Graduate Level Psychology Of Learning

Review this week’s course materials and learning activities, and reflect on your learning so far this week. Respond to two of the following prompts in one to two paragraphs: Each response must be 150 words, totaling of 2 responses. Please do not combine responses.

  1. Provide citation and reference to the material(s) you discuss. Describe what you found interesting regarding this topic, and why.
  2. Describe how you will apply that learning in your daily life, including your work life.
  3. Describe what may be unclear to you, and what you would like to learn.

From self-regulation to learning to learn:

observations on the construction of self and


Ernst D. Thoutenhoofda and Anne Pirrieb* aUniversity of Groningen, The Netherlands; bUniversity of the West of Scotland, UK

The purpose of this article is to clarify the epistemological basis of self-regulated learning. The

authors note that learning to learn, a term that has pervaded education policy at EU and national

levels in recent years is often conflated with self-regulated learning. As a result, there has been insuf-

ficient attention paid to learning as social performance and to a more nuanced conceptualisation of

agency. A review of the literature on self-regulated learning suggests that self-regulated learning is

behaviour that is oriented towards the optimal execution of predefined tasks. The authors suggest

that the consequences of this are a resolute focus on the individual learner and a striking denial of

learning as social performance. They trace the origins of self-regulated learning to ad-hoc combina-

tions of behaviourism and cognitive psychology and explore the consequences of this for the way in

which learning to learn is conceptualized. They argue that a reflexive social epistemology is a neces-

sary counterweight to the systematic neglect of learning as a social process that has resulted from

the psychological turn in learning theory.


The main purpose of this article is to clarify the epistemological basis of self-regulated

learning and to pave the way for the development of a reflexive and inclusive social

epistemology of learning to learn. Our contribution to the debate is mainly theoretical

and conceptual. However, we shall have recourse to metaphor for the purposes of

exemplification, as well as to some examples drawn from practice.

The term learning to learn has gained widespread currency in education policy at

EU and national levels in recent years. However, the definition put forward in Key

competences for lifelong learning—European Reference Framework (European Commis- sion, 2006) is a potent reminder of the extent to which self-regulation and the con-

comitant focus on the individual learner has colonised the field. Learning to learn is

defined as ‘the ability to pursue and persist in learning, to organise one’s own learn-

ing, including through effective management of time and information, both individu-

ally and in groups’ (p. 8). It is not difficult to see how the terms self-regulated

learning and learning to learn are regarded as interchangeable. Moreover, the defini-

tion in the European Reference Framework implies a rather narrow and individualis-

tic view of agency and fails to take account of the ‘interplay between habit,

*Corresponding author. Faculty of Education, Health and Social Sciences, University of the West

of Scotland, Ayr Campus University Avenue, Ayr, KA8 0SX, Scotland. Email: anne.pirrie@

© 2013 British Educational Research Association

British Educational Research Journal Vol. 41, No. 1, February 2015, pp. 72–84

DOI: 10.1002/berj.3128



imagination and judgement’ (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998, p. 970) in collective and

interlinked contexts for action. As these authors point out, ‘agency is always agency

towards something, by means of which actors enter into relationship with surround-

ing persons, places, meanings, and events’ (Emirbayer &Mische, 1998, p. 973).

In what follows we shall draw on a selective review of the literature on self-regulated

learning over the last decade in order to explore attempts to take account of the social

dimension of learning1 . Our intention is to explore the implications of the emphasis

on the cognitive functioning of individuals rather than on broader aspects of learning

that take place in and through social relations. The former appears to be the focus of

work on self-regulated learning. The latter, on the other hand, represents the rela-

tively unexplored terrain of a reflexive social epistemology of learning to learn. The

latter attempts if not ‘to break the correspondence between human activity and teleol-

ogy’ then at least to probe its limits (Lewis, 2011, p. 587). We take the view that the

narrow construction of learning to learn as self-regulated learning has resulted in a

striking denial of the dimension of learning as social performance and an over-empha-

sis on individual agency, autonomy and responsibility in the pursuit of pre-deter-

mined educational ends.

