The Science of Learning
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The Science of Learning

Joseph J. Pear

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The Science of Learning

Joseph J. Pear

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For over a century and a quarter, the science of learning has expanded at an increasing rate and has achieved the status of a mature science. It has developed powerful methodologies and applications. The rise of this science has been so swift that other learning texts often overlook the fact that, like other mature sciences, the science of learning has developed a large body of knowledge. The Science of Learning comprehensively covers this knowledge in a readable and highly systematic manner. Methodology and application are discussed when relevant; however, these aspects are better appreciated after the reader has a firm grasp of the scientific knowledge of learning processes. Accordingly, the book begins with the most fundamental and well-established principles of the science and builds on the preceding material toward greater complexity. The connections of the material with other sciences, especially its sister science, biology, are referenced throughout. Through these frequent references to biology and evolution, the book keeps in the forefront the recognition that the principles of learning apply to all animals. Thus, in the final section the book brings together all learning principles studied in research settings by demonstrating their relevance to both animals and humans in their natural settings. For animals this is the untamed environment of their niches; for humans it is any social environment, for Homo sapiens is the social and learning animal par excellence.

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Part I

Basic Terms and Concepts

Every science has a set of basic terms and concepts that are used in all discourse concerning the principles and phenomena of that science. The science of learning is no exception. As with other sciences, the basic terms and concepts form the building blocks of this science, and, proper terminology is crucial to understanding its principles and phenomena.

1 Introduction

The word science has a number of definitions. One definition—the one emphasized in this book—is that a science is a systematic body of factual knowledge derived through observation and experimentation showing the operation of general scientific laws. A scientific law is a statement of a relation that is invariable under the same conditions. There are also many definitions of learning. However, the term learning generally refers to the effect on behavior of certain types of interactions between the individual and the environment, which includes all sources of stimulation impinging on the individual’s sense receptors within a given period. Thus, this book is concerned with scientific laws that describe how specific types of interactions with the environment affect behavior.
Obviously, some laws are more general than others; that is, some laws apply to more types of situations than others do. One goal of a science is to develop laws that are as general as possible. Another is to organize these laws into theories, which are used to make predictions; in fact, the supreme test of any theory is its ability to accurately predict new observations.
The first part of this chapter provides an overview of the position of this book, with reference to the theoretical approaches taken by scientists who study learning. The chapter then discusses the theory of evolution, which is a powerful organizing theory that has unified all of the life sciences. Finally, the chapter presents a more detailed discussion of the definition of learning than the one given above and considers how learning evolved.

1.1 Theoretical Approaches to Learning

The science of learning is relatively young, and many of its more general theories are speculative. While there is extensive literature on these theories, this book makes little direct reference to that literature. The history of science repeatedly shows that what research seemed to indicate was correct at one point in time, later turns out to need revision or is even false. An essential aspect of a science is that it is self-corrective. Through research, ideas that are consistent with data (i.e., factual information) are retained. Those that are not consistent are replaced by those that are. In most sciences, a core of factual information is generally agreed upon by scientists in the field. The science of learning is no exception. This book focuses on that core of information about learning that scientists in the field would agree is accurate. Thus, this book presents material that is well documented and appears likely to survive the test of time. Occasionally, completeness requires addressing controversal topics. When this is done, it will be pointed out.
The following summarizes the approach of this book with regard to four types of learning theories: folk, cognitive-and-brain, behavioral, and mathematical.

1.1.1 Folk Theories

A folk theory is a theory that members of a culture have about a particular set of phenomena, and they use it to predict and control those phenomena (Geary, 2012; Strauss, 2012). Three areas or domains of science in which folk theories have been studied are physics, biology, and psychology. An example of a tenet of a folk theory in physics is that moving objects have an internal impetus or force someone or something has put into them, and that this force must be used up or spent before the objects will stop moving. An example of a tenet of a folk theory in biology is that living things contain a vitalistic principle, or internal energy, that enables them to move or grow independently and this distinguishes them from nonliving things. An example of a tenet of a folk theory in psychology is that we have an internal entity called a “mind” that enables us to think and learn. Theories that refer to the mind and the processes that occur in the mind are called “mentalistic” theories.
When scientists start developing theories in a new area, they often borrow terms from folk theories. Many learning theories postulate inner processes that have names, such as the word “mind,” that are derived from folk theories of learning. A major argument for this approach is that our ancestors who gave us our folk theories were keen observers of behavior and had been observing and dealing with it for thousands of years. It is therefore likely that folk theorists were correct about many things. While this is a valid point, we should recognize that they were also wrong about many things because they did not have the scientific methodology that is available to us today. Moreover, the language of folk theories is often imprecise and misleading, and it often makes distinctions that turn out not to be scientifically important while failing to make distinctions that do turn out to be scientifically important (cf. Andrews, 2012).

