What are Learning Theories?
Learning theories explain how the learning process happens. They set out a clear collection of principles that teachers can use for helping students to learn.
A learning theory can be used to underpin a curriculum or lesson and guide a teacher’s instructional strategy. The most common learning theories are categorized as: cognitive, behavioral, motivational, and psychoanalytic.
Learning Theories Concept Map
Cognitive learning theories focus on cognitive development, or “how the mind constructs knowledge”.
A cognitive approach to learning generally believes that the learning process happens through experience, trial-and-error, and thinking through ideas to develop understanding and knowledge within the mind.
When someone is confused they are in a state of cognitive disequilibrium. When they reach understanding of a topic, they achieve cognitive equilibrium.
The most famous cognitive development theorist is Jean Piaget who developed his stage theory of children’s cognitive development. Cognitive approaches are also popular among educational technologists through learning process approaches such as the cognitive tools approach to teaching.
1. Constructivist Theory
The constructivist learning theory believes that new information is ‘constructed’ in the mind. We often contrast a constructivist learning process to a behaviorist process.
Whereas a constructivist believes a student needs to develop genuine understanding through trial, error and logic, a behaviorist believes in learning through transmission of new information from an educator to a student.
The constructivist learning theory emphasizes that we use our prior knowledge in the learning process. We’ll think about what we already know and how our new information can contribute to or challenge our existing knowledge.
If some new information challenges what we already know, we need to amend our existing understandings of the world in order to repair them. If some new information builds on what we already know, we can simply stack the new knowledge onto the old knowledge. Over time, as more and more new knowledge enters our minds through experience, we develop increasingly more complex understandings of how the world works.
2. Social Constructivist Theory
The social constructivist learning theory embraces the notion of constructivism. However, social constructivists belive that the learning process is an inherently social practice. We learn new information through social interaction first and then internalize that new information over time.
The most famous social constructivist is Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s learning theory believed that we learn through ‘external speech’, for example when talking out loud to work through an issue. As we get older and more intellectually competent, we develop ‘private speech’ where we talk things through in our minds, thereby internalizing the learning process.
Vygotsky also argues that students learn best when in interaction with a ‘more knowledgeable other’. That more knowledgeable other can model language use and the steps required for completing a task.
By being exposed to others’ explanations and modeling, learners see others’ perspectives and explanations. These explanations can help us critique and improve on our own thought processes.
The third contribution of Vygotsky was the concept of the zone of proximal development. This concept highlights that students need to be taught things that are just too hard for them to complete alone, but achievable with the support of the more knowledgeable other.
When we learn in the zone of proximal development, optimum learning occurs. You might think of this like Goldilocks eating porridge: not too cold (too easy), not to hot (too hard), but just right.
Go Deeper: Zone of Proximal Development Examples
3. Cognitive Constructivist Theory
The cognitive constructivist learning theory believes in the fundamental principles of a constructivist learning theory, but disagrees with social constructivists on the role of social interaction in learning.
Instead, cognitive constructivists focus entirely on the inner mind and how it develops over time. While social constructivists might believe more in ‘nurture’ for learning, cognitive constructivist believe more in the role of ‘nature’ for learning.
Cognitive constructivists such as Jean Piaget, for example, call learners ‘lone scientists’. They can go out into the world and learn simply through trial-and-error. By exploring their surrounds, learners make new discoveries that can help them reach coherent and logical positions on issues like how gravity works, how trees grow, and how to use your fine motor skills.
Jean Piaget, perhaps the most famous educational theorist of all time, developed a cognitive constructivist theory of learning that involves four stages of cognitive development.
Jean Piaget’s stages are:
- Sensorimotor stage (0 to 2 years old): Children use their senses to develop their initial understandings of the world. At first, they lack understanding of simple concepts like object permanence (something exists even when they can’t see it), but these skills develop during the first 2 years of age.
- Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years old): In the preoperational stage, children develop complex language and symbolic skills to communicate fluently to their family and friends. They can navigate their worlds but are still developing skills like conservation (which involves understanding that the properties of something do not necessarily change when its appearance changes).
- Concrete stage (7 to 11 years old): During the concrete stage, children develop logical thinking. They master skills like reversibility (seeing things from others’ perspectives), conservation, cause-and-effect, and seriation (ordering and classifying complex concepts).
- Formal stage (11 years old to adulthood): Adolescents develop the capacities to analyze, critique and moralize. They can think about abstract and philosophical ideas. Children at this age can also develop complex hypotheses using inductive reasoning.
A cognitive constructivist learning theory generally involves setting up scientific and discovery learning experiments and letting students ‘figure it out themselves’. Maria Montessori, for example, believes in giving students the skills to learn and a rich learning environment. Then, she tries not to interfere while students do their experiments. If students struggle, that’s simply part of the learning experience and helps them learn why some approaches to an issue don’t work.