Part of the reason for this regrettable state of affairs may well be the apparently

unbridgeable cleavage between the disciplines of education and the way in which the

psychology and sociology of education in particular have been ‘institutionalised and

territorialized’ (Pirrie & Gillies, 2012). By reviewing some of the literature on self-reg-

ulated learning we shall explore the mechanisms through which psychology has

achieved clear pre-eminence in learning theory, without pressing charges of disciplin-

ary imperialism. We suggest that the pre-eminence of the psychological turn has

resulted in the emphasis on self-regulated learning rather than on the social dimen-

sions of learning to learn. Lawn and Furlong (2009) point to the dominance of psy-

chology among the disciplines of education from the 1920s until the early 1960s. Our

reading of the literature on self-regulated learning published over the last three dec-

ades certainly suggests that the fault-lines between the disciplines are still very much

in evidence. Bridges (2006) observed that psychology alone spans various distinct

research traditions, including ‘neurophysiology, behaviourism, cognitivism and con-

structivism through to psychoanalysis’ (p. 260). These internal divisions are also evi-

dent in studies of self-regulated learning. As we shall see below, more recent studies

present ad-hoc combinations of behaviourism and cognitive psychology. We suggest

that this theoretical eclecticism has resulted in a progressive broadening of the frame

of inquiry, as research into self-regulated learning has attempted to account for the

social dimension of learning. Moreover, it appears that the eclectic blending of differ-

ent traditions has made it more difficult to conceptualise the relation between the

learning self and the collective. We shall draw on some examples of recent writing in

the field in order to illustrate how empirical research on self-regulated learning lacks

the conceptual means to take full account of the social dimension of learning.

How has this situation come about? It appears that the enduring focus on the task-

oriented behaviour of isolated individuals can be traced back to a Piagetian concep-

tion of regulation that guides the development of behaviour in individuals. As we shall

see, subsequent attempts to account for sociality through the notion of co-regulation

seem to be premised upon a view of learning as a disembodied, ahistorical and

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apolitical process that takes as its starting point the ‘pure’ agency of individual learn-

ers. Learners are regarded as somehow existing independently of the field of relations

that bring them into presence. This is all the more striking, given the frequent refer-

ences to social constructivism in studies on self-regulated learning. The conception of

learning purely as the exercise of individual agency persists, despite valiant attempts

in the literature to take account of learning as a shared activity. The problem seems to

be that from the perspective of psychology, sociality is construed as inter-subjectivity.

This only serves to sharpen the focus on the agency of the individual rather than on a

more nuanced view of agency that foregrounds the ‘dialogical process by and through

which actors immersed in temporal passage engage with others within collectively

organised contexts of action (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998, p. 974; see also Biesta &

Tedder, 2007, for an ecological perspective on agency). However, as the eminent

anthropologist Tim Ingold (2010) has observed, ‘the more theorists have to say about

[individual] agency, the less they seem to have to say about life’. Like Ingold, we aim

‘to put this emphasis in the reverse’ and to pave the way for the development of a

reflexive and inclusive social epistemology of learning to learn that focuses on lived

experience within the classroom and conceptualizes sociality as more than inter-

subjectivity. We believe that this will afford greater scope to consider the diversity of

learners, including those who find learning particularly challenging, for example

pupils with learning difficulties or other types of special educational need.

We shall now review a range of texts on self-regulated learning that attempt to take

account of the social dimension of learning. We then reflect on the ontological issues

that arise from attempts to combine key ideas from behaviourism and cognitivism.

Finally, we examine the irreconcilable tensions between behaviourism and social con-

structivism and explore the implications of these for the further development of learn-

ing theory in respect of learning to learn.

Self-regulated learning: the origin of the species

Early accounts of self-regulated learning (those from the late 1980s to early 1990s)

display attributes that have exercised scholars in the area of learning theory ever since.

