The learner and content…

The relationship of the learner with media content is a fractious one.

The learning and development world are in some ways stuck in the 1960s when it comes to psychology. In the ’60s B.F Skinner was the trailblazer for behaviourist psychology. Skinner and the behaviourists(good name for a band that!) said that we can only measure and analyse human behaviour by what the individual does. What goes on in their head doesn’t matter or is irrelavant. Behaviourists want to know what they actually do! A little worringly, Skinner thought that animals performed pretty similarly to humans. Famously Pavlov’s dogs are conditioned to act in a certain way to a stimulus.

This all seems a little clinical and ‘sciencey’ right? Well that was kind of what Skinner and his peers wanted. They wanted psychology to be seen in the same way as other sciences such as physics or biology, where empirical evidence is collected. You do a, and b, does this. Humans unfortunately or fortunately depending upon your perspective are not that predictable. So how so is learning and development stuck oin the 1960s? Take learning objevtives, we want to see measurable behaviour, and now! We don’t care too much about what’s going on inside the head. In many ways this links to training people for war or working in factories. There is life and profit at stake so just get on and do it. At the end of the 20th century, cognitive psychology has started to look at actually what goes on inside the brain. We are nowhere near knowing enough yet and even brain imaging can only tell us where the activity takes place and not necessarily why.

With all of this in mind, the reality is in many learning scenarios, measuring behaviour is all we can do. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about what goes on inside our heads when we learn or attempt to engage with learning content. Here are some thoughts on how we can take on board some of the thinking about how a learner engages with content beyond those behaviourists with their calculators and white coats.

Effects and active audience

In the 1960s when TV was becoming mainstream, work was being done by psychologists to understand how audiences consumed media. Much of the work was concerned with asking how audiences react to different media and how it affected behaviour. Does for example watching an action movie with a shoot out cause someone to go out and do exactly the same thing? I hope so as I have just watched Lionel Messi score a hat-trick at the Nou Camp!

The effects theory says that we mimic the media that we consume and that we are ‘controlled’ by it. Great news if you are designing or delivering learning eh?! You write it and it changes peoples’ behaviour, ta-da! The famous Bobo Doll experiment did find that violent behaviour was mimicked. This was however, in a very controlled environment and there was rewards involved. Although, of course media can and does have effects on people the full picture is a little more complicated. Isn’t it always?! Audiences it has been found are a lot more active with the media that they consume. Bad news for the learning designers! People evaluate the content of media and make sense of it based on their own lives and experiences. Lawrence Grossberg said that people attempt to make sense of media “that connect to their own lives, experiences, needs and desires”. Take for example going into a hardware store and asking for fork handles or four candles. If you work as a gardener you will think of handles for forks. If you regularly have a power cut then four candles might be closer to your thoughts. This is not always conscious either, we look more at the unconscious next. So, just because we deliver some learning it doesn’t always mean that every learner has made the same sense of it.This is where tutors, trainers and managers come in to embed the learning.


Sigmund Freud is one of those names from history that has seeped into the vernacular. To be Freudian in general everyday life is to say a word incorrectly but could make sense, often thought to be a more honest answer of our unsconscious. For example saying the word “sex” instead of “six” is said to be actually what the person is thinking… maybe. Freud thought that everybody surpressed their true feelings to fit in with social norms. This has become what we know as Freudian and it does have some basis.

Freud said that our early childhood years form who we are and remain in our unconscious for the rest of our lives. A psychoanalysts job is to draw this out of a patient and treat mental ill health.

Freud’s work has not been without controversy, he was the first person to think of the mind in this way. Freud beleived that an individual’s experiences formed them for the rest of their lives. He said that these unconscious processes governed us. Others, such as Carl Rogers have said that individuals can change throughout their lives time and time again.

Where does this fit into learning? For me it screams out that all learning should take into consideration past experiences. The challenge being how do you make this specific to the individual? A teacher can use examples that link to an interest a student has. Workplace learning can be relevant to the task that someone is doing or have been doing in the past. As with active audience people aren’t empty heads to pour information into and treat that content as neutral.


A model of learning that has always resonated with me is the hierachy of competance, sometimes known as the ladder of competence.

  • Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Conscious incompetence – you know what you don’t know.
  • Conscious competence – you know that you are now competent and it takes a bit of work.
  • Unconscious competence – competence becomes automatic without concerted effort.

All very simple right? Well, what is consciousness? It’s a big debate in psychology. One that was totally ignored by Skinner and the behaviourists (the band are back!). Skinner and the behaviourists said that consciousness doesn’t matter, as I stated above, for Skinner and the behaviourists it’s observable actions that count not all that happens inside the brain. The opposite can be said of the field of cognitive psychology which looks at the brain and how information is processed. Nailing down what consciousness is continues to be a challenge for psychologists.

Similar to active audience theory the cognitive psychology constructivist approach looks at how senses use existing knowledge along with new sensory information to perceive the world. This is called top down processing and is saying that we look at the world through what is already in our brains. Learners do not all start as a blank canvas. The

The field of sociology also says that we are governed by habit.The habit of doing things the way things have always been done can be described by the concept of the habitus. The theory has evolved originally from Durkheim with Mauss and Bourdieu adding to the work in developing the concept. Durkheim began work on habitus by identifying two polar opposites of the conduct of the individual. At one end is the reflective, conscious individual with agency (freedom of choice) and the polar opposite is the individual whose conduct is governed by unconscious habit. Durkheim said that the majority of the time we are governed by habit and only when this habit is disrupted do we reflect and analyse our conduct. Hierachy of competence above? Consider a journey that you make regularly, only when this is disrupted would you start to think about alternative routes and modes of transport. Zombies are often used as a metaphor for the analysis of consciousness. Durkheim said that infant schooling created habits of behaviour designed to govern communities and secondary schooling created those who could make conscious decisions and govern. Bourdieu built on the work of Durkheim and Mauss, taking the idea of habitus as being a product of history made into nature by individual and collective practices. Sociology would say that everything we do is formed socially through habit. The opposite in many ways of Darwinian theory.

What does a learner do with content?

Just touching on a few areas there that I thought relevant to the learners relationship with the content that they interact with, how does this help us? Well, it might seem as if there is no answer at all but I beleive the takeaway message here is:

  • Think about the learner and their past experiences
  • Get to know exactly what they do and where they do it
  • Ensure that examples are relevant
  • Accept that content doesn’t mean the same thing to every individual
  • Personalise learning wherever possible
  • Accept that individuals are governed in some way by the unconscious in so far as habit takes over
  • Help learners to be conscious of what they are doing and what they need to do differently (no easy task, I agree!)

2 responses to “The learner and content…”

  1. […] The learner and content… The relationship of the learner with media content is a fractious one. […]


  2. […] on thoughts in a previous blog of mine on the learner and content, users interact with content in a variety of ways. If the one way information delivered by the […]


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