Related: 5 Types of Childhood Development
4. Bloom’s Domains of Learning
Benjamin Bloom developed his theory of domains of learning to explain the differences between lower-order surface learning approaches and higher-order cognitive approaches.
Higher-order learning tends to enable students to demonstrate deeper knowledge of a topic and greater ability to apply it in the real world. Lower-order learning involves the ability to replicate already existing knowledge in simpler, less creative ways.
Bloom created his taxonomy of learning to demonstrate the different levels of learning that can be demonstrated in students’ work:
- Remember: Students have the ability to recall information that they have learnt through rote learning approaches such as repetition.
- Understand: Students can demonstrate understanding of what they have learned by being able to classify, report, define, discuss and translate knowledge in assessment tasks.
- Apply: Students are able to apply what they know in new and unique contexts. Knowledge isn’t just used in the situation in which it was learned. The knowledge learned can be implemented in real-life situations.
- Analyze: Students can analyze what they have learned by comparing and contrasting ideas, differentiating the differences between elements within an idea, identifying patterns and trends, and organizing ideas into logical sequences.
- Evaluate: Evaluation involves using higher-order thinking skills that demonstrate both creativity and logic. An evaluation of a topic involves critiquing it, criticizing it, identifying blind spots or flaws in arguments, and questioning taken-for-granted assumptions.
- Create: Creation involves coming up with new knowledge that goes beyond the knowledge that is at hand. A creative person needs to use inductive learning and reasoning to develop hypotheses and test them to confirm hunches. A creator needs to have strong investigative and entrepreneurial skills.
5. Cognitive Load Theory
Sweller’s cognitive load theory is a cognitive theory that emphasizes that teachers need to take into account the mind’s ‘cognitive architecture’ when teaching.
In layman’s terms, the most important thing to remember from this learning theory is that our working memory can only hold a certain amount of information at once. If we give students too much information at once, their mind will go into ‘cognitive overload’ and learning will slow down or stop.
The practical implication of this theory is that teachers should teach information in small and manageable ‘chunks’ of knowledge.
There are three types of cognitive load:
- Intrinsic cognitive load: This refers to how much working memory is required to learn a specific topic;
- Extraneous cognitive load: This refers to the extra cognitive load that students experience when information is presented in difficult ways. If something is presented in complex academic language, you don’t just need to learn the information. You’ll also need to sort through the thing you’re reading and re-read it over and over again before you get it. It’s best to minimize extraneous cognitive load by teaching something in as simple and clear a way as possible.
- Germane cognitive load: This refers to how much effort you need to put into remembering something. You need to move knowledge from working memory to longer-term memory, and this takes effort to create strategies that will help you remember the information.
6. Multimodal Learning Theory
The multimodal learning theory (also known as CTML: the “cognitive theory of multimedia learning”) focuses on how we learn in an era of screen-based technologies. According to this theory, people learn primarily through two ‘channels’: aural and visual’.
In order to help learners, we have to ensure our aural and visual inputs are:
- In sync (what happens aurally is reinforced by visual messages); but also
- Not overwhelming (with two modes of input happening at once, cognitive overload can occur very quickly)
To help teachers, Mayer proposed 10 teaching strategies that are ideal for teaching using technology:
- Coherence Principle: People learn better when extraneous (irrelevant) words and images are removed.
- Signaling Principle: Learning occurs better when content is organized and cues are provided to show students the organizational structure.
- Redundancy Principle: Students learn better when subtitles are excluded. Stick to graphics and speech alone.
- Spatial Contiguity Principle: Words and images that correspond with each other need to be placed close together.
- Temporal Contiguity Principle: Students learn better when images and words that support one another are presented simultaneously rather than sequentially.
- Segmenting Principle: To prevent cognitive overload, knowledge should be presented in small, manageable chunks.
- Pre-Training Principle: Students learn better when they are prepared for the learning content with some preparatory homework.
- Modality Principle: Graphics and narrations help students learn better than animations alongside on-screen text.
- Multimedia Principle: Students learn better from images alongside words than images on their own.
- Personalization Principle: Conversational style of language is easier to understand and learn from than formal style of language.
- Voice Principle: Human voices help people learn far better than non-human mechanical voices.
- Image Principle: A person’s face or moving image does not improve learning. A simple voiceover is enough.
7. Kolberg’s Stages of Moral Development
Kolberg’s stage theory was inspired by Piaget’s learning theory. He developed his stages of learning theory to explain how children’s morality develops over time.
Like Jean Piaget, Kolberg believed children learned certain tasks and abilities only once their mind had developed enough to cognitively handle it.
However, Kolberg focused on stages of moral development:
- Obedience (infancy): At the earliest stages, children don’t see the difference between ‘the right thing’ and ‘avoiding punishment’. Children simply do the right thing in order to avoid punishment.
- Self-Interest (pre-school): Children focus on getting rewards rather than avoiding punishment. Children do things that benefit them the most.
