Melanie Horowitz Coyne
How does Ariana learn? What does cognition theory say? Ariana is an adult, a student matriculated in an online university program working toward a bachelor’s degree in education. She received her elementary education in a small town in Mexico, traveling by bus 45 minutes to an hour daily. At the age of 14 she immigrated with her family to Washington State and graduated from high school there. What would the major theorists of adult learning say about her? Pavlov and Skinner might say that she will learn by being rewarded for correct responses to questions posed by the instructors. Their view focused on behavior. To look at Ariana as a learner from a cognitivist view, Merriam, Cafferella, & Baumgartner state that in this framework the “emphasis is on what learners know versus how they behave” (2007).
Since Ariana is an adult, Piaget (pioneer of the theory of cognitive development) would contend that she is working from a formal operational ability to think abstractly, and she will be using this ability to make sense of what is covered in her classes. From a perspective of adult student development, W. G. Perry would look at her and see where she might fit in a continuum of dependent to independent to relativistic patterns of thought. Bandura would want Perry to recognize that Ariana learns within a social context, and this context itself influences her learning. Another facet of context is the reminder that most of what is considered in this review of learning theory is based on Western assumptions. “Westerners value freedom and independence, whereas “Easterners” value belonging, harmony, family, security, and guidance”. (Merriam, Cafferella, & Baumgartner, 2007) What have the various contexts of Ariana’s learning contributed?
Prior knowledge is a key element in looking at learning from the perspective of cognitivism. The concept of schema (or basis for understanding) is also integral to this view. Fitting new learning into previous understandings is a task for learners, as well as taking declarative or informational knowledge into application. Metacognition also comes into the discussion as a concept that describes thinking about thinking (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). How does Ariana reflect on how she is learning?
Learning styles are also discussed in literature about cognitive learning theory. The aspect of learning styles that is important in thinking about Ariana as a learner is the concept of culturally based learning styles. Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner note a few studies that contrast a “Euro-American style [that is] projected by most institutions as the one which is most valued”. Alfred (2002) takes a look at the "individual/cognitive view of learning" and questions the assumption that that concepts and skills can be "learned independently of outside influence" (p.4). This perspective shows little consideration for the "transcultural experience of immigrant Americans and how early formal and informal socialization influences their learning in a new country"(Alfred, 2002).
To go to the source in this investigation I interviewed Ariana. We first met eight years ago as coworkers, later I moved into a supervisory position, and as we developed a working relationship, I learned more about her and her family. I have served as a resource for her as she has moved ahead on an educational path and years have passed since our first meeting. She is aware of my own educational pursuits and was glad to answer the questions I posed. I also asked about sharing some of my own observations, and she agreed to that as well. We met at her dining room table while my granddaughter played with her son.
I summarized some of the learning theories around cognition and adult learning and ask her opinion about her own thoughts as to the relationship of prior knowledge to her learning, her reflections on or about her educational experience, and her perception