A Brief Look at Learning Theories

Week 3 – Historical Influencers and Looking More Deeply at the Various Aspects of Online Learning

The resounding idea for me this week is Bruner’s statement that “Knowledge is a process, not a product” (1966; qtd in Smith, 2002). I was unfamiliar with Bruner and his concept of a spiral curriculum until the readings this week, but this idea mirrors many curricular design projects that I’ve worked on and provides a great way to conceptualize the way learning can be designed to build increasing complexity on previously introduced concepts. This complexity can refer to either increasing complex ideas or the development of increasingly complex skills related to the application of these ideas. In my previous work, we undertook a curriculum renewal of our Academic Grammar curriculum and mapped students’ progression through the material from acquisition to authentic application, where the goal was for students to achieve communicative competence in the language constructs. Language learning is actually a great way to understand the spiral curriculum concept, as we build students’ knowledge from basic sentence structure and simple tense to complex sentence structure and tenses. 

This conceptualization is also of particular interest to me now in how it relates to Competency Based Medical Education, where our goal is to prepare students to use the knowledge in situations authentic to medical practice. Considering our curriculum in this context has allowed me to reflect on the utility of multiple teaching modalities. 

In Week 2, Sawyer’s discussion of constructivism versus instructivism raised some questions for me regarding “traditional” instruction methods. In particular, he stated that schools based on the transmission and acquisition model “have been effective at transmitting a standard body of facts and procedures to students.” (p. 2). This led me to think that lectures and lecture-like digital modules (the iconic modality for transmission and acquisition) may still have a place in our curriculum, in spite of our current push to reduce lecture hours. 

Considering constructivism from within a spiral curriculum, I wonder if there is a greater place for lecture in the early stages of the spiral as students start to develop the foundational knowledge required for deeper learning. Then, as students ascend through the spiral, they can be presented with more opportunities “to go beyond factual recall to an application of knowledge and skills” (Harden & Stamper, 1999, p.142), through the use of small group discussions and cases.

Another concept from Bruner that really stuck out for me was his statement that “If earlier learning is to render later learning easier, it must do so by providing a general picture in terms of which the relations between things encountered earlier and later are made as clear as possible” (qtd. in Smith, 2002; emphasis added). I have recently been working on a project to have all components of our curriculum tagged with the appropriate discipline, theme, and other tag sets in the interest of creating curricular maps and of producing learner analytics. This concept is new to me, but curricular tagging and curricular maps are development tools that I’m interested in exploring in much more detail. I’m even thinking about the possibilities for incorporate tagging into discussions. I think providing students with an opportunity to tag their self-generate content will provide them with an opportunity for meta-cognition and could help make the discussions a more powerful tool for them. 


Harden, R. M., & Stamper, N. (1999). What is a spiral curriculum? Medical Teacher, 21, 141-143.

Smith, Mark K. “Jerome Bruner and the Process of Education.” Infedorg, 2002, http://infed.org/mobi/jerome-bruner-and-the-process-of-education/

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