- Conformity (school age): Children aim at achieving approval from others and cultivating positive social relationships.
- Social Order (school age): Children see that the purpose of doing the right thing is to maintain social order and prevent chaos. Children expand their idea of social relationships outside of their personal relationships to the entire society.
- Social Contract (teenage): Teenagers begin to see that all people mutually benefit from doing the right thing. They also start to understand that legally right and morally right are not necessarily the same thing.
- Universal Principles (adulthood): Morality goes beyond achieving personal benefit. Sometimes the morally right thing is not what is good for you as an individual, but has a higher purpose.
8. Gestalt Theory
Gestalt theory presupposes that learners seek structure and unity in the things they learn. We want to be able to see the ‘whole picture’ in order to develop a better understanding of the thing under analysis.
When we only see part of something, we don’t have enough of a holistic understanding to truly make wise decisions or develop deep critical insights.
This learning theory, then, shows us that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. With incomplete understandings of things, we can only make small, contextualized deductions. With complete understandings, we can make more agile and informed decisions.
For educators, the Gestalt theory presents five organizing principles that we should follow:
- Proximity: Things often only make sense when you see what is proximal to them. When playing a piano, a single note does not mean much, but when played in a song, we can then see the musical pattern.
- Similarity: Things that are similar tend to be proximal to each other. We can use similarities to start to piece together the whole, much like how you might start a jigsaw puzzle by grouping the jigsaw pieces together based on colors.
- Continuity: Humans tend to extrapolate from what they see in order to create the whole. If we see part of a picture, we want to create the full picture in our minds.
- Closure: We seek to fill gaps that are missing in our minds. If there are missing pieces in our knowledge, we seek out the answers and use the elements that are surrounding the missing part to fill it in using extrapolation.
- Figure and Ground: We tend to focus on one element at a time because we find it hard to see the big picture. The element that is our focus is the ‘figure’ and the elements proximal to it are the ‘ground’. When we use our eyes, for example, one object is in focus and the other objects form the blurry background context to help us make sense of what we see.
Note: I’ve categorized Gestalt theory as a constructivist theory as it relies on the brain constructing its own knowledge, but it can also be seen as humanistic in some of its facets.
9. Pragmatic Education
Pragmatic education theory highlights the importance of getting things done. Pragmatic theorists think that any knowledge that is being learned needs to have a purpose. We also call pragmatists ‘utilitarians’ because everything needs to have utility.
For teachers, a pragmatist approach means that we create lessons that have practical outcomes, and that preferably have outcomes that can be applied in students’ lives outside of school.
Teaching through project-based approaches is very popular among pragmatic educators. They argue that a great way to teach is to have students build, create and develop physical products that can be used outside of the classroom. The mathematical, scientific, or other methods used in the construction should have direct links to the curriculum
Behavioral theories do not focus on what happens within the mind at a neurological or developmental level. Instead, they focus on only observable behaviors.
According to a behaviorist approach, nothing is learned unless there is a tangible behavioral change that can be seen, heard or measured.
10. Classical Conditioning Theory
Classical conditioning was a learning theory developed by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. The theory shows that we learn to associate two things if we experience them as usually being proximal to one another.
In other words, we associate one thing with another if they usually come as a pair.
Pavlov conducted a famous experiment on his dog to demonstrate that he could train his dog’s brain. The experiment involved ringing a bell just before he gave the dog food. Before long, he realized that the dog would salivate in anticipation of food after the bell was rung, regardless of whether or not food would arrive.
This experiment showed that we could train our brains to unconsciously react to a stimulus. The dog’s salivation was not an intentional behavior. Rather, it was a subconscious reaction which showed that the dog’s brain had been hardwired to react in a certain way over time.
John Watson showed that classical conditioning also works for humans. Watson managed to make children afraid of animals by associating animals with loud noises; and also made them less afraid of phobias by slowly dis-associating the phobia with bad things.
11. Operant Conditioning Theory
Operant conditioning builds on classical conditioning. While classical conditioning shows that some things are learned subconsciously, operant conditioning shows that the same principles can be used to consciously learning things.
The most famous operant conditioning theorist was B.F. Skinner. He developed a contraption called a ‘Skinner box’.
The Skinner box was a contraption that trained cats to access a box of food by pressing a lever beside the box. At first, the cats didn’t know how to get the food. They scratched around the box trying to find their way in. But, eventually, they learned that the lever gives them access to the food.
Eventually, the cats got smart enough that they’d just hit the lever at will. The food was used as positive reinforcement to train the cats.
Skinner’s experiment showed that we can learn to behave in certain ways if there is a positive reinforcement or punishment involved in the process.
Like Pavlov, Skinner showed the power of association, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement in learning. For Skinner, the association between a positive reinforcement or punishment and a certain outcome will allow teachers to sculpt a child’s behavior.
Skinner also demonstrated important concepts in educational psychology such as dishabituation, habituation, and desensitization.
