Generative theory of learning
Wittrock not only developed his generative theory of learning, he also researched its effectiveness and applied it in practice. Learners, for Wittrock, are not passive receivers of knowledge, they are active reorgansisers of knowledge, creating meaning from their own generative activities. His generative learning theory was built on the idea of learners integrating new knowledge and skills into what they already know through generative activities. Effective teaching must therefore facilitate learners to construct meaning from various generative experiences.
His model encourages learners to generate meaning and understanding from instruction through effortful, generative activities and has four major processes:
(a) attention - directing generative processes on relevant incoming material and stored knowledge
(b) motivation - willingness to invest effort to make sense of material
(c) knowledge and preconceptions - prior knowledge, experiences, and beliefs
(d) generation - sense making
For Wittrock all four have generative components, what some would describe as constructive, where the learners control and build their own models, rather than interpreting taught content. Teachers must therefore learn to lead learners towards learning by encouraging generative activities.
The generation of notes in one’s own words, use of analogies and effortful activities are all generative. Summaries and analogies in reading, for example, is an effective learning strategy, Wittrock & Alesandrini (1990).
Fiorella & Mayer (2015) recommend eight types of generative strategies:
Summarizing: Create a written or oral summary of the material
Mapping: Create a concept map, knowledge map or matrix organizer
Drawing: Create a drawing that depicts the text
Imagining: Imagine a drawing that depicts the text
Self-testing: Give yourself a practice test on the material
Self-explaining Create a written or oral explanation of the material
Teaching: Explain the material to others
Enacting: Move objects to act out the material
With Richard Mayer, Wittrock also contributed to research on problem solving in order to identify the best way to teach it, with three main findings:
Domain-specific principle - teach problem as a domain specific skill not as a general skill
Near transfer principle - accept that problem solving skills work across a limited range of applicability
Knowledge integration principle - use guided problem-solving tasks to teach knowledge
Wittorck was heavily involved in teacher training and his generative theory was not just about what the learner did, it was also about appropriately generative teaching strategies. Problem solving was one such strategy.
Generative learning has been criticised by some as swinging the instructional pendulum too far towards discovery or exploratory learning, diminishing the role of direct instruction. Its singular focus on the generative processes, some think are partial, with other processes involved in learning.
Wittrock’s work on generative learning has not had as much influence as the topic and his work deserve. As technology has developed and social media normalised, the creation of text, images and videos have become common online, generative activities.
Wittrock, M.C., 1992. Generative learning processes of the brain. Educational Psychologist, 27(4), pp.531-541.
Wittrock, M.C., 1989. Generative processes of comprehension. Educational psychologist, 24(4), pp.345-376.
Wittrock, M.C., 1974. Learning as a generative process. Educational psychologist, 11(2), pp.87-95.
Fiorella, L. and Mayer, R.E., 2016. Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), pp.717-741.
Wittrock, M.C. and Alesandrini, K., 1990. Generation of summaries and analogies and analytic and holistic abilities. American Educational Research Journal, 27(3), pp.489-502.
Mayer, R.E., 2010. Merlin C. Wittrock's enduring contributions to the science of learning. Educational Psychologist, 45(1), pp.46-50.
Mayer, R.E. and Wittrock, M.C., 2006. Problem Solving In P. Alexander, P. Winne, & G. Phye.