L&D paradigms, theories and models

Well it’s official … I’ve started the Level 5 L&D Consultant Business Partner Apprenticeship.  Little bit daunting but once I got started on the first assignment, it was like riding a bike.

So this month we looked at paradigms, theories and models and my research took me further back than I expected …

Socrates (469-399 BC) developed the Socratic or dialectical method of philosophy which is based on persistent questioning and the belief that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.  Here is a summary of the key questions and answers that Socrates posed related to teaching and learning:

  • What is knowledge? Trivial or important? Trivial knowledge doesn’t provide the possessor with any useful expertise or wisdom, important knowledge relates to ethics and morals and can be defined by how best to live one’s life.
  • Why do we need to learn?  Morals and ethical instincts can be brought to the surface through learning.
  • How do we learn? The search for truth.  Learning will only occur as a result of questioning and interpreting the wisdom of others and when one comes to recognise their own ignorance and faults.
  • Who do we learn from?  He didn’t believe that any one person, or any one particular school of thought, had the wisdom or legitimate authority to teach things.  He did however argue that individuals are not self-sufficient and that other people are necessary to share the experience and wisdom from which learning can flourish.
  • Where do we learn? He questioned the established idea that learning could only take place in educational settings and advocated that leaning should take place wherever and whenever people meet.
  • When do we learn?  He argued that this happened whenever two or more people engages in meaningful dialogue and when one person was willing to see their own faults, weaknesses and negative tendencies

This qualification focuses on adult learning.  Being part of a business that has remained open throughout the pandemic, has seen increased demand and continues to discuss projected growth for the coming five years … we know that L&D needs to be at the forefront.

  • During the pandemic we had people shielding whose skills and expertise was missed
  • We have often been left short staff due to staff isolating, again at the detriment of productivity
  • We have had to adapt to remote working, remote recruitment and inductions and socially distanced on-the-job training
  • We have set up a Training Team to look at training across the site.  What is our succession plan? How do we become more efficient?  Can one operator manage two lines? Should we have specific trainers? Should we look at the grading structure to see what the incentive for stepping up is? Where will our next generation come from? What is the career journey of an employee?

There are many techniques and theories about how to effectively educate adults. Children and adults are very different when it comes to how they learn, so different techniques must be used in order to make learning effective for adults.

Andragogy – Malcolm Knowles popularised the concept of andragogy in 1980. Andragogy is the “art of science of helping adults learn” and Malcolm Knowles contrasted it with pedagogy, which is the art and science of helping children learn. Knowles and the andragogy theory says that adult learners are different from children in many ways.

Andragogy learning theories focus on giving students an understanding of why they are doing something, lots of hands-on experiences, and less instruction so they can tackle things themselves. The andragogy adult learning theory isn’t without criticism—some suggest that the andragogy adult learning theory doesn’t take other cultures into consideration well enough. While there are pros and cons, many students find andragogy is extremely accurate and helpful as they work to continue their education and learning.  

Transformative learningJack Mezirow developed this learning theory in the 1970’s. The transformative adult learning theory (sometimes called transformational learning) is focused on changing the way learners think about the world around them, and how they think about themselves. For example, learners studying religions of the world may gain new perspectives on their principles and thoughts about regions and cultures as they learn more about different religions.  Their assumptions may change based on what they learn. Sometimes transformative learning utilises dilemmas and situations to challenge your assumptions and principles.

Learners then use critical thinking and questioning to evaluate their underlying beliefs and assumptions, and learn from what they realise about themselves in the process. Mezirow saw transformative learning as a rational process, where learners challenge and discuss to expand their understanding. There is criticism that transformative learning doesn’t account well for relationships, feelings, and cultural contexts, making learners feel unsafe or nervous to share their thoughts with teachers or other learners in an educational setting. There are ups and downs with transformative learning, and many adult learners find that working to change their underlying beliefs can be rewarding and demanding at the same time.

Self-directed learning is an interesting adult learning theory that has been around for hundreds for years. It became a more formal theory in the 1970’s with Alan Tough and is used by teachers in a variety of educational settings to help improve adult learning.

Self-directed learning (sometimes called self-direction learning) is the process where individuals take the initiative in their learning – they plan, carry out, and evaluate their learning experiences without the help of others. Learners set goals, determine their educational or training needs, implement a plan and more to enhance their own leaning. Self-directed learning may happen outside the classroom or inside it, with students working by themselves or collaborating as part of their self-directed learning process.

Criticism for this self-directed approach comes from those who say that some adult learners lack the confidence and understanding to do self-directed learning well. Critics also say that not all adults want to pursue self-directed learning. But for many adults, self-directed learning happens naturally without anyone explaining it or suggesting it.

Adult learners are more prone to self-directed learning because they are often excited about their education and feel confident in their ability to take it on themselves. For many adult students, self-directed learning is a fantastic way to learn. 

Experiential learningDavid Kolb championed this theory in the 1970’s, drawing on the work of other psychologists and theorists. Experiential learning theory focuses on the idea that adults are shaped by their experiences, and that the best learning comes from making sense of your experiences. Instead of memorising facts and figures, experiential learning is a more hands-on and reflective learning style. Adult learners are able to utilise this theory and learn by doing, instead of just hearing or reading about something. Role-play, hands on experiences, and more are all part of experiential learning.

Critics of experiential learning say that there are many benefits to non-experiential learning that can be overlooked with this theory. These critics suggest that there is great value on goals, metrics, decision-making, and details that can be overlooked in experiential learning. Many adult learners find that this more hands-on approach is a great option for them. Instead of reading or memorising, adult learners can utilise their past life experiences and their current understanding to improve their education. 