Social and Cultural Theories
Social and cultural theories emphasize the importance of interaction, communication and language use in learning development.
For social and cultural learning theory, the ways you speak has a big impact on learning. Similarly, how regularly you can communicate with peers and more knowledgeable others would likely have a causal effect on intellectual development.
12. Social Learning Theory
Bandura’s social learning theory shows that learning can happen through observation of others’ behaviors. He showed that we can learn through observation and mimicking alone.
Bandura created a famous series of experiments called the Bobo Doll experiments which demonstrated his theory.
In one Bobo doll experiment, Bandura created two groups of students: the control group and the test group. The control group of children watched and adult play calmly with a doll. The test group watched an adult play aggressively with a doll.
Predictably, when the children got the chance to play with the dolls, the group who saw the adult play aggressively played more aggressively with the doll when it came to their turn.
Later, social learning theory was merged with cognitive theories to develop the social cognitive theory.
13. Sociocultural Theory
Sociocultural learning theory builds on Vygotsky’s ideas about social learning (outlined above: social constructivism).
The sociocultural learning theory emphasizes the importance of cultures in learning. According to this theory, people of different social and cultural backgrounds may have different ways of learning. To ensure we teach in ‘culturally sensitive ways’, we should make sure we are aware of the ways different cultures:
- Store knowledge
- Share knowledge, and
Barbara Rogoff, a leading sociocultural theorist, coined the term ‘cognitive apprenticeships’. Rogoff found that an Indigenous group of people in Guatemala learn very different to westerners. They learned through one-on-one interactions with their parents and family members during daily work. Instead of taking formal classes, they took on ‘apprentice’ roles during the daily work of the tribe.
This example shows how some cultures learn differently to others. As teachers, it’s important to be aware of those cultural differences to ensure our pedagogies are appropriate.
14. Situated Learning Theory
Situated learning theory argues that learning happens best when students are learning within authentic contexts. According to this theory, learners should not learn in classrooms, but rather in workplace or real-life environments where the new information being learned has practical applications.
According to Lave and Wegner, the founders of situated learning theory, learners should start learning on the periphery of the situation while they observe and absorb new information. They may simply start by observing or helping out. As they develop confidence with the new information, in how to do tasks, and how to use language of the profession, they slowly become more and more central to the tasks, until they are an equal partner in the workplace.
15. Play-Based Learning Theory
Play-based learning theory believes that play is an effective mechanism for supporting learning and early childhood development.
The original theorist who believed play was beneficial to learning was Fredrich Frobel. Froebel argued that play helped students become exposed to new information and new learning. They develop imagination, creativity and self-confidence through play.
Subsequent contemporary education theorists including Steiner, Montessori and Reggio Emilia have argued for the benefits of play. Similarly, the Forest Schools movement has strongly advocated for the benefits of unstructured outdoor play for children’s development.
A play-based approach has many benefits, including:
- Developing confidence learning new information
- Developing language and communication skills
- Learning through observation of other children during group play
- Trial-and-error and discovery with new learning
- Developing fine and gross motor skills
Play-based learning theory has recently been applied to the area of digital play, where theorists believe that the benefits of traditional play can also be gained through playing on digital devices.
To take a deep dive into the role of play in child development, read the Helpful Professor’s full guide on the benefits and limitations of play-based approaches.
Connectivism is a theory that has been proposed for the internet age. Considering the internet to be a social mind (also known as a distributed cognition network), each individual can tap into the mind of the internet.
When connected to the internet, they can use forums, wikis and blog to contribute to the dynamic body of knowledge online, but also take new information and new learning away from it.
By being connected to others around the world via the web (and participating in online knowledge exchanges), we are simultaneously adding new information to our own minds and the social knowledge online.
Psychodynamic learning theories see learning as being largely controlled by underlying psychological drivers.
Psychological issues may be unclear or unknown to the student and teacher, but affect new learning nonetheless. The psychodynamic approach therefore sees learning as being heavily influenced by subconscious rather than conscious factors.
17. Psychoanalytic Theory
Freud’s psychoanalytic approach views child development as being driven by psychological and largely sexual desires.
He splits child development into a series of stages. In each stage, a child needs to overcome challenges or else risk being stuck or ‘fixated’ on that challenge throughout the rest of their lives.
The stages of Freud’s theory are:
- Oral Stage (0 – 1 years): Children focus on gaining pleasure through the mouth, such as eating and suckling. If children don’t successfully wean off their mother’s teet in this first year, Freud believes they will grow up with dependency issues.
- Anal Stage (1 – 3 years): Children’s pleasure center moves to the anus as they being to learn to control bowel movements. If parents are too strict or too lax in potty training, children may grow up to develop control issues (‘being anal’).
- Phallic Stage (3 – 6 years): Children develop a focus on their genitals and develop sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex. If they do not successfully navigate this stage, they may have ‘mummy issues’ or ‘daddy issues’ and develop a long-term sense of inferiority, vanity and self-obsession.
