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Distance Learning - Part 2

In the last Whitepaper we recognised that ‘distance learning’, as a concept, is as old as the hills – but that our understanding of it and the technology by which it’s delivered has changed considerably over time and continues to race ahead. The common denominator, we found, was ‘learning’: our understanding of it and engagement with it. This is a vast area to explore and will take a series of papers to cover adequately.

This Whitepaper will begin a journey whose destination will be an appreciation of the current state of structured learning that we think we’ve reached in our sector and that Videotel seeks to embed in its materials. But before we get there, it may be useful to reflect on the process of learning, its different forms and how our present level of understanding explains it. A short story may help to set the scene.

Recently, I was walking along the seawall path close to my home in the UK. It overlooks Morecambe Bay, a vast estuary, where the tide can go out over three miles on spring lows. There’s a derelict structure about two miles offshore - the Wyre Light - which dries at low water and stands about 12m high. I overheard three young lads discussing it loudly. ‘It looks titchy [= small]’ said one. ‘That’s ‘cos it’s miles away’, said another. ‘But when you get close, it’s massive’ said the third. The boy then looked around to try and explain what he’d meant. Pointing to some bungalows, he said ‘if you put that one on top of that one on top of that one – that’s how high it is! D’you get it?’ Nods all round. His friends (and I) were impressed.

Their discourse on perspective was forgotten and they ran off to play football. But this was an example of learning in its raw form and a privilege to hear. A problem (how high is the light?) followed by discussion (it looks small but that’s because it’s far away), reflection (how do I explain it?) and, most wondrous of all, an animated illustration using effective teaching aids (houses). Understanding confirmed - a result! Unconscious, unstructured, unevaluated, no formal assessment - or teacher - in sight – but learning nevertheless. The boys will probably never remember the event, just as the many thousands of minuscule, similar encounters we have all faced as we have grown up, repeated over and over again and which have informed our development. Hopefully, as they grow older and as their learning becomes more structured, the boys will be encouraged to develop an effective methodology, embrace relevant theory and so test their hypotheses more rigorously.

And talking about theory, it will be no surprise that teaching and learning comes with its fair share of it. Should it? Well, teaching and learning has been described as a complex mixture of science and art. Where the balance lies between these two extremes will depend on your point of view. But if we acknowledge even an ounce of science in the process (and I believe there’s much more than that!) then we have to accept that theory will play a part in explaining how things are and predicting how things will be. For, by definition, all science is based on theory.

Theory is sometimes dismissed as not being relevant to the ‘real world’. Leaving aside the paradox that this position is in itself, of course, a theory, surely we need to make sense of any activity in which we’re engaged? Theory serves many functions and seeks to explain phenomena in as simple a fashion as possible.

There are three fundamental schools of psychology that inform learning theory: behaviourist, cognitive and humanist. They complement one another and there are overlaps between them. Each of these main ‘taxonomies’ (or categorisations) contains sub-divisions.


Schools of Psychology


Behaviourists argue that essentially you can only measure what you see and that our behaviours can be explained in terms of our response to various stimuli and external influences. Cognitive theory admits the influence of ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ and maintains that an appreciation of this is essential if we are to understand how people come to learn. ‘Humanists’ emerged as a reaction against behaviourism. They argue that learning has to meet the emotional and developmental needs of students, who must be encouraged towards self-actualisation.

An understanding of these positions is crucial to an understanding of teaching and learning. The theories underpin and help to explain the ways in which students might absorb learning and which may lead subsequently to behavioural change. But also, learning theory influences the design, delivery and evaluation of curricula and learning materials. It may even – perhaps unwittingly – influence conventions and statutes that prescribe what we all have to learn.

So, the next few Whitepapers will explore each of these psychological perspectives starting out with the behaviourist school of thought. It will only be possible to paint a broad picture – but there will be references to take up for those who may wish to explore further. Meanwhile, I wonder if we‘ll able to situate the learning of the boys in Morecambe Bay within any of the theoretical frameworks? Something to ponder until next time.


Author: Dr C J Haughton FNI FIfL

Education Consultant to Videotel



Curzon, L.B. (2006). Teaching in Further Education. 6th Ed. London. Continuum.

Petty, G. (2004). Teaching Today. 3rd Ed. Cheltenham, UK. Nelson Thornes.


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