A MODERN THEORY OF LEARNING, a cognitive-developmental, neo-Piagetian, ethological theory -- based on the methods of classical ethology

The perspective below is to orient one to basic cognitive-developmental human ethology and provide a research outlook for studies in that area.

This outlook, I believe, allows for continuous growth of knowledge in some basic areas of psychology. The heart or essence of it is "defining each behavior of interest in terms of the behaviors of the same organism surrounding it." This gives one a self-correcting mechanism in ones approach to understanding -- the most important contribution of classical ethology. Add to it the basic knowledge we have of emotions and emotional development and you can have an outline of a meaningful perspective on learning and meaningful concept of "learning" -- brad jesness

An Ethological Conceptualization of Learning:
Learning in terms of the interrelated development of basic capacities.

Every significant behavior change is now thought to involve learning. Learning and innate aspects of behavioral change are now conceived of as partners in the developmental and adaptational process (Gould and Marler, 1987). They are not even thought to be clearly separable at this point in our understanding of human behavior (Anastasi). Their partnership usually occurs in such an intimate and close time frame that they cannot be contrasted. With regard to the most significant behavior changes, such as stage shifts in cognitive abilities, one cannot see the great extent to which each is involved, and it is impossible to say which is most important: Is whatever "pre-wiring" we have most important or is it what's acquired -- that which involves interaction with the environment and at the same time between our basic "capacities" -- that's most prominent? These are serious questions. And so are the more detailed questions: What is the initial expression of the most important innate action patterns? When do innate action patterns appear? If they are not all present at birth (AND I BELIEVE THEY ARE NOT), how do they manifest themselves as they emerge during ontogeny? AND: What are the basic capacities (if any) that have relatively constant characteristics or similar interrelationships across development? Which types of capabilities most reflect that which is accrued via experience and with development and what is the nature of the changes undergone?

Learning, like other topics in psychology, concerns behaviors that have innate and species-specific characteristics. Learning is frequently said to be "constrained by innate factors," but as far as developmental questions are concerned, it is IN FACT DEFINED in large part by such factors (Johnston, 1981). And, as such, it is involved in all the most significant behavioral changes. Learning as a topic involves the most "microscopic" look at behaviors, in the wider discussion of processes of significant behavior change. Learning may be the most important topic by far, for environmentally-induced behavioral change certainly seems to be key to quality adaptation in all areas of responding.

Learning may be defined as changes in those adaptational processes susceptible to experience and due to changes in these processes occurring singly and/or in an interactive manner. There is no pure acquisition (reality does not just progressively impinge itself) and there are no arbitrary acquisitions. Acquisitions must be retained. Clearly there are innate and species-typical processes involved, and fortunately for the human behavioral sciences, general laws to be found.

It should not be surprising to find that it is impossible to discuss learning in any detail or with any generality without asking what basic processes are involved in the bit-by-bit behavioral acquisitions which characterize learning. How many types of processes are there and what are their basic natures? I will try to outline what I see as the basic types of processes, their basic character, and which aspects of the processes remain relatively constant and which change systematically, reflecting what in fact has been accrued.

First, the organism always has perceptual biases and response biases. These are interrelated and both change significantly during development.* These related processes precede [other] cognition and cognitive processes, including the major aspect of cognitive processing -- representation (to be discussed soon). The proper understanding of these processes (perception and response biases) can come only with proper definition. And, objective definition is obtained only when the environmental and behavioral context in which the important features of these processes occur have been specified. Behaviors (OF THE SAME ORGANISM) preceding and those following a behavior of concern must be identified. This will become more and more important with ontogeny and will be true of the other processes to be discussed as well.

In addition to having perceptual biases and response biases, in general, we have memory. Memory at first seems to be of the immediate and may thus be said to have just a short-term aspect. But with experience, the organism interacting in consistent manners with the environment will begin to respond to structure and systematic change in the environment. This shows recognition memory, and soon recall, both characteristics of long-term memory. This capacity, like short-term memory, is limited, BUT INDEPENDENTLY (Brainerd and Kingma, 1985). After some point, "processing space" for short-term memory little influences the processing characteristics of long-term memory, though it is also limited at any given stage of development (the matter of stages to be discussed soon).