- Latency Stage (6 years to puberty): Children’s sexual desires are suppressed as they focus more on developing relationships with peers of the same sex. This is a generally quiet stage.
- Genetal Stage (puberty onwards): Adolescents develop sexual attraction to non-family members of the opposite sex. If they manage to successfully navigate their parental issues in childhood, they should develop healthy relationships in adulthood.
In education, we tend to use Freud’s theory to critique why and how students are behaving the way they do in our classrooms. An educator can use psychoanalysis to understand why students have control issues, dependency issues or vanity issues.
This theory, while still taught at university due to its strong influence on the development of psychology, is largely dismissed by credible contemporary educational theorists.
Eric Erikson built on Freud’s psychoanalytic approach, but placed far less emphasis on sexuality. Instead, Erikson created a series of stages that were focused on psycho-social rather than psycho-sexual development.
Erikson’s stages are:
- Infancy (0 – 1 years): In the earliest year of life, babies develop a relationship with their mother. Their central challenge is trust vs. mistrust of their carer. This feeds through to whether or not a person can trust others in adulthood.
- Early Childhood (1 – 3 years): Toddlers need to develop independence and autonomy as they explore their environment. If they succeed, they will develop self-confidence, while if they fail they will develop a sense of personal shame.
- Play Age (3 – 6 years): During the play years, children attempt to assert control over their environment by being creative. Children who are successful in exerting their power over the environment develop a sense of purpose and initiative, while children who are chastized or disapproved of for their efforts develop a sense of personal guilt.
- School Age (6 – 12): School aged children learn to develop academic and social skills. Students who are successful develop a sense of industry and competence, while students who are unsuccessful develop an inferiority complex.
- Adolescence (12 – 19): Adolescents face the challenge of identity vs. confusion. They attempt to create a unique individual identity for themselves. If they are successful, they are comfortable in their skin. If not, they struggle with a weak sense of self throughout their lives.
- Early Adulthood (20 – 25): During early adulthood, the main psychosocial challenge is to develop a sense of intimacy in a secure relationship. If they succeed, they feel a sense of isolation that follows them through their lives.
- Adulthood (26 – 64): During adulthood, people’s psychosocial focus turns to building things that outlast their own lives. Examples include raising children and building businesses. This stage is called ‘generativity vs. stagnation’. If adults are successful, they feel accomplished and useful, whereas if they fail they feel useless.
- Old Age (65 – death): In old age, we look back on our lives and assess whether we have lived a valuable life of integrity. If so, we feel a sense of wisdom, while if we have lived a shallow life, we feel a sense of despair.
The psychosocial theory can be used in education to help teachers know what key challenges to focus on at each age level. For example, at the school age, teachers should focus on helping children feel a sense of social and academic competence in order to avoid an inferiority complex.
Humanism is a philosophy that emphasizes the high importance and value of human life.
It holds human flourishing and quality of life above the interests of religions or gods which are considered superstitions. It also believes that all humans have ‘agency’, which is to say we all should have freedom of choice and the freedom to control our own lives.
19. Humanist Theory of Education
Humanist theory posits that human beings need comforting, welcoming environments in order for optimal learning to occur.
When applied to education, humanism emphasizes two pillars:
- Holistic wellbeing: the importance of a student’s whole wellbeing, not just their intellectual knowledge;
- Choice-based approach: the importance of giving children the sense they have control over their lives.
The most central humanist theorist for educators is Maslow. Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs, which highlights how students will learn best when they feel safe, secured and well cared for. When a student’s basic needs are met, they will be more creative and confident learners.
The hierarchy is shown below:
The steps in the hierarchy are:
- Psychological Needs: Students need their basic needs for survival to be met, such as food, water, clothing and shelter in order to focus on their learning. A hungry student may not learn!
- Safety, Protection and Security Needs: A student needs to feel safe and secure if they will learn. If a student is feeling unsafe or insecure, they may be distracted from learning or too anxious to learn.
- Belongingness and Love Needs: When students have developed a sense of belonging, they will feel more comfortable and happier in their learning space, leading to more productive working conditions.
- Esteem Needs: Students who have high self-esteem will be more willing to make an effort, believe that they can succeed, and feel confident to take risks.
- Self-Actualization: students who have all their needs met reach self-actualization, which means they become the best version of themselves.
Another central humanist theorist is Carl Rogers. According to Rogers, students have a natural will to learn. He calls this the ‘actualizing tendency’. As educators, we need to get out of the way and let children learn. To do this, we need to offer them ‘freedom to learn’.
Furthermore, Rogers believes students will perform best when their teacher has strong faith in their abilities. Rogers claims that teachers should provide ‘unconditional positive regard’ to students. In other words, teachers need to always see students as capable of self-improvement, even if they’ve misbehaved all day long today! An example might be telling a student at the end of a tough day: “I believe you can do better tomorrow. I’m looking forward to seeing you show me your best self tomorrow!”