The hallmarks of self-regulated learning are reciprocally related cognitive and affec-

tive processes that operate on the capacity of an individual to process information in

order to optimize academic achievement (Zimmerman & Schunk, 1989). These pro-

cesses are taken to be largely self-generated and self-directed and are oriented towards

the attainment of a clearly specified learning outcome (Zimmerman 1990, 2000;

Boekaerts, 1999). Zimmerman (2001) suggests that self-regulation emphasises the

‘personal initiative, perseverance and adaptive skill’ of the individual learner. Kopp

(1982) defined self-regulation more generally as the capacity to comply with a

request, and to initiate or cease activity as the situation demanded. The net result— all being well—was compliance with pre-determined external norms in which the role of an external monitor (such as a teacher or classroom assistant) was systematically

underplayed. Failure to achieve the required outcome was attributable to insufficient

effort on the part of the individual (Ames, 1992; Dweck & Leggett, 1988).

More recent empirical studies into self-regulated learning appear to draw on an

ad-hoc combination of behaviourism and cognitive psychology. Post et al. (2006) also

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note this theoretical eclecticism, which they date back to research on the more general

notion of self-regulation within the discipline of psychology in the 1950s. They con-

sider that this dual theoretical base has led to a schism in the collective understanding

of self-regulated learning, which they describe as being poised rather uneasily

between determinism and volition. This indicates the need to clarify the articulation

between agency (individual action) and structure (conventional social patterns and

rules). Post et al. (2006) also report very different articulations of the sociality of

learning in studies on self-regulated learning. This is perhaps a further indication of

the internal divisions within psychology that were evident in the literature. However,

Post et al. (2006) do not explore how the changing dynamics within psychology as a

discipline might have impacted upon the construction of self-regulated learning. Nor

do they challenge the pre-eminence of psychological approaches to self-regulated

learning or pave the way for a consideration of learning to learn as a reflexive social

activity. Post et al. (2006) do suggest that at one end of the spectrum there are ranged

social and cognitive perspectives that suppose that individuals internalise social sche-

mata, thus leaving little room for personal volition. At the other end of the spectrum

they note a more humanist psychology or dialectic materialism associated with Vygot-

sky, who is generally regarded as one of the founding fathers of educational social

constructivism. Indeed, Vygotsky and von Glasersfeld are among the most cited

founding theorists in the literature on the social nature of self-regulated learning. At

its most radically constructivist this approach conceives of individuals and social sys-

tems as mutually constitutive. This gave rise to the notion of ‘co-regulation’, and it is

to this that we now turn our attention.

Reviewing co-regulation: the empty self in an empty environment

It appears that much of the literature on self-regulated learning has tended to focus

on the individual learner, and does not dispose of the conceptual apparatus fully to

take account of learning as social performance (Zimmerman, 2001; Post et al.,

2006; Volet et al., 2009). The literature on self-regulated learning disguises the fact

that learning is a political act, and that its meanings, primary goals and supposed

benefits are highly contested. There is an evident failure to account for the stratifi-

cation of learning in ways that reflect social systems more generally, including the

many varieties of in- and exclusion that have attracted the attention of other schol-

ars in recent decades. Much research into self-regulated learning has reduced learn-

ing to a general classificatory patterning of anticipated behaviours among

abstracted and ‘empty’ selves with a predisposition to submit to a self-evident

didactic logic. As such, it does not take account of the way in which teachers, aca-

demics and students collectively and voluntarily negotiate approaches to learning

within specific contexts-for-action. Nor does previous research into self-regulated

learning explore how those involved in the process continuously interrogate their

experiences of and orientation towards learning. In short, it appears that the differ-

ent understandings, preferences and priorities of all those involved in the process of

learning have been systematically underplayed in much previous research. Rather,

it seems that learners are construed as empty vessels that come into presence, as it

were, by progressively internalising externally supported forms of regulation. In

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order fully to appreciate how deeply entrenched is the vision of the atomised indi-

vidual in contemporary learning theory, it is perhaps instructive to consider the art

critic Adrian Searle’s description of Antony Gormley’s extraordinary sculptural

installation Field for the British Isles:

Field for the British Isles is a startling and arresting sight: thousands of unglazed, fired,

small clay figures, standing closely together, all staring towards the viewer and filling a

large enclosed space. There are more figures than can be counted, more still disappearing

out of sight into a further space. Their number seems to be endless. (Searle, 1996)

