History of Education Home



Learning Through The Ages and Stages

The Ancient Greeks are often associated with philosophy, but only dedicated students of history, would be familiar with the branch of philosophy that was associated solely with learning, and involved some very convoluted schools of thought. Epistemology dealt with the definition, types and source of knowledge as well as certainty, which can only come from compete and total knowledge.

Fifth century B.C. would see the Greek Sophists arguing whether anything existed, if knowledge did exist could it be communicated, and whether knowledge lacked a single certainty, since each man’s perception of a thing learned, was different.

Plato weighed in with his theory that abstract reasoning was essential to turn experiences into certain knowledge. Aristotle later agreed in part, but temporised that knowledge obtained through experiences was a result of logical reasoning. Several hundred years would pass, before the Middle Ages saw a resurgence of belief in reason and experience. Thomas Aquinas viewed perception as the start of knowledge, and logical reasoning the only way to achieve it.

Our modern fascination with how things are learned, can be dated back to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and changes in behaviour. The “science” of psychology was built on the contemplation of human experiences. It had to re-think its own theories, when Darwin concluded that in man and animal, those best suited to the environment, are the ones to survive. As their traits adapted to survive challenges, so did the consciousness and mind evolve.

One of Darwin’s biggest fans, British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer, believed that an individual’s characteristics develop through evolution, including how he thinks and learns. William James, author of The Principles of Psychology, agreed. In publishing one of the most authoritative texts on psychology in 1890, something that took 12 years to write, he suggested that consciousness allows a person to override instinct, and adapt to new circumstances or information. His conclusion: learning is the process by which we adapt to our environment.

The theory of associationism emerged with Aristotle, who noted how the mind makes connections between what may seem unconnected things. Associationists in the latter 1800s, distilled this down to two elements: stimulus and response, of which, you can’t have one without the other. Association evolved into one of the most effective techniques for learning everything from mathematical formulas, to where a person left their glasses.

In the last half of the 20th century, psychologists became more interested in the cognitive theory, which involves thinking, perception, memory and problem solving. The cognitive “revolution” as it became known, was sparked in part by the invention of the computer: an unparalleled stand-in for the human mind in terms of how it processes and retrieves, information.

Curious as to how children thought, in the 1920s Jean Piaget gave the same questions to students of different ages. The resulting answers led him to believe that they pass through different cognitive stages, according to their age and development.

Regardless of age, most of us experience four stages in learning: introduction, assistance, testing, and accomplishment. Something new is presented to the mind, reference is sought for learning how to deal with it, we attempt to cope with or utilise the new information, and then successfully complete the task of functioning with or around it.