This is not all that happens. New response characteristics emerge. As structures and occurrences are recognized, new aspects of stimuli are related or are related more consistently (i.e. reacted to in a "different way"). This is not arbitrary. This may be best viewed as determined by new "perceptual biases" and related response biases. The most significant perceptual shifts, I believe, are the first occurrence in, and that which sets into motion, a new developmental stage. Yet this kind of perceptual shift occurs only every so often with regard to any given set of related stimuli to which we respond (Fischer and Pipp, 1984). There are possibly as few as five stages of development in major response areas (Freud, 1965; Ginsburg and Opper, 1978; Jesness, 1985).** How are acquired behavioral adaptations guided in the mean time?

At this point we could type different sets of behavior and note the characteristics of their changes, BUT this would violate the standards we have set for objective definition of a behavior-of-concern. We will be better off considering the basic processes we already have and look for further features of these that determine behavior change. One factor has to do with the fact that development of long-term memory takes time. And, the way it develops may show phases. Most important: There are aspects of what we recall that are worth keeping conscious . Consciousness requires response time and uses the scarce resources of short-term memory and much affects other responding. I would say this phenomenon of consciousness occurs for either of two reasons: (1) Further stimuli which are novel or of different varieties must be noted
(and possibly, eventually recalled) and these are related to things already remembered (recognized or recalled) OR (2) things to be remembered in much the same WAY as past experiences (already remembered) will be encountered (i.e. similar environmental structures will be encountered (Griffin, 1981)). (Some of (1) and (2) is probably related to the fact that some stimuli impinge on us via less salient sensory modalities or through less salient combinations of modalities. These aspects of stimulation could become conscious later yet may still be related to some basically similar type of relationship we know (and can remember) when it has been found through other modalities.) The aspect of long-term memory of which we are at times able to be conscious is a good broad definition of representation . The nature of representation will change much during development and some of that of which one is conscious as a child will become aspects of awareness or totally automatic in the older child or adult. We still must include these aspects in our understanding of representation. We now need to ask what phases there may be in the development of representation, this important aspect of long-term memory and the most important capacity in significant behavioral change involving experience.

First: In a given type of circumstance (or "set of circumstances") it may take time to usefully retain and represent all the necessary static and dynamic aspects of the situation. To say this in more reductionistic terms: It will take time for all the stimuli of different salience to occur a sufficient number of times, given our perceptual/response biases, and time for them to be responded to consistently . An entire phase of development within every stage could be related to such developments AND, as indicated before, such may well vary in timing somewhat based on the salience of sets of stimuli involved in different circumstances. Second: Next, one's attending (and responding) selectively to certain aspects of immediate situations (ultimately related to perceptual/response biases) eventually may allow one to relate new things separated in space and time. This is another characteristic of memory and retention and eventually of representation. The latter may show two aspects: (1) an ability to imagine sequences of occurrences (the more important ones often involving your own behaviors or potential behaviors) and (2) an ability to see similarities across circumstances (Lucariello and Nelson, 1985). These two reciprocal aspects of memory development and representation can result in there being a second phase during each major stage of cognitive development. This too, for adaptive reasons (and for adaptive purposes), takes time. I do not have the space to speculate on the details here. In any case, all changes in representation will be manifested by systematic alterations in perceptual/response characteristics.

Now, finally, I believe one must discuss stages. The processes of memory and perception and the response biases and differences in stimulus salience, all already discussed, cannot (I believe) account for the progressive, hierarchical nature of development (Bowlby, 1982). Development has some invariant stages (descriptively speaking) in which some problems involving representation cannot be understood or cannot be understood reliably. Furthermore, it is just such reliability or consistency which is necessary for the further development of long-term memory processes, including representation. How does one get such consistency, adaptively, AND what is the parsimonious outlook? My answer is that we have stages, defined by new perceptual/response biases, emerging during ontogeny. Such perceptual shifts within an adaptive behavioral complex can have powerful effects indeed, and especially so when it is proposed that the changes in learning also involve progressive memory developments (with phases). The perceptual biases, as indicated before, may differ from one set of related stimuli to another and thus the timing of stages may vary to a degree for different types of responses. It would also seem appropriate to look at this in terms of the timing of aspects of stages. Although what the "sets of related objects" are has not been well delineated and how the timing of developments may vary between them is not clear, there are indications of some common synchronies and some general (overall) stages seem to be defined by these (Corrigan, 1983). In any case, the perceptual biases trigger a series of effects, given some of the more consistent characteristics of memory, and these result in a new level of representation and consciousness of new problems. All this allows for another series of developmental changes, such as already described. It should be clear from the outline of ontogeny given above that a general principle applies to learning: Behavioral development involves selective adaptation and eventually consistency of response. A variety of experiences will, in the normal course of adaptation, all be encountered even as consistencies are found.