The empty selves of self-regulating learners—’each so similar yet each entirely unique’—also manifest a readiness to respond to scaffolding, to shaping and form- ing. They too seem the stuff of (com)pliant brick clay, ready to be ‘grasped,

squeezed, pinched, pummelled and rounded’. We admit that the use of such

language may suggest a rather jaded view of the process of education. The tiny

clay figures, these ‘endearing, oddly misshaped beings, little Munchkins or golems

for whom one feels a certain empathy’ (Searle, 1996) bear no trace of the warmth

of the hands that formed them. By the same token, as it were, the self of the self-

regulating learner appears as ‘an individual [or a limitless number of individuals]

labouring in relative solitude, constituted of componential mechanisms, processes,

parts, and strategies’ (Martin, 2004, p. 193), under the careful guidance of


Antony Gormley is perhaps better known for using his own body as a template for

life-size sculptures. As Searle (1996) explains, these were originally ‘plaster moulds

reinforced with fibreglass and covered with beaten lead skins’, and ‘dealt with the

junction between the interior and exterior of the human form’. On the basis of the lit-

erature on self-regulated learning we might suggest that self-regulating learners are

also ‘hollow containers for the space a human body occupies… displacements of human volume and mass’. They are empty selves in an empty environment, because

‘they occupy a space we cannot enter, except by sight alone’ (our emphasis). Searle

describes how the tiny figures have settled in space in a way that consigns us ‘to the

threshold of their territory: we cannot walk around or between them’. Similarly,

scholars with an interest in a reflexive social epistemology of learning to learn find

themselves beyond the pale. Nevertheless, a number of studies in the area of self-reg-

ulated learning have recognised this shortcoming and have attempted to take greater

account of the social dimension of learning, to enter that field crowded out by ‘ener-

getic, working, autonomous individual[s]’ with little feet of clay (Masschelein, 2001,

p. 14). It is to these that we now turn.

Allal (2011) offers an outsider’s perspective on the ‘co-regulation’ of learning that

is instructive, if only in so far as she explicitly recognises that self-regulated learning is

by and large the product of research that is predominately Anglophone and Western.

She also puts forward a nuanced view of self-regulation that calls into question the

task orientation that is often considered one of its hallmarks:

In many whole-class lessons that consist largely of teacher talk and actions, student

self-regulation is at best quite passive and may be more directed to other activities

(daydreaming, disturbing one’s neighbour without being caught, etc.) than to subject-

matter learning. (Allal, 2011, p. 333)

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Allal makes the point that not all learning is ‘pure’ learning, in the sense that a

precisely defined range of activities—those activities that make up optimally task- oriented behaviour—does not constitute the sum total of possible meanings of what learning is or involves. On the contrary, she suggests that learning might also

involve daydreaming and disturbing one’s neighbour. She views self-regulation as

existing on a continuum: at one end of the spectrum is the daydreamer who she

believes engages in a form of passive self-regulation; at the other is the child who is

engrossed in a particular task and who may be playing an active role in learning.

Allal uses the term ‘co-regulation’ to describe ‘the joint influence of student self-

regulation and of regulation from other sources (teachers, peers, curriculum mate-

rials, assessment instruments, etc.) on student learning’ (Allal, 2011, p. 332). Her

observations are significant for our purposes in so far as she explicitly recognises

that learning might also involve a degree of passivity rather than the restless pursuit

of some taken-for-granted educational end. For many children, observing a fly on

the windowpane might be more interesting and absorbing than finding the deriva-

tive of inverse trigonometric functions or learning French. According to Allal, self-

regulation is about more than scaffolding learning and the active engagement of

the learner in pursuit of pre-determined learning outcomes. Rather, she regards

scaffolding and learner engagement as the only two interdependent facets of co-reg-

ulation. Although her account represents a more reflexive understanding of self-

regulation, she fails to address the issue of social participation in learning to learn,

for example, learning from colleagues while repairing a moped in a workshop. Nor

does she consider that pupils should play a role in determining the ends to which

learning should be directed. This Dewey (1938) considered the hallmark of a pro-

gressive education. In Allal’s view, self-regulation entails a readiness to submit to a

scaffolded learning activity (such as using the formula relating the derivatives of

inverse functions), a process that becomes automatic with practice. This is the nat-

ural state of competent learning. Whatever else her account may tell us about

learning and the role of self-regulation, it suggests that radical behaviourism is alive

and kicking.