Project-based learning – As early as 1900, John Dewey supported a “learning by doing” method of education. Project-based learning (sometimes called problem-based learning) is similar to experiential and action learning in that the overall idea is to actually do something to help you learn, instead of reading or hearing about it. Project-based learning utilises real-world scenarios and creates projects for students that they could encounter in a job in the future. Students can choose their own projects and pursue things they are interested in, which is a great option for adult learners who need real-world applications from their learning.

The major criticism of project based learning is that the outcomes aren’t proven. There isn’t enough evidence to show that project-based learning is as effective as other learning methods. But many adult learners find that this kind of learning is hugely beneficial for them as they apply what they have been taught to their career, giving them direct access to seeing what they can do with their knowledge.

The CIPD suggest that traditional models applied to learning design and delivery are being challenged and emerging theories are being explored.  According to the CIPD Professionalising Learning and Development (2019), less than half L&D practitioners integrate new learning concepts, for example neuroscience, into practice. Those that did were twice as likely to leverage networks and collaboration to drive transformation and four times more likely to improve leadership capabilities.

Most theorists agree that it’s beneficial to support learners on their learning style as a way to embed any new knowledge, skill or behaviour.  The role of L&D in workplace learning is to ensure that new information is transferred to the long-term memory quickly to drive organisational performance.

An increased awareness of how each of us think and learn, sometimes known as ‘metacognition’, is therefore perhaps the most important advantage of applying learning theories.  Common models include:

Behaviourism – Guthrie, Hull, Pavlov, Skinner, Thorndike, Tolman and Watson

Behaviourism, also known as behavioural psychology, is a theory of learning which states all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment through a process called conditioning. Thus, behaviour is simply a response to environmental stimuli.

Behaviourism is only concerned with observable stimulus-response behaviours, as they can be studied in a systematic and observable manner.

  • Operant conditioning – involves applying either positive reward and / or reinforcement or negative reinforcement and / or punishment – and after a behaviour has taken place.  The basis is that people will seek to gain more positive reward and so repeat the behaviours that result in this.  Operant conditioning is about changing voluntary behaviour and requires the learner to participate and to want to change the behaviours that result in positive reinforcement and reward.
  • Classical conditioning – is about changing involuntary behaviour, is passive in terms of learner imitative.  Tokens, prizes or other forms of recognition given in L&D settings can produce the same effect.

Cognitivism – Ausubel, Bruner, Gagne, Koffka, Kohler, Lewin

Cognitivism is the study in psychology that focuses on mental processes, including how people perceive, think, remember, learn, solve problems, and direct their attention to one stimulus rather than another. Psychologists working from a cognitivist perspective, then, seek to understand cognition. Rooted in Gestalt psychology and the work of Jean Piaget, cognitivism has been prominent in psychology since the 1960s; it contrasts with behaviourism, where psychologists concentrate their studies on observable behaviour. Contemporary research often links cognitivism to the view that people process information as computers do, according to specific rules; in this way, it is related to studies in artificial intelligence. In addition, cognitivism has influenced education, as studies of how people learn potentially sheds light on how to teach most effectively.

The CIPD explained that this theory is to develop knowledge already gained and to interpret new knowledge through cognitive processes (mental skills) such as recognition, recall, analysis, reflections, application, finding meaning, problem solving, evaluation, memory and perception.  It’s also about developing capacity and the skills to learn better and places an importance on experience insights. 

Humanism – Maslow, Rogers

Learning is a personal act, a self-actualising process.  It focusses on affective (emotions and feelings) and cognitive (mental) learning needs. It relates to how we receive phenomena, respond to phenomena, attach worth or value, organise and prioritise values and resolve conflicting data, and internalise values.  It’s relevant to the way in which learners develop skills such as listening with empathy, participation in group work, questions concepts in order to understand them, its sensitive to individual differences, and accepts responsibility for one’s own actions.


Constructivism is ‘an approach to learning that holds that people actively construct or make their own knowledge and that reality is determined by the experiences of the learner’ (Elliott et al., 2000).

In elaborating constructivists’ ideas Arends (1998) states that constructivism believes in personal construction of meaning by the learner through experience, and that meaning is influenced by the interaction of prior knowledge and new events.


Neuroscience examines the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system. Neuroscientists use cellular and molecular biology, anatomy and physiology, human behaviour and cognition, and other disciplines, to map the brain at a mechanistic level.  The concept of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain is able to keep developing and changing.  It shows how areas of the brain increase their capacity for processing when regular activity stimulating that function occurs.

This is a direct challenge to the belief that learners can become permanently entrenched in certain thought processes and skills; it defies the thinking that ‘you cannot teach an old dog new tricks’.

What’s next …

Understanding how different people learn is important.  The challenge we face over the next five years is to improve line performance and a part of this is reviewing the documents they use for training, the processes they use and the people they rely on to share their experiences and knowledge.  They project a growth of 100 m litres to 400 m litres, from 5 lines to 10 lines and more.

Learning about neuroscience and neuroplasticity is exciting as they move towards the future of a new facility, new machines, new technology and new expectations of staff.  To think that staff behaviours can be changed in encouraging.  This is an opportunity for them to look at how things are done, what works, what doesn’t work, what is happening in the industry.

We want to improve staff skills.  To be successful they need to look at how we train staff and who trains the staff.  This will be an interesting period of the business.  Following on from the research, it will be interesting to see if staff have that drive to be part of the future and how we can ensure their processes evolve to encourage the different types of learners on site to grow.

For me … more reading … this week it’s the CIPD book Neuroscience for Learning and Development.

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