A brief summary of important theories

You will, undoubtedly, be familiar with important aspects of learning theories. Some of the important theories that have been employed by educators are shown in the table below:


Concerned with the relationship between stimuli and subsequent behavior. Reinforcement develops certain behaviors. IS not concerned with the internal processes of the learner. Much basic human behavior is shaped in this way, usually unintentionally.
Based on pioneering work by Skinner (c 1940) and Pavlov (c. 1960)

Instructivist / Neo-behaviorist

Based on the work of the behaviorists but is concerned with developing sequences ofr instructional tasks which build student understanding in a hierarchical manner.
Gagne (1060s - 1970s is a major influence on this viewpoint.


Cognitive psychology is concerned with the internal processing in the learner's brain. There is a focus on development of competence, learning strategies and the learner's deliberate involvement in their own learning. Constructivism is may be seen as a development of cognitivism; the boundary is hazy.
Glaser (1980s - 1990s) was a major influence on application of cognitivbe psychology to education.
Piaget and Bruner can also be seen as pioneers in the cognitivist tradition.


Constructivism derives from the idea that learners are actively involved in constructing their own understanding of the world. Piaget saw this as a hierarchical, staged process; much current thinking tends to see the developmental process as more fluid. There is an emphasis on providing suitable conditions and activites to aid learners to develop their knowledge, often through confronting apparent conflicts between experience and their mental models. Bruner was concerned with developing teaching strategies based on these principles, and is associated with the idea of discovery learning.
Developed largely from the work of Piaget and Bruner (1960s - 1970s). Other theorists have included Brown, Collins & Duguid (1980s) who developed the idea of situated cognition.

Social Constructivism

Based on the idea that learning is a socially mediated process, where the interaction of the learner with significant others is very important. Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is associated with this process; scaffolding by peers and teachers plays an important role in learning.
These ideas are strongly based on the work of Vygotsky, carried out in the 1970s but not recognised in the West until later.


Papert's emphasis was in children learning through the construction of creative objects - usually in a public and collaborative way.
He concentrated on the role of technology in this process. A theory developed by Papert (1980 -90s)


A major idea of this theory is that knowqledge exists in networks and that information technology enables us to connect with these complex netsworks. It draws on ideas from network, chaos, complexity and self-organisation theories.
This is the most recent apporach and was developed by Siemens (200s). Downeshas been another major proponent of this idea.