In contrast, Garrison and Akyol (2007) are concerned with developing and vali-

dating a metacognitive construct for a digital learning environment. They are not

only concerned with screens and computer networks and an online community of

people, but also with the ethereal qualities of the latter as an affective network that

includes a ‘socially shared cognition’ (Garrison & Akyol, 2012, p. 4). To this end

they invoke the idea of learning taking place in a community of inquiry. This

could be a classroom, but it could also be an artists’ studio, a garage or a work-

shop. Garrison and Aykol (2012) suggest that learning in a community of enquiry

represents a shift away from more individualistic models of metacognition to an

analysis that is oriented towards the social. They regard metacognition as ‘socially

situated and socially constructed… the product of interaction between an individ- ual or among individuals and a surrounding context, rather than… an individual process’ (Garrison & Akyol, 2012, p. 3). However, the view of sociality that pre-

vails in their account is the bland combination of individuals, inter-subjectivity

and context that was already evident in the work of Vygotsky. That said, their

contribution to a broader definition of self-regulated learning is interesting. They

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integrate the various attributes of learning theory (metacognition, affective factors

such as motivation and emotions, and self-regulation) and subsume self-regulation

within the construct of a socialised, collaborative metacognition. According to

Garrison and Akyol (2012), metacognition is best understood as the regulation of

cognition, including monitoring and control dynamics.

Learners do not learn in isolation and participants are not solely responsible for their own

learning. Therefore, we must move beyond self-regulated student behavior in a socially

shared learning environment. The basic issue is that we must consider the dynamic rela-

tionship of self and co-regulation of learning concurrently. (Garrison & Akyol, 2012, p. 5)

Furthermore, metacognition takes place at the intersection of the process of inquiry

and the presence of teaching. ‘Social presence’, conceived as the online connection

with the teaching and learning of others, produces an affective environment that

enables socially shared cognition (Garrison & Akyol, 2012, p. 4). They concur with

Winne (2011) that self-regulated learning might be described in terms of learners

being engaged in personal programmes of research into learning competence. It is

worth pointing out that Winne does not construe learning as research in the same way

that we see research as learning. We see both learning and research as very much the

same activity, but expressed as different forms of performance, for example as in the

case of collaborative action research projects involving teachers, academics and stu-

dents. Winne’s metaphor of learning ‘as if’ it were research implies that research is an

appropriate vehicle through which to describe attributes of learning, but that research

and learning are quite different. With some irony we note that the very metaphor

‘learning is like research’ separates learning from research in the same way that the

combination of educational constructivism and behaviourism separates learning from

research. Moreover, Winne’s reference to learning as a ‘personal’ programme of

research is again indicative of the failure to reflect on learning as a collective undertak-

ing in the same way that research (which is also learning) is generally understood to

be a collective undertaking.

Meyer and Turner (2002) also agree that the role of context has been peripheral in

work on self-regulated learning. They put the case for a new emphasis on qualitative

studies into self-regulated learning in everyday practice. Following Weiner (1996),

they point out that researchers have increasingly de-contextualised their constructs in

order to make them more suitable for experimental studies, as it is these that find

favour in a climate that privileges quantitative research. The net result is that many

studies on self-regulated learning have singularly failed to address the deep complexi-

ties of the social science of learning to learn and have focused on context or environ-

ment instead (see also Martin, 2004). Meyer and Turner show a refreshing concern

with forms of social engagement that take place in ‘real’ classrooms. Needless to say,

much research into self-regulated learning is also carried out in actual classrooms.

However, Meyer and Turner do not consider the classroom as a laboratory, as a mere

locus of labour where the focus is on the task-oriented behaviour of atomised individ-

uals and ‘control groups’ in order to test hypothetical suppositions about behaviour.