20. Existentialist Theory of Education
“Existentialism is a humanism”. That’s the title of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous book outlining existentialism’s main ideas.
According to existentialists, there is no god or higher power than man. Therefore, humans have to deal with two facts of life:
- The meaning of life is what we make it. Without a god giving life meaning, we need to find our own meaning for our own lives. As educators, it’s our role to help our students find meaning in their lives. The purpose of education is to equip students with the skills and knowledge to go out into the world and create a meaningful life for themselves.
- We are condemned to choose. Existentialists believe strongly in freedom of choice. No one is controlling our choice making. There is no higher power directing the world and our actions. So, we must make choices using our own free will. The consequence of this is that educators must teach students the skills to make ethical decisions based on first principles, such as “do no harm” and “treat others the way you wish they would treat you”.
There are a total of seven consequences of an existentialism approach to education, which I outline in my deep dive article: existentialism in education.
Sociological theories of education focus on the role of education in structuring our societies and cultures.
Most sociological approaches tend to focus on power, who has it, and how it is distributed through society. A major concern of sociological theories, therefore, is on how to teach in ways that help students to create a better, fairer world.
21. Poststructuralist Theory
The poststructuralist theory of education believes that power structures are distributed throughout our classrooms.
Poststructuralists want to ensure language in the classroom is inclusive to ensure education is socially just.
Everywhere we look, power is being exercised. For example, in our school books, we might ask questions like:
- How are women depicted in the images in our reading corner?
- Are people of color represented in our reading materials?
- How does the teacher’s language reinforce certain values?
- Is our pedagogy culturally responsive?
So, for a poststructuralist educator, the goal is to reflect on our language, artefacts and texts in our classroom and try to make sure they’re inclusive.
When the classroom’s language and images (or what they call ‘discourse’) is inclusive, students who are from minority backgrounds will feel more included in classrooms, develop a sense of belonging, and therefore be more comfortable to learn, raise their voice, and become the powerful and socially just member of society that we need in the future.
22. Critical Theory in Education
A critical theory approach to education is similar to a poststructuralist approach. This learning theory believes in the importance of critiquing how power operates in classrooms to marginalize and harm minority students.
However, a critical theory approach has a slightly different focus.
The critical theory approach to education focuses on advocating for working-class minorities. In other words, while poststructuralists focus on inclusive language, critical theorists focus on promoting the belief systems of the oppressed.
For example, a critical theorist might:
- Get students to see things from the viewpoint of the working-class who feel oppressed by capitalism;
- Focus on teaching about the rights of refugees and how students should advocate for them;
- Look at the way the media is complicit in oppressing the working-class
23. Progressive-Democratic Theory
The progressive-democratic theory believes in creating a classroom that is democratic and that empowers students. It is a reaction to education systems that narrowly see teaching as a means for providing students with knowledge to become workers in the economy.
The most famous progressive-democratic educator, John Dewey, was also a constructivist! So, you’ll see a lot of constructivist values in this theory. Students are encouraged to learn through a discovery approach and do project-based tasks.
However, this theory also has a strong focus on student empowerment. So, a progressive-democratic educator will likely:
- Create democratic class rules: A progressive teacher may attempt to provide students with increased power by creating a democratic classroom rules system. Students can vote on the rules of the class rather than having them forced on the students by the teacher.
- Let students choose what to learn and how to learn it: A progressive teacher attempts to empower students by giving them increased control over the learning environment.
- Focus on the ‘whole’ child: Progressive educators focus on teaching children artistic and creative endeavors as well as intellectual content. The student needs to be knowledgeable on a wide range of topics to be raised with a broad-based ‘liberal education’ that will prepare them to be critical thinkers.
Cyclical Learning Theories
Learning cycle theories highlight that learning occurs in cyclical ways. During each cycle, the learner has an active experience and reflects on that experience to make the next round of the cycle even better.
Below are some of the most popular learning cycle theories.
24. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory
Kolb’s experiential learning theory proposed that learning happens in a cyclical pattern. Through each cycle learners build up their knowledge more and more.
You may recognize some terms within Kolb’s experiential learning cycle that come straight from constructivism: terms like ‘assimilating’ and ‘accommodating’ knowledge.
Here are the steps in his experiential learning cycle:
- Concrete Experience: Students begin learning through having a concrete experience through which they can absorb new experiences to learn from;
- Reflective Observation: Students reflect on what they observed during the learning experience. They think about how the experience can teach them something;
- Abstract Conceptualization: Students come up with hypotheses about what they’ve observed. To test their hypotheses, they come up with a game plan to test them out to attempt to prove or disprove their new hypotheses.
- Active Experimentation: Students experiment with their hypotheses in new situations to see how their ideas work out. Based upon these experiences, the cycle starts again: new experiences, leading to reflection, leading to abstraction, then an experiment in a new experience. The cycle continues indefinitely.
