chapter  6
11 Pages

REPRESENTATION AND LEARNING

One of the dominant views about how people learn is derived from a complex of theories known collectively as cognitivism. It is particularly influential because it combines within it elements of the romantic view of learning associated with Rousseau and more explicitly scientific accounts of learning associated with Chomsky and others.1 One of the main consequences of the influence of cognitivist theories is an emphasis on autonomous learning and a consequent devaluing of overt teaching as an aid to learning. If, however, cognitivism rests on a mistake, then the devaluing of teaching is no longer tenable on cognitivist grounds and the modern tendency in education of exalting the role of the learner at the expense of that of the teacher will need to be re-evaluated. That it does rest on a mistake and that the role of the teacher does need to be reevaluated is the contention of this chapter. In this context I mean by ‘teaching’ the active transmission of knowledge and technique by an authoritative figure rather than the setting up of situations in which autonomous pupil learning can take place (the ‘facilitator of learning’ model).2 Cognitivism can be seen both as an alternative and as a response to behaviourist accounts of learning. It is a set of theories not only about how people learn, but also about how they think. Indeed, it is arguable that cognitivism claims that people learn through being able to think. It is maintained that the ability to think rationally, both consciously and subconsciously, amounts to an ability internally to manipulate symbolic representations of that which we think about.3 Some versions of cognitivism emphasise the importance of the computer as a way of conceptualising such a system of internal representations, while others use neural networks. Cognivitist theories in both their ‘classical’ and their connectionist forms take the notion of representation to be the fundamental building block of their accounts, however, so there is a great deal in common between them. If we are to look at cognitivist accounts of learning, then, we shall need first to look at cognitivist accounts of thinking since, if the account of thinking is inadequate, then so will be the account of learning in the absence of an alternative underpinning.