Learning is the process of getting to know new things. These new things can be a consequence of learning about (experiences, facts, theories or perspectives, for instance) and learning how to (do certain things, behave in particular circumstances or think in certain ways, for instance).

Compared to other animal species, humans are born with very little of what they need to know and need to be able to do in order to be fully functioning members of their species. They have to learn an extraordinary amount. And they learn this in a remarkably short period of time. By the age of about three, they have acquired the unique thinking apparatus that is language. They have developed a perceptual attentiveness or capacity to see things that is not present at birth. These are just two of the extraordinary learning achievements of infants, achievements that are entirely unschooled. They happen without pedagogy and without education in the formal sense of a consciously designed program of learning.

Humans, though helpless at birth, have an innate and unusually open capacity to learn. The stuff they encounter in their environment – objects, people and language – teaches them a lot. The lifeworld provides a remarkable informal teaching environment for infants. The child may have a natural inclination to learn, but they are also immersed in enormously rich surroundings, full of things that are begging to be learned. The child is also born into a social environment in which peers, older children and adults have a natural knack for teaching.

These are some of the basics of learning with which nobody could disagree. Beyond that, however, there are many different perspectives on how learning occurs. These perspectives support alternative approaches to the formal learning processes of pedagogy and education. We examine three perspectives in this chapter, roughly in the order in which these ideas entered the discipline and practice of education: behaviourism, brain developmentalism and social cognitivism. There are points of perceptive value in all three perspectives. All three are used by contemporary educators to support their practices, at various times and in various places. Although paying its respects to the traditions of behaviourism and brain developmentalism, the New Learning we describe in this book draws greater inspiration from more recent social-cognitivist thinking.

We investigate each perspective according to the following dimensions:

  • dimension 1: the processes of learning
  • dimension 2: the sources of ability
  • dimension 3: infrastructure for learning
  • dimension 4: measuring learning.