Furthermore, Kolb’s experiential learning theory proposed learning styles based upon his observations of students. Kolb believed different people prefer different stages of the experiential learning cycle. Based upon your preferences, you’d have one of the following learning styles:
- Diverging: Diverging learning personalities like to have concrete experiences and then reflect on them (the first two steps in the cycle).
- Assimilating: Assimilating learners like to spend time observing and developing hypotheses (steps 2 and 3 of the cycle)
- Converging: Converging learners like to create abstract ideas then test them out (steps 3 and 4 of the cycle).
- Accommodating: Accommodators like doing things. They’re the sorts of learners who spend all their time experimenting and jumping into real-life experiences. They focus on steps 4 and 1 of the learning cycle.
25. Bruner’s Spiral Curriculum
The Spiral Curriculum model was proposed by Jerome Bruner. This model is constructivist, but due to its strong emphasis on the ‘cycle’ of learning, I’ve categorized it here under learning cycle theories.
Bruner’s spiral curriculum proposes that topics should be re-learned multiple times throughout a unit of work, school year, or however long the learning situation is taking place. Each time the the content is re-engaged with, the information is learned in more detail and the teacher presents more complexities to the scenario.
Some of the central ideas in this approach include:
- Revisiting: Content is never completely learned, stored and then never re-engaged with. All learning builds on previous cycles of learning, enabling knowledge and understanding to slowly grow over time.
- Complexity: Most topics are very complex. A student doesn’t need to know all the complexities the first time they learn about the topic. The cycles of learning mean that understanding of complexity is built up over time.
- Prior Knowledge: Prior knowledge is central to this model, whereby in each cycle of learning, students start by recalling what they already know or learned the last time they engaged with the topic.
Learning Style Theories
Theories of learning styles highlight that different learners have different approaches to learning. This concept requires that educators reflect on the importance of differentiation: teaching the same content in different ways for different types of learners.
Learning styles theories are, however, widely frowned upon by many scholars such as Frank Coffield. These anti- learning styles scholars highlights that there is very little scientific evidence for learning styles theories. Instead, they have simply operationalized abstract and unscientific concepts.
Coffield, for example, believes that we do not have inherent learning styles from birth but, at the very most, learning preferences. Personal preferences can emerge through our own lives rather than being in-built mental structures that make us learn better in some ways than others.
In other words, we all have the capacity to learn in any way; but some of us prefer to learn in some ways, for whatever reason.
The learning theory of andragogy states that adults learn differently to children, and therefore we need to develop unique ways of teaching adults compared to teaching children.
This theory proposes that adults live very different lives to children and therefore need different sorts of learning environments.
The author of the theory, Malcolm Knowles, presents what he calls five ‘assumptions’ of adult learners:
- Self-Concept: Adults are not dependant on their teachers like students are. Rather, they have a strong self-concept (understanding of themselves) and have a clear sense of individuality.
- Adult Learner Experience: Adults have a lot of life experience which they can bring to bear in a learning experience. The teacher should encourage the linking of new ideas to an adult learner’s ‘prior knowledge’ to help promote learning.
- Readiness to Learn: As we get older, we increasingly want to learn more in-depth on a topic related to our workforce or real-life requirements.
- Orientation to Learning: Adults have a problem-centered approach to learning rather than a subject-specific approach. We have a need to learn to solve problems in our real lives to make our lives easier.
- Motivation to Learn: Adults’ motivation to learn tends to be internal rather than external. For more, read our deep dive into intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.
Based on these five assumptions, Knowles presents four ‘principles’ of andragogy:
- Involvement: Adults should be involved in both the planning of what they’ll learn and the evaluation of their progress as learners.
- Experience: The foundation of adult learning is to work from and build upon the adults own real-life experiences.
- Relevance: The things adults learn should be directly related to the problems they face in their lives at this moment in time.
- Problem-Based: Rather than focusing on subjects or segments of content, teachers should work on creating problem-centric lessons.
27. Multiple Intelligences Theory
Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory proposes that we all learn in different ways. Some of us learn best through one form of learning, while others will learn best in another form.
According to Gardner, there are seven categories of ‘intelligences’. So, if you’re not book smart, maybe you’re still intelligent … but just need to learn in another format.
Here are the seven learning styles proposed by Gardner:
- Visual-Spatial: Visual-spatial learners tend to be very good with their eyes. They’re good at determining the distance between things, thinking in three dimensions, and learning through graphics and imagery. They are good at drawing and interpreting art. To teach these sorts of learners, provide them with a lot of charts and graphs, movies and documentaries on topics.
- Bodily-kinesthetic: Bodily-kinesthetic are very in touch with their bodies. They have strong fine and gross motor skills, love to learn through touching and playing, and like to role play tasks. Bodily-kinesthetic learners find they understand things much better when their bodies are used while learning.
