learning theory

Learning Theory: Tabula Rasa, Empiricism and Nativism

Have you ever think, are we born with innate knowledge? Or do we acquire knowledge only through experiences? Related to these questions, let’s find out how Tabula Rasa, Empiricism and Nativism provide explanation about human learning condition.

Tabula Rasa Theory

A British educational philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704) in his philosophic inquiry concerning the development of human knowledge, propounded that the child’s mind is like a clean slate (tabula rasa), void of all characters upon which experience alone can subsequently write knowledge.

The tabula rasa theory laid great emphasis on experience.  Learning takes place through the experiences the child has acquired. The term “learning experience” as Tyler (1986) stated, refers to the interaction between the learner and the external conditions in the environment to which the learner can react to.

At birth, the children are unaware of the existence of distinct tastes, smells, and sounds. They have no idea of time. They are unable to listen attentively, analyze critically, or perceive things from their exact perspective.

The children acquire gradual sound discrimination skills. For instance, his eyes help him learn about close and distant noises, as well as how sounds are produced. So that he eventually identifies a dog bark with a dog even though there is no dog in sight.

As the children begin to crawl, they acquire more experience exploring distances. Similarly, as they begin to walk, they learn more about space and distance through their senses of touch and muscle feeling.

The children as a learner are not aware that all that is happening around him is learning. They just go on enjoying doing things, and though they do not deliberately practice to improve in everything they tries to do, they improve by enjoying what they do.

Tabula Rasa Theory in Action

Adapted from https://learningtheories479.weebly.com/locke.html, the Tabula Rasa theory can be involved in the classroom setting through the following ways:

  • Classroom Rules
    At the beginning of the semester, establishing class deal that can help students to determine what is considered to be right and wrong, especially in the classroom setting. Since the rules are new to the students at this time, the teacher must model and share their significance, as this helps govern their morals as they continue to develop.
  • Modeling
    As we know, as teachers, we not only share knowledge with the students, we also are model in the classroom. We present different characteristics, values, and beliefs that they may feel are relevant towards a student’s life. 
  • Stories
    Teachers can express different morals or lessons within a story. Stories present ideas for thinking and discussion through different cultures, times, and beliefs that students may have never experienced before in their lifetime. 
  • Evaluating personal actions
    Teachers often help their students develop strong values through experience. They show students how to pause and reflect on their own actions and what they see around them in the classroom. 

Empiricism Theory

While speaking to the concept of tabula rasa, Locke’s work also focused on empiricism – which is the antithesis of innateness, and is related closely to blank slate theory –, believing people possess no prior knowledge when they are born and experience shapes ideas.

Empiricism comes from the English word’s empiricism and experience. This word has its roots in the meaning taken from the Greek “empeiria” and from the word “experietia”, which means “experienced in,” “acquainted with,” “skilled for” (Good, 2002).

In his book “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke explained that all concepts or ideas that express human knowledge come from human experience. These concepts or ideas are obtained from the five senses. According to Locke, there are two kinds of ideas: simple and complex. Simple ideas are captured through the five senses directly (spontaneously). Through simple ideas, thinking, doubting, questioning, classifying, processing what is given by the senses are born that allow for more complex ideas.

According to Davis and Francis (2022), empiricism is more commonly understood as a theory of knowledge than a theory of learning, but the distinction is often blurred in discussions of education. Empiricism states that knowledge comes from sensory experience, and thus emphasizes the role of experience and evidence.

The “hard” version of Empiricism is associated with rigorous scientific research.

  • Evidentialism (Evidentialist Epistemology) – the perspective that a belief, assertion, or conclusion is justified only if it has supporting evidence. (Contrast: Reliabilism, under Rationalism.)
  • Evidence-Based (Data-Based; Research-Based; Scientific) – an adjective applied to any claim supported by evidence drawn from replicable and/or broad-based data sources. The term is common in education, with usages that include evidence-based decisions, evidence-based instruction, Evidence-Based Learning, and evidence-based school improvement.

Empiricism Theory in Action

The Empiricism theory can be implemented in the classroom through:

  • Teacher provides classroom activities where the students can listen attentively, observe carefully, taste and smell something. By using senses students acquire information and learn about the happening in the surrounding. Empiricist point of view implies that providing experiences will enrich a learners’ empirical database, thus the students should be afforded opportunities to observe (i.e. smell, see, touch, hear, and taste), after all experience is the best teacher. Teacher provides the students activity to work collaborative and with added concrete materials in creating room for learning. 
  • The students working in science laboratory for science lesson has more room for observation and experiment and is considered a more effective way of teaching science.
  • Furthermore, project work in any subject is the best example of empiricism outside the class having opportunities for exploration and investigation.

Nativism Theory

How is it possible that children are able to learn just a few years after birth? Some theorists believe this is due to nature, while others argue that it’s because of nurture.   Nativist theory argues that important elements of our understanding of the world, such as language, are innate and do not necessarily need to be learned from experience (due to nature).

The nativist theory of language acquisition became very popular in the late 20th century through Noam Chomsky who claimed that language is an innate faculty. It implies that children are born with a set of rules about language in their head.

Nativism Theory in Action

Mathews (2017) provided some strategies to implement the nativist theory in the classroom.

  • Create a safe environment in which students feel comfortable with expressing themselves. Teachers should not overcorrect because it can cause heightened learner anxiety.
  • Use pictures, objects, and drawings to associate with vocabulary words to enhance meaning and comprehension.
  • Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer. It will give the students more opportunities to practice since this theory suggests that knowledge is already in place, and then it is logical to say that language only needs to be enhanced.

References and Recommended Reading

Tenry Colle
Tenry Colle

Hi! My name is A. Tenry Lawangen Aspat Colle. I am a motivated and resourceful English educator. In addition, as the owner of @rymari.translation17 has shaped me to be a punctual and dependable translator of Indonesian to English and vice versa.

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