As Martin (2004) notes, many studies in the area of self-regulated learning are part of

a research tradition that does not dispose of the conceptual means to take full account

of situated nature of personhood and the associated moral and political practices.

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The object of inquiry is the self, abstracted from its creative entanglement in the web

of social relations that enable learning to learn. Martin (2004, 2007) notes that educa-

tion has a social mandate that has been systematically underplayed in research into

learning that has its origins within the discipline of psychology. He takes the view that

an approach that privileges a managerial self that can self-monitor and self-regulate in

order to achieve success in learning is inadequate, irrelevant and even hostile to the

education of persons.

Drawing on a range of studies that focus on individual and collective attributes of

regulation in learning, J€arvel€a et al. (2010) regard self-regulation and motivation as participation in a social activity. The theoretical model upon which their work is

based is that of is living systems theory. This developed in biology to explain the

capacity of organisms to adjust to changing environmental conditions. On the surface

this represents an innovative approach based on a combination of lateral thinking and

creative borrowing from the life sciences. However, a focus on the adaptive capacities

of a discrete living organism is entirely consonant with the emphasis on the individual

that is characteristic of much contemporary learning theory. Exploring the capacities

of individuals caught in a system remains key to understanding what learning is and

how it interacts with context. The only difference is that the discrete entity is now

called an organism and the context is referred to as a living system. Moreover, living

systems theory also seems consonant with educational constructivism. For in living

systems theory an organism interacts with and adapts to the environment of which it

is also a constitutive part. Similarly, educational constructivism presupposes an indi-

vidual self who interacts with and adapts to an environment. However, it is important

to reiterate that most theories of self-regulated learning do not involve individuals and

ecology actively co-shaping learning in a historical, cultural or political sense. On the

contrary, individuals are regarded as the passive recipients of system attributes in an

evolutionary and therefore essentialist sense. Social context influences self-regulation

only in so far as the behaviour of individual organisms is conditioned by particular

attributes of the system (Arnold &Walker, 2008). This natural process may of course

involve unexpected complexities. It may, for example, involve the ‘transformative

internalization’ and externalization of co-regulatory skills that are evident in the

collaborative activities carried out in the classroom (J€arvel€a et al., 2010). Volet et al. (2009) also attempted to integrate work on self and co-regulation,

but their approach differs in several key respects. They aim to integrate the learn-

ing self with collective learning, thus avoiding the reduction of self-regulation to

the individual and the reduction of co-regulation to the collective elements of the

regulation of learning. Noting that self- and social regulation both involve pro-

cesses that operate ‘concurrently’ (that is, at the same time on the same object at

different interdependent systemic levels), they observe that ‘the essence of regula-

tory activity is an individual, group or community system’s adaptive adjustment’

(Volet et al., 2009, p. 222, emphasis in original). In other words, self-regulation is

construed as operating on different levels of an organic learning system, which is

again conceived in terms of living systems theory. They put forward a vision of

learning that comprises both learning individuals and the learning collective. It is

by way of the layered integration of constitutive processes that such a learning

system is capable of responding to ‘challenges’ to either the self and/or the collec-

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tive, with the goal of ‘maintaining or re-establishing the dynamic system–environ- ment fit’ (p. 222).

It is not entirely clear what all this multi-layered and self-referential system activity

means for learning as teachers and learners experience it. Nor indeed is it clear

whether such an elaborate set of complex abstractions is an adequate way of describ-

ing the continual performance of being and becoming in which pupils, teachers and

researchers engage. As co-authors working across boundaries of language, discipline

and culture we have had recourse to improvisation and bricolage in our attempts to

negotiate shared understandings. There have been many occasions upon which we

have agreed to differ. In our experience, the very process of co-authorship is testa-

ment to the fact that ‘the mind’s creativity is inseparable from that of the total matrix

of relations in which it is embedded and into which it extends, and whose unfolding is

constitutive of the process of social life’ (Ingold & Hallam, 2007, p. 9). It appears to

us that the approaches outlined above are a long way away from earlier descriptions

of self-regulated learning as self-generated thoughts and actions oriented towards the

attainment of pre-determined goals; and even further away from learning (including

teaching and research) as we all know them.