- Musical: Musical learners are very adept at detecting rhythm and sound. They tend to relate very well to music. Educators might ask musical learners to write songs about what they’re learning and use rhythms in lessons. These sorts of learners may also benefit from listening to music while learning.
- Interpersonal: Interpersonal learners have strong emotional intelligence and can very easily work with others. They learn best when they’re talking to others and managing groups. These learners are also very compassionate people. Teachers can help these learners by getting them to do group work tasks.
- Intrapersonal: An intrapersonal learner is a bit of an introvert. They’re happy reflecting on things in their own time. They are self-motivated and happy to sit alone with a book to learn something.
- Linguistic: Linguistic learners are great with books, words and speaking. They may have to say things out loud to truly understand them, be enthralled by stories, and get lost in novels for days. They may also be great at learning a second language.
- Logical-Mathematical: A logical-mathematical learner has mathematics come easy to them. They see patterns and relationships between things, can follow rationality very well, and will thrive when learning through numbers.
Gardner’s theory is challenged by many scholars who have been unable to genuinely identify in-built and testable differences in abilities to learn based on the above styles. Furthermore, it appears that the above 7 categories are somewhat arbitrary and haven’t been developed via a scientific method.
28. Digital Immigrants / Digital Natives
Marc Prensky’s digital natives theory proposes that people who grew up with modern technologies have brains that are hardwired differently to older generations. This would have profound consequences for teaching and learning in the 21st Century.
The most profound difference is that digital natives do not learn in a linear fashion. Whereas once we all learnt by reading books and following set curricula from beginning to end, digital generations learn differently. They learn through ‘hypertext’, where they will jump around the internet in non-linear ways following different lines of thought.
Similarly, due to the sporadic and non-linear learning modes of digital natives, their attention spans may be much shorter than digital immigrants. Digital natives scan and seek out the key information rather than reading from top-to-bottom.
The proliferation of multimodal texts has also meant that digital natives may be more inclined to learn through visuals and animations rather than text alone.
It’s important to note that the digital natives concept is largely critiqued as having little scientific basis, and even Prensky has moved away from its use. Nonetheless, it’s a commonly used concept to describe differences in apparent learning styles between older and younger generations.
Motivational Learning Theories
29. Growth Mindsets
Carol Dweck proposed that students can have two mindsets toward learning: growth and fixed mindsets.
A growth mindset is a mindset where students believe that improvement and success are within their control, if only they put in the effort. We also use the term ‘internal locus of control’ when someone believes that they have the power for self-improvement.
A fixed mindset is a mindset where students believe that improvement and success are not within their control. They believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence and its not possible for them to get smarter, even with some effort.
According to Dweck, students need to be taught to develop a growth mindset in order for them to be successful learners. Students do not need to strive for perfection, but only gradual self-improvements that will accumulate over time to achieve large long-term growth.
30. Self-Determination Theory
Self-determination theory was created by Ryan and Deci to expand upon the intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation concept.
Ryan and Deci identified several additional elements that influence how motivated a student will be to perform a task:
- Autonomy: Extrinsic rewards will decrease someone’s intrinsic motivation, even if it is an enjoyable task. Furthermore, external factors like deadlines and performance indicators will decrease a learner’s enjoyment of a task and, therefore, their motivation.
- Competence: Providing people with praise and highlighting their competence at tasks will not necessarily increase extrinsic motivation, but will increase intrinsic motivation for the task. Punishments, on the other hand, will decrease intrinsic enjoyment of a task.
- Relatedness: Students will want to have positive relationships with others. All humans have a desire to be with others, which can work as a motivator for a task.
>>>See also: ARCS model of motivation
31. Flow Theory
According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, educators should aim to get students into a state of flow. Flow states are characterized by energetic engagement with a task, full immersion and absorption at the task at hand.
We might also call a state of flow being ‘in the zone’, which people often experience during sports and while playing video games.
To achieve a flow state, three conditions need to be met:
- Structure: Goals and milestones that help learners track progress need to be evident in the task;
- Feedback: There should be immediate feedback provided to the learner by the task, such as through successful achievement of a certain step or stage of learning. By gaining immediate feedback, learners can make changes to their work in the moment.
- Realism: The learner must have a realistic understanding of their own skills and the difficulty level of the task. If the task is perceived by the learner to be too hard or too easy for their skill level, flow will not occur.
Learning theories in education help teachers to improve their practice and improve students’ learning. Select learning theories that you believe have the most sound research underpinning them and research what insights they can give you into improving your teaching.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.
4 thoughts on “31 Major Learning Theories in Education, Explained!”
As someone putting together a teaching portfolio for the first time, this was quite an undaunting look at different learning theories and their interconnections and limitations.
Thanks for reading Katlego. I’m glad you found the learning theories guide helpful!
Thank you for this learning, it will help us grow and do better on our teaching career.
You’re welcome Queenie!