I believe one can point to two aspects of behavior (broadly speaking), spoken of above, that change most in their characteristics during development: (1) the set of perceptual/response biases operative and (2) the elaborateness and precision found in representation. The changes in these capacities are systematically related. A MAJOR CONSISTENCY throughout development seems to exist with respect to short-term memory. While this type of memory may vary with development by 20-30% in quantitative capacity in terms of the number of "chunks" that can be dealt with "deliberately" (increasing with development), this change does not seem tremendously significant (Case et al., 1982; Dempster, 1981). It is clearly not much that's most salient that we can process at one time even late in development. This is especially startling given the large quantitative differences over development in the detail we respond to and in the length of sequences of responses we exhibit. "Quantitative capacity" may be roughly synonymous with what's often viewed as "working memory", if this is defined as that that we are conscious of in a given situation and at a given moment. But this has little to do with information processing overall. There is always awareness beyond consciousness (in the narrow sense) in significant situations and much processing of long-term memory (some of this related to representation) occurs outside normal awareness.***

Other characteristics of memory change in a manner adaptively congruent with changes in perceptual/response biases and with the changing nature of representation during each stage or phase. These changes should have less specific effects on significant learning and should be of a less radical nature. These changes will be definable in terms of the effects they have on responding.

* I would say at the outset that I use an unconventional definition of "perceptual biases", but this would be misleading because I believe that modern conceptualizations of the field of perception are arbitrarily (unsystematically) constrained.

**With reference to Piaget's theory, I should note that I consider his 2 phases of the Preoperational Period to be stages in the same significant sense as the S-M Period, the C-O Period and the F-O Period are stages.

***Of course psychologists may develop awareness and consciousness of things not normally subject to such through unique and sustained observations. Obviously, much of this will be awareness, etc. of things as they are for the child during development and how this fits into the "bigger picture".


Anastasia, A. Heredity, environment, and the question
"How?" Psychological Review , 65, 197-208.

Bowlby, John (1982). Attachment , 2nd ed. New York: Basic

Brainerd, C.J. and Kingma, J. (1985). On the Independence of
Short-Term Memory and Working Memory in Cognitive
Development. Cognitive Psychology , 17, 210-247.

Case, R., Kurland, D.M., and Goldberg, J. (1982). Operational
efficiency and the growth of short-term memory span.
Jour. of Experimental Child Psychology , 33, 386-404.

Corrigan, R. (1983). The Development of Representational
Skills. New Directions for Child Development , 21,51-64.

Dempster, F.N. (1981). Sources of Memory Span Differences.
Psychological Bulletin , 89, 63-100.

Fischer, Kurt W. and Pipp, Sandra (1984). Processes of
Cognitive Development: Optimal Level and Skill
Acquisition. In: R. Sternberg, (Ed.), Mechanisms of
Cognitive Development
. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.

Freud, Sigmund (1965). Three Essays on the Theory of
New York: Avon Books.

Ginsburg, H. and Opper, S. (1978). Piaget's theory of
Intellectual development
, 2nd ed., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:

Gould, James L. and Marler, P. (1987). Learning by Instinct.
Scientific American , January.

Griffin, Donald R. (1981). The Question of Animal
. New York: Rockefeller Press.

Jesness, B. (1985). A Human Ethogram ... , Key Chapters and
Sections. Indexed in Resources in Education, Nov.

Jesness, B. (1986). Info.-Processing Theories and Per-
spectives on development ...
. Indexed in Resources
in Education, May.

For a few important editorial corrections, go to THIS LINK . These 2 papers
are now available from ERIC as pdf documents -- for free (the last link also
gives links to copies of pages that are illegible in ERIC pdfs). AND:
See THIS LINK to get to the pdfs, from the ERIC Document Collection.

Johnston, Timothy D. (1981). Contrasting Approaches to a
Theory of Learning. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences ,
4, 125-173.

Lucariello, J. and Nelson, K. (1985). Slot-Filler Categories
as Memory Organizers for Young Children. Develop-
mental Psychology
, 21(2), 272-282.


For MUCH MORE on this method, perspective and approach see my larger papers
Click THIS LINK to find out how to obtain them.