

Most disconcerting to me was the amount of uncritical attention from teachers the "Crash Course" post received. I've observed that cognitivist theories seem to hold a lot of appeal to web users, I suppose because cognitivism is based on a computational in/out view of mind, developed as way of explaining motivation and information processing from a behavioral perspective. We need to broaden our perspective and analyze our experience from various points of view before we settle on a meaning that is limited by a single theoretical model.

I may join you in this critique on my own blog, since it seems like an important point. Thanks for bringing it up.

Great post, Brian. I've been noticing a lot of attention in "the network" to questions of learning, and most are still stuck in the context of courses and institutional programs. I suppose most of the people who are most passionate about these issues are working in education systems, so that's the frame of reference for much of the dialogue...looking for ways to create/improve learning within the constraints of curriculum and institutional methods/standards.

Even though Kathy at Passionate Users is not focused on institutional education, the how-to books she writes are attempts to teach people things. People seek out her writing because it helps them learn stuff they need to know when they need to know it. So although you and I sometimes chafe at learning requiring the "transmission of knowledge" (as you've articulated here), is this not a valuable and worthwhile pursuit on her part? I think she's trying to find the best ways to help self-directed learners learn the things they're actively seeking.

That said, I've been appreciating your exploration of the vocabulary of education in these matters -- every word is laden and layered with baggage.

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