Ontological considerations

The ontological assumptions manifested in the research literature merit further

exploration. For instance, in much of the literature and certainly in the EU policy

documentation it is assumed that children are by nature predisposed to internalise a

set of foregone conclusions about what learning is and about how it should develop.

The implication from much of the research reviewed above is that learners partici-

pate in self-directed, self-managing behaviours and thus engage in a form of ‘gov-

ernmentality of the self’ (Simons & Masschelein, 2008). Ontology matters because

such claims call behaviour into being by theorising on how we behave while learn-

ing. This view of learning appears to draw on two separate claims. Firstly, the view

assumes that children and young people will internalise the same learning behaviour

irrespective of the context in which they find themselves. It is, of course, no coinci-

dence that this way of constructing learning behaviour is supported by contempo-

rary outcome-driven curricula. Teachers and researchers alike appear to think that

learning in this way is normal. They do not pause to consider that it is only consid-

ered normal because this is how normality is institutionalised. There is thus the

danger that other valuable contexts-for-learning are systematically undervalued,

such as the narrative learning investigated in the learning lives project (Goodson

et al., 2010).

The second claim in support of the narrow task-oriented view of learning is that

the learning children do is socially constructed, in the restricted sense that their

learning is supposed to require supportive opportunities for learning provided by

professionals. The ontological issue that arises is that the learning that children do

is constrained by experts’ views (as given by learning theory) on how children

should learn and what personal understanding is appropriate; and that the teacher

therefore orchestrates the individual agency of the pupils. In practice, the learning

of children therefore does not reflect the active engagement that is supposed by

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Emirbayer and Mische (1998, p. 973). This means that there is little scope for

agency in a task-oriented view of learning. Hence there appear to be two types of

learning: the type of learning that is suitable for children, from which agency needs

to be excluded; and the type of learning that is done by scholars, for whom agency

and the free pursuit of thought and learning are considered the prime conditions

for intellectual progress. It is then not clear how children get from their learning to

the expert learning of researchers. This gap, we suggest, results from the incom-

mensurability of social constructivist and behaviourist theories of learning. Yet

blending the two is precisely how work on self-regulated learning is attempting to

account for sociality in learning. This convenient blending of thought traditions is

a striking feature of the literature on self-regulated learning. The consequences of

this merit further exploration, but there is not scope within this article to do more

than provide a brief overview of the salient issues. We will only note that social

constructivism was introduced into education and learning theory through the

ideas of Lev Vygotsky (1978) and Ernst von Glasersfeld (1989).

Those two authors are among the most cited theorists in the literature on the

social nature of self-regulated learning. In a nutshell, the constructivist perspective

within learning theory recognises that what learners learn is not a mirror of an

outer or absolute reality. Learners actively or experientially ‘construct’ habits and

patterns of being and thinking by observing and participating alongside others. Von

Glasersfeld (1989) noted that learning is a narrative construction that exists only in

the imagination of individuals. In contrast, behaviourism presupposes that the pro-

cess by which we learn can be understood in terms of general behavioural princi-

ples. These principles are seen as attributes of an absolute reality that is

independent of personal narrative. If one were to concede that academic research

is a variety of learning (that is to say learning that is organised around the profes-

sional pursuit of knowledge), then a contradiction arises: namely, that learning

leads to a private and imaginary narrative, except when it is done by researchers.

For the learning that researchers do is a collective enterprise that generates research

‘findings’ and publications and contributes to the development of theory. This

appears to suggest that researchers are not learners, or rather that there is no learn-

ing involved in the conduct of research. Getting out of this conundrum seems to

imply that the learning in which researchers are engaged involves a different pro-

cess of getting to know than the learning in which pupils are engaged. We might

indeed suggest that this different mode of learning is the consequence of attending

to the principles of research method, particularly those derived from the clinical

sciences. However, that would still mean that empirical research is regarded as a

different type of learning than learning that involves social construction. It is clear

that research involves a great deal of social construction. It appears, then, that we

need two distinct theories of learning. Whatever solution is found, researchers in

the area of self-regulated learning who wish to hold on to the combination of

behaviourism and social constructivism must be able to account for the complete

dissociation of the nature of learning by children from the activity of researchers.

