Background: There is a mismatch between the broad range of learning theories offered in the wider education literature and a relatively narrow range of theories privileged in the medical education literature. The latter are usually described under the heading of 'adult learning theory'.
Methods: This paper critically addresses the limitations of the current dominant learning theories informing medical education. An argument is made that such theories, which address how an individual learns, fail to explain how learning occurs in dynamic, complex and unstable systems such as fluid clinical teams.
Results: Models of learning that take into account distributed knowing, learning through time as well as space, and the complexity of a learning environment including relationships between persons and artefacts, are more powerful in explaining and predicting how learning occurs in clinical teams. Learning theories may be privileged for ideological reasons, such as medicine's concern with autonomy.
Conclusions: Where an increasing amount of medical education occurs in workplace contexts, sociocultural learning theories offer a best-fit exploration and explanation of such learning. We need to continue to develop testable models of learning that inform safe work practice. One type of learning theory will not inform all practice contexts and we need to think about a range of fit-for-purpose theories that are testable in practice. Exciting current developments include dynamicist models of learning drawing on complexity theory.