1.1.2 Cognitive-and-Brain Theories

Cognitive-and-brain theories —sometimes called “cognitive neuroscience”—are primarily directed toward understanding how the brain is involved in behavior. Toward this goal, these theories conceptualize the brain as a computer or information processing system. These theories use terms and concepts that are borrowed from both folk theory and computer science. Examples of folk theory terms that are used in cognitive-and-brain theories are “belief,” “desire,” “emotion,” “memory,” “mental image,” “motivation,” “mind,” and “thinking.” Examples of computer terms that are used in cognitive-and-brain theories are “buffer,” “circuitry,” “data,” “encoding,” “hardware,” “hardwiring,” “input,” “information,” “interface,” “memory” (note that this is also a folk theory term), “output,” “processing” (in the sense of processing information), “program,” “retrieval” (in the sense of retrieving stored information), “software,” “storage” (in the sense of storing information), and “wetware” (analogous to “hardware” but applied to the brain, which is mostly water).
Clearly the brain is important in complex learning. This can be seen in the fact that damage to the brain can interfere with past learning and with new learning. From numerous news reports about progress in neuroscience, it might be thought that a great deal is known about how the brain is involved in learning. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Because of the complexity of the brain and the difficulty of studying it, very little is actually known about how the brain is involved in learning. Most of what is known concerns the locations of regions in the brain that are missing or damaged when certain learning deficits occur, or that are active when different types of learning phenomena occur. Although much progress has been made over the past few decades in mapping the functions of various areas in the human brain, there are numerous difficulties in carrying out this task (see Amunts et al., 2014). Moreover, very little is actually known about the circuitry—the connections between neural tracts in the brain—and its involvement in learning (e.g., see Lee & Juan, 2013).
Fortunately, it is not necessary to know how processes in the brain and other parts of the nervous system result in learning in order to describe the functional relationships between learning and the environment. Learning is clearly a function of neurological processes, and neurological processes are a function of the environment. A function of a function is also a function; therefore, learning is a function of the environment. Since laws are functional relationships, it is possible to discover and formulate laws of learning without reference to neurological processes. As more information about the relationship between learning and neurology becomes available, it will be important to integrate this information into a unified theory of learning. Although this book gives little attention to most cognitive-and-brain theories of learning because of their current highly speculative nature, it does cover well-established factual information regarding the nervous system as it relates to learning.

1.1.3 Behavioral Theories

Behavioral theories attempt to relate units of behavior, called responses, to units of the environment, called stimuli—plural of stimulus. Although they focus on externally observable stimuli and responses, behavioral theories usually acknowledge that some stimuli and responses are not directly observable to anyone other than the individual experiencing or engaging in them. Stimuli and responses that are not externally observable are said to be private or covert. While maintaining that we may infer private stimuli and responses from externally observable—public or overt—behavior, behavioral theories are generally strict about when and how such inferences are scientifically permissible.
Although many terms in folk and cognitive-and-brain theory related to learning appear to refer to inner workings of the body, they do not refer to anything that neurologists have directly observed. For example, no one has ever seen a mind. Behavioral theories tend to regard these terms in either of two ways. One is to simply dismiss them as so vague as to be essentially meaningless. The other—the approach favored in this book—is to regard these terms not as referring to something entirely inside the individual—as folk and cognitive-and-brain theories suggest—but rather to either covert or overt behavior.
Consider, for example, the folk term “expectancy.” When a dog salivates in response to a bell that has rung just before the dog receives food, it is sometimes said that this is because the bell causes the animal to “expect” or “anticipate” food. But how do we observe that the dog expects or anticipates food? We do this only by observing that the dog salivates in response to the bell and perhaps engages in certain other behavior that animals characteristically exhibit when presented with a stimulus that has been paired with food. The “expectation of food” or “anticipation of food” is therefore simply a label for these responses, which we might therefore call “anticipatory behavior,” and is not an internal state or process.
Similarly, to say that an animal is “hungry” simply means it shows a strong tendency to eat—typically as a result of having been without food for a period of time—and to engage in other behavior that has been followed by food. Thus, the term “hunger” also refers to behavior and not to an internal state or process.
Finally, to take a third example, to say that an animal is “fearful” is simply to say the animal shows a strong tendency to cower or to flee in certain situations. Once again, the term does not refer directly to an inner state or physiological process.
Given the above, why do we tend to have such strong feelings that folk terms refer to internal states or processes? There are several reasons, but probably the most important is that a small part of the environment and behavior of each of us is contained within our own skins. Each of us is closer to that part of our own environment and behavior than anyone else is; in fact, it is accessible only to ourselves. Private events—both private stimuli and private responses—occur within that environment (see Tourinho, 2006). My toothache, for example, is a private stimulus in that only I can directly observe or respond to it. A dentist could observe the abscess in the tooth but not the ache. Similarly, I can observe my own anticipatory responses (e.g., increased heart rate prior to some aversive event) that others cannot, unless they use special instruments. I can observe internal stimuli that are often correlated with what I identify in myself as “hunger,” such as stomach contractions and decreased blood sugar level. Likewise, I can observe private responses involved in fear behavior, and even use them as a cue to hide or disguise the overt fear behavior. Furthermore, I believe that others can also do these things, although of course I have no direct knowledge of this. Probably because we are closer to them, private stimuli and responses are often more salient to us than the corresponding public behavior is. This makes it easy for us to attach more importance to private events than they actually merit.
There is one folk term, however, that many behavioral theorists would accept as referring more to covert behavior than to overt behavior; namely, the term “thinking.” Verbal behavior can occur both overtly and covertly, and when it occurs covertly we often call it “thinking.” Except when “thinking out loud,” a person who is said to be thinking is typically characterized by a lack of overt activity. When talking covertly, only the speaker can “hear” or otherwise respond in some way to the verbal behavior he or she is emitting. The behavior is said to occur subvocally (i.e., below the vocal level). Although normally we cannot respond to what other people say silently to themselves, it is technologically possible to do so by recording and analyzing the activity of nerves connected to the throat muscles involved in speech (Braukus, 2004).
Another type of thinking involves covert sensing, such as covert hearing, feeling in the sense of touching or being touched, tasting, and smelling. A very important type of covert sensing for humans is covert seeing. Essentially, this means having a sensation of something that is not actually there. Covert seeing is often referred to as visua...

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