Elemental Learning Theories and Holistic Learning Theories

It is time for a paradigm shift in education and with the current technological advances the time is hastening for change. Philosophies and theories of the past may be studied and analyzed but they fail to cover all the possibilities that were unseen 30 years ago. At the basis of every theory is the hope of improving learning and the hope that more people will seek and find greater knowledge. Philosophizing about learning theories is problematic for me. Two theories of learning have been examined. One is elemental theory, defined as a reaction to stimuli. That Pavlov’s dog learns to salivate helps to understand conditioned responses, but in my opinion does not help in developing a program of successful learning. Elemental theory, which is focused on the parts, includes behaviorism, best explained when “all people could achieve great accomplishments given the opportunity (stimulus), individual initiative (response), and fair treatment (rewards) (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005, p. 836)
The second is holistic theory and is based on seeing the whole instead of the parts. It is this theory of learning that I believe will shape the future of successful learning in higher education as technology opens new pathways. Holistic theory embraces the gestalt theories of Wertheimer, Koffka, and Kohler (Knowles et al., 2005).They proposed that learning is a result of responding to the whole and not the individual parts. The mind sees the whole and fills in what may be missing (Knowles et al., 2005) Technology and the Internet can bring a “whole” picture to the learner. Images become more available; interactive videos allow the student to see the whole. The Internet allows students to experience the visual instead of always reading textbooks. One example of this is the innovation of the white board where the teacher writes and draws as he talks. The interesting aspect of this method is that the teacher can speak at a normal rate while the drawing can be speeded up to match the rate of speaking. The student comprehends the whole process as one and is entertained at the same time. Learning is speeded up to thinking processes and acts to lure the student into the subject. An example of this is RSA Animate, a company that specializes in producing visual learning lectures for teachers. (http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/videos/)
Another example of visual processing that uses this theory of holistic learning is the innovative techniques of Khan Academy. The concept of one-on-one tutoring with a teacher is utilized in each of the lessons produced. Sal Khan the author and instigator of this new learning process began by tutoring his niece in math from a distance. Using an electronic drawing pad attached to his computer, Sal worked out the math problems, explaining the process of reasoning. He uploaded these on YouTube to make it easier for her to watch. This teaching method became so popular that other students started to access the videos. With the help of donations from Bill Gates, (who admitted using the videos to help his son) Khan Academy began to produce videos for a myriad of subjects. Now included are videos in the sciences, history, business and more. (http://khanacademy.org) We are a visual world, with sights and sounds that are beginning to be integrated to create new learning tools and techniques.
The desire to learn is the first step. The quest of knowledge can be stimulated. But it is indeed individual. A simple set of questions to ask will open the door to desire, to learn.
Fulfilling the desire is the overwhelming task. True learning is not a project of educating the masses. It is providing the spark, the interest, and the desire and then providing the path to that knowledge. Learning is about doing – whether that be reading, writing, teaching, watching or listening. It is about thinking and doing. Technology is advancing the speed of available information to adults who may not have had access before.  The percentage of 25 to 64-year olds with college degrees has increased over the time frame of 1999 to 2002 (Bach, et al., 2007). The United Kingdom, United States, France, Germany, and Japan showed an average increase from 16.6 percent to 29.6 percent – almost double the amount of higher degrees. (Bach, Haynes, Smith, 2007) Technology will play a role in providing the tools to achieve the goals of reaching more students. Brick and mortar classrooms do not have to be the only source of teaching and learning. Educators with exceptional skills will be able to produce content that is engaging and capable of reaching out to those who have the desire to learn.  Internet usage has increased by 183 percent worldwide, from 2000 to 2005 (Bach et al., 2007). In America, distance learning has taken a rise in the space of two years; students taking at least one on-line course rose from 1,602,970 in 2002 to 2,329,383 in 2004. (Bach et al., 2007) The demand for easier access to education is on the rise and competition for the best methods of delivery will encourage businesses to deliver. The methods will incorporate the elements of holistic learning.
The number of students that work as well as go to school has been increasing. (Bach et al., 2007) This is not necessarily a negative circumstance. Although it does make it difficult for students to attend school throughout the day and still have a job to complete. Students with full time employment in the business sector often take advantage of higher education for the completion of a masters in business administration (MBA). The experience of working in this case facilitates the desire to complete the degree. Either for the desire to increase salary or the desire to understand business processes better, working provides the learner with incentive to learn. Night classes and online courses for an MBA have become more common as the demand rises (Bach, et al., 2007).
Other methods of learning in the area of higher education have been launched. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has an open courseware program, where university courses are available for free on the Internet. Courseware is downloadable and video lectures are easily accessed. No registration is even needed. Courses include engineering, humanities, and architecture. (http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm) The one drawback to these courses is that students do not get college credit. But then learning and knowledge need not always be about a certificate. In fact, the accumulation of knowledge by those who simply have a desire to learn should be an asset. Most often, without some form of paperwork showing you have completed a degree or certification, job marketability is limited. Another technological advance is the webcam class, where teachers are present in person, audibly and visually. Class members take part in questions and discussions as if they were present. These methods can positively affect higher education.
Education needs change and the joy of learning needs to be at the forefront. Higher education has become a practice of learning how to pass exams. This is based on the elemental theory. Students begin the process of being tested and placed at a young age, which continues through all of higher education. The pressure to perform well has enabled the establishment of an entire new branch of business – how to score high in exams. As students progress to higher degrees they are faced with even more testing and preparing to test. The college entrance exams have books, courses and guides for an aspiring student. Competition to become the best at passing these tests has become the Olympics of educational institutions. If the ultimate goal is to produce a superior test-taker, than this makes sense. But the purpose of higher education should be to acquire knowledge for use, a more holistic approach of learning.
The process of learning has hastened with the development of the Internet. Long trips to the library can be replaced with Internet searching of databases. Time spent commuting can be better unutilized. Adults can improve their job skills. Holistic learning opens the door for technology to provide innovative lessons, videos, and interactive and visually stimulating lectures. Online classes allow all the students to sit in the front row, to have direct access to the teacher, to take classes around work hours and provide access to higher education.

Bach, S., Haynes, P., Smith, J. (2007). Online Learning and Teaching in Higher Education:    The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development Burlington, Massachusetts: Elsevier, 1-   31.
Knowles, M., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (2005) The Adult Learner, New York, New York: McGraw Hill, 1-34
Khan Academy retrieved from http://www.khanacademy.org/
MIT OpenCourseWare retrieved from http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

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