Orality and Learning Theories

Orality and Learning Theories

I continue to be amazed at how the courses in MET weave together a broader picture for a larger understanding between courses. The more you begin to understand, the more you understand how much you have to learn. In this particular context I have been pondering the Applications of Learning Styles to Orality and Literacy. As I read Ong’s text I continually reflecting on the various learning styles and whether theorists like Skinner and Ausubel took into consideration strictly oral cultures when developing their theories. Ong is clear that literate people can only endeavour to stretch to imagine what a primary oral culture is like, but I wonder if these theorists contemplated the assimilation of knowledge without the possibility of writing (Ong, 1982). With this question in mind I read Ong’s Chapter 3, considering the various learning theories and how learning might occur in oral cultures.
It would be easy to assume a behaviourist approach to orality where verbatim memorization is the key. When Ong refers to the theorem ‘You know what you can recall’ as applying to an oral culture one might infer rote memorization (Ong, 1982). Rote learning would be the easy answer but rote learning is really only useful when it is important that the information be recalled exactly as it was in its original form (Novak, 1998). Rote learning is also only effective for short term recall, which would not suite most of the needs of oral cultures. With this in mind I feel a behaviourist learning theory approach would underestimate the complexity of learning in an oral culture. In order to effectively retain and retrieve information oral cultures require more than just memorization. In fact they employ multiple devices to assist in the internalization and anchoring of information. Their thoughts are complex formulas based in mnemonic patterns, rhythm, repetition, antitheses, alliteration, assonances and many other tools (Ong, 1982).
So if not Behaviourists, which learning theory might apply? To be honest I don’t think any of the text based learning theorists of our time can accurately capture the learning processes of a primary oral culture; However, I draw the closest comparison with Ausubel. Perhaps this is because Ausubel’s theory ‘allows integration of many observations on learning into a single, coherent theory’ (Novak 1998, p51) and I do see elements of many theorists present. Ausubel’s theory has 6 basic principles. I see parallels to many of these principles present in Ong’s description of primary oral cultures. Below I have listed some of Ausubel’s principles and the parallels I have drawn with Ong’s statements.

The subsuming concept role is interactive; it provides the link between new concepts introduced and existing knowledge. During the process of this new linkage the subsuming concept becomes slightly modified. This interaction between the old (subsumer) and new concepts is core to Ausubel’s Assimilation Theory (Novak, 1998). I see a direct parallel between Ausubel’s subsumer principle and Ong’s statement that oral cultures need to conceptualize and verbalize their knowledge with close reference to the human life world that they know, assimilating a new object to a familiar object in order to remember the new object.

Integrative Reconciliation
According to Ausubel, integrative reconciliation is when new interrelationships can be drawn between concepts in our internal concept map (knowledge structure) and cross linkages can be made (Novak, 1998). These types of interrelationships and imaging of the concept mapping that is core to Ausubel’s Assimilation Theory are clear when Ong writes about oral cultures producing ‘amazingly complex and intelligent and beautiful organizations of thought and experience’ (Ong 1982, p.57).

Obliterative Subsumption
Another parallel was between Ausubel’s principle of Obliterative Subsumption. Ausubel felt that the majority of information learned cannot be recalled in the future-variation in recall depends on the degree of meaningful learning during the learning process (Novak, 1998). This too seems similar to Ong’s statement that “in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over again what has been learned arduously over the ages” (Ong 1982, p41)

Oral culture does not need to fit neatly into any one theory; however, the acquisition of knowledge by a primarily oral culture remains fascinating in its necessary complexity. As Ong says, the memory feats for the oral bards are remarkable (Ong 1982). The process of their memorization is indeed impressive and deserving of closer study. It would also be interesting to be able to contrast the learning processes or oral and text based cultures. One last thought to ponder, Ong states ‘the residual orality of a given chirographic culture can be calculated to a degree from the mnemonic load it leaves on the mind, that is, from the amount of memorization the culture’s educational procedure’s require.’(Ong 1982, p.41). Consider this statement when you think about all those poems you had to memorize for English class or formulas for math class. How much information did you simply memorize to get through university? As an educator how much memorization do you ask your class to rely upon? How much residual orality is still within our culture?


Novak, J. D. (1998). Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations (pp. 49-78; ch 5 – Ausubel’s Assimilation Learning Theory). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

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