The need to provide epistemic clarification is inherent in the dual claim that pro-

duces this contradiction, namely that learning consists of natural behaviour (essen-

tialism) and that learning is socially constructed (constructivism).

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Concluding remarks

From the perspective of social epistemology it appears that behaviourist approaches

foreground a particular relationship between the researcher and the understanding

she produces. The view of learning in the research reviewed above seems to be incom-

mensurate with the dialogic reflexivity (Wegerif, 2008) that is implied in social con-

structivism. Within the discipline of sociology, social constructivism falls on the

nurture side of the nature/nurture divide, and has its roots in phenomenology. Berger

and Luckmann (1966) took social constructivism to mean that social interaction gives

rise to situated, more or less stable concepts and mental representations that are acted

out ad infinitum. They become part of social structure and their meaning stabilises.

There is no way for researchers to occupy a space outside a given social system and its

situated interactions. This means that scientific precepts (including those of

behaviourism, for example) are part and parcel of the process of shared meaning mak-

ing. A good example is the social phenomenology of the Thomas theorem (Merton,

1995), derived from research on child behaviour (Thomas & Thomas, 1928). To

paraphrase, if behaviourists define behaviour as real, then it may be real as a result of

that claim being enacted as practice, but it is not real in itself. This more sociological

reading of social constructivism suggests that findings about the nature of self-regu-

lated learning involve narrative construction, as indeed does all learning. However,

the scientific credentials of this particular narrative greatly increase the likelihood of

its being enacted in practice and then taken for granted as received wisdom. Indeed,

self-regulated learning is in the process of becoming institutionalised and invested in

political ideology (Vasallo, 2011, 2012), including also the European Reference

Framework on lifelong learning (Pirrie & Thoutenhoofd, 2013).

We do not for a moment wish to suggest that psychology has more pronounced

imperialist tendencies than say sociology or philosophy, nor that it polices its bound-

aries more effectively than the other disciplines. As a prominent critic of sociological

imperialism, Craib (1989) claimed that ‘to be a sociologist is often to engage in,

implicitly or explicitly, a more or less immense, more or less manic denial of the inter-

nal world, and attempt to avoid an inner reality’ (p. 196). We do, however, suggest

that the development of interdisciplinary perspectives in learning theory is the key to

developing a more nuanced understanding of the situated, embodied, cognitive and

affective dimensions of learning to learn, research and scholarship.

In sum, the review of the literature suggests that it is time to transcend the cognitive

and behavioural perspectives that have predominated in previous research on self-reg-

ulation and learning to learn. Reconceptualising learning to learn will require the

means and methods of a social science that draws on the humanities and does not

attempt to deny the inner world of the human imagination. A genuinely social science

would also assign a key role to the rich imagination of academic researchers operating

beyond the boundaries of the traditional disciplines of education. As we noted above,

education has a social mandate that the research traditions within particular disci-

plines of education may not have the conceptual resources to address. Learning can

be construed both as a field of inquiry, and as the progress of an individual or group

of individuals towards enlightenment. If learning involves not discrete selves obeying

behavioural laws but involves a variegated web of social, emotional and material

82 E. D. Thoutenhoofd & A. Pirrie

© 2013 British Educational Research Association



entanglements aimed at becoming, knowing and doing, then it seems appropriate that

the study of learning be similarly constituted. This suggests that only an interdisci-

plinary perspective is adequate to the task of exploring learning to learn. Extending

the boundaries of a particular discipline, for example by invoking social constructiv-

ism, co-regulation, collaborative learning or communities of inquiry in an attempt to

reconceptualise learning, seem destined to hinder rather than to foster the develop-

ment of a fluid sociality.


1 We undertook a key-word search on ‘self-regulated learning’, ‘social’, and/or ‘co-regulation’ in ERIC.We then selected theoretical, empirical and review articles published between 1985 and 2013 that aimed to consider learning as social performance.


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