Studies in Personnel and Industrial Psychology

By Edwin A. Fleishman | Go to book overview

16. Learning Theory and Training*

William McGehee

THERE IS NO way to make this subject light. So I am going to start by defining the various concepts in my topic so that we (or at least I) will be reasonably certain about what I am trying to write.

First let us look at the term "theory." This is generally an anathema to the practical man. Yet in spite of its rather disreputable status among the "doers," these same characters make use of theory at least in a crude form. So let us examine the nature of theory.

A theory according to George Kelly is "a way of binding together a multitude of facts so that one may comprehend them all at once."1 Kelly maintains that a theory, even if it is not highly scientific, can be useful since it can give meaning to our activities and provide a basis for an active approach to life. So even the theory that "13" is an unlucky number can lighten the life of a bookie. Likewise the theory that role playing, or case study, or visual aids, or the incident method is an answer to a training director's prayer is extremely comforting in his everyday life even if the theory is not highly scientific.

When a theory enables us to make reasonably precise predictions, one may call it scientific. The nearer theories come to precision of predictions, the more useful they are for controlling the phenomena with which they deal. To quote Kelly again, "Theories are the thinking of men who seek freedom amid swirling events. The theories concern prior assumptions about certain realms of these events. To the extent that the events may, from these prior assumptions, be construed, predicted, and their relative courses charted, men may exercise control and gain freedom for themselves in the process."2

Learning theory, then, is simply a way of binding together the facts known about the process we call "learning." Learning, itself, is a construct--an abstraction. No one of you has ever seen "learning." You have seen people in the process of learning, you have seen people who behave in a particular way as a result of learning, and some of you (in fact, I guess the majority of you) have "learned" at some time in your

____________________
*
From "Are We Using What We Know about Training?--Learning Theory and Training," Personnel Psychology, Vol. 11, 1958, pp. 1-12.
1
George A. Kelly, The Psychology of Personal Constructs ( New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1955), Vol. I, p. 18.

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