Do we need a one size fits all model? Education research and the fallacy of the Unified Learning Model

Year: 2018

Author: Davis, Ian, Thompson, Sheona, Campbell, Matthew, Huijser, Henk

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The idea of a unified learning model is attractive as it offers the idea of a ‘one stop shop’ where all learning theories converge into one model that is fit for all purposes, or so it seems. In an explanation of their Unified Learning Model (ULM), Shell et al. (2010) indeed suggest this idea. Their key argument is that the current literature only offers “limited theories about isolated specific learning and instructional phenomena” (p. 1). They call this a “hodge-podge” of specific learning principles and teaching guidelines”, rather than a unified theory or model that would allow for a coherent approach to learning and teaching, for example in higher education. Their suggested Unified Learning Model is designed to rectify the apparent ‘problem’ of a lack of coherence and is founded on three principles that together form the foundation for a complete theory of instruction and teaching: working memory, prior knowledge, and motivation. They subsequently claim that all teaching that follows these principles will be effective and all teaching that does not will be ineffective. And therein lies the problem, for this model suggests that all learning contexts are essentially the same and require the same approach, like a set of guidelines that, when properly followed, will deliver the right learning outcomes.
In this paper we argue that attempts to develop ‘catch all’ models are inherently flawed as they do not allow for contextual factors that may impact on learning and teaching at any one time. Developing a model or framework that incorporates a range of learning models and theories is in itself not a pointless exercise. On the contrary, it can be very useful, as long as it is flexible enough to be applied to specific contexts. An interesting example is Entwistle and Tait’s (1990) heuristic model of the teaching-learning process in higher education. Another good example is the Higher Education Learning Framework Matrix (Carroll et al., 2018), which the authors themselves call “an evidence-informed model for university teaching”. It is the ‘evidence-informed’ part that is crucial here. In this paper we will stress the importance of education research by using a range of examples that demonstrate that continuous research is required to ensure that learning models are continuously adapted to ever-changing contexts. A single unified model appears to be an awkward fit, especially when it lacks a research base that would make it fit for purpose.