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Please read the following article and provide a brief response to the following question:


Please read the following article and provide a brief response to the following question: This article discusses three key theories. List these and briefly discuss each (no more than 150 words on each)

#1 Introduction – How people learn





Developed by Linda-Darling Hammond,

Kim Austin, Suzanne Orcutt, and

Jim Rosso

Stanford University School of Education 1

The Learning Classroom: Theory into Practice

A Telecourse for Teacher Education and Professional Development

1 Copyright 2001, Stanford University

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 2





I believe that (the) educational process has two sides—one psychological and one sociological. . . Profound differences in theory are never gratuitous or invented. They grow out of conflicting elements in a genuine problem.

John Dewey, In Dworkin, M. (1959) Dewey on Education pp. 20, 91


People have been trying to understand learning for over 2000 years. Learning

theorists have carried out a debate on how people learn that began at least as far back as

the Greek philosophers, Socrates (469 –399 B.C.), Plato (427 – 347 B.C.), and Aristotle

(384 – 322 B.C). The debates that have occurred through the ages reoccur today in a

variety of viewpoints about the purposes of education and about how to encourage

learning. To a substantial extent, the most effective strategies for learning depend on

what kind of learning is desired and toward what ends.

Plato and one of his students, Aristotle, were early entrants into the debate about

how people learn. They asked, “Is truth and knowledge to be found within us

(rationalism) or is it to be found outside of ourselves by using our senses (empiricism)?”

Plato, as a rationalist, developed the belief that knowledge and truth can be discovered by

self-reflection. Aristotle, the empiricist, used his senses to look for truth and knowledge

in the world outside of him. From his empirical base Aristotle developed a scientific

method of gathering data to study the world around him. Socrates developed the dialectic

method of discovering truth through conversations with fellow citizens (Monroe, 1925).

Inquiry methods owe much of their genesis to the thinking of Aristotle and others who

followed this line of thinking. Strategies that call for discourse and reflection as tools for

developing thinking owe much to Socrates and Plato.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 3

The Romans differed from the Greeks in their concept of education. The meaning

of life did not intrigue them as much as developing a citizenry that could contribute to

society in a practical way, for building roads and aqueducts. The Romans emphasized

education as vocational training, rather than as training of the mind for the discovery of

truth. Modern vocational education and apprenticeship methods are reminiscent of the

Roman approach to education. As we will see, however, strategies to encourage

cognitive apprenticeships combine the modeling inherent in learning by guided doing

with the discourse, reflection, and inquiry that the Greeks suggested to train the mind.

When the Roman Catholic Church became a strong force in European daily life

(500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.), learning took place through the church, through monasteries,

and through their school system, which included the universities (12th century) the

Church built throughout Europe. Knowledge was transmitted from the priest to the

people (Monroe, 1925). Much learning was the memorization and recitation of scripture

by rote and the learning of trades by apprenticeship. The primary conception of the

purpose of education was transmission-based. Many classrooms today continue a

transmission-based conception of learning as the passing on of information from the

teacher to the student, with little interest in transforming it or using it for novel purposes.

The Renaissance (15th to the 17th centuries) revived the Greek concept of liberal

education, which stressed education as an exploration of the arts and humanities.

Renaissance philosophers fought for freedom of thought, and thus Humanism, a study of

human values that are not religion-based, was born. By the sixteenth century the control

of the Catholic Church was being challenged on a number of fronts, from Copernicus

(1473 – 1543) who suggested that the sun rather than the earth was the center of the Solar

System, to Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) who sought to secularize education (Monroe,

1925). The notions of individual inquiry and discovery as bases for learning were

reinforced in the Renaissance. In a sense the recurring ideological debates over education

for “basic” skills – the reproduction of facts and rudimentary skills – vs. education for

thinking – the effort to understand ideas and use knowledge for broader purposes – replay

the medieval vs. Renaissance conceptions of the purposes of education.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) revived the Platonic concept of innate knowledge.

Descartes believed that ideas existed within human beings prior to experience and that

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 4

God was an example of an innate idea. He recognized that the body could be appreciated

and studied as a zoological machine, while the mind was separate and free from the body.

He was one of the first to define precisely the ability of the environment and the mind to

influence and initiate behavior. He also described how the body could produce

unintended behaviors. Descartes’ first description of reflex action was influential in

psychology for over 300 years (Hergenhahn, 1976). While this findings supported the

work of behavioral psychologists seeking to understand the genesis of behaviors, his

focus on the mind also supported the work of later cognitive scientists who sought to

understand the thinking process itself.

John Locke (1632 – 1704) revived Aristotle’s empiricism with the concept that the

child’s mind is a blank tablet (tabula rasa) that gets shaped and formed by his/her own

experiences. He believed the mind becomes what it experiences from the outside world.

“Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without

any ideas: How comes it to be furnished? … whence has it all the materials of reason and

knowledge? … from experience” (Locke, quoted in Hilgard and Bower 1975). The mind

gathers data through the senses and creates simple ideas from experience; these simple

ideas combine to develop complex ideas. Locke believed that education should structure

experiences for students and that one essential learning was the kind of discipline that

could be developed through the study of mathematics (Hergenhahn, 1976). The idea that

different disciplines provide qualitatively different mental experiences and means of

training the mind undergirds the basis of the discipline-based liberal arts education.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was one of the first philosophers to suggest

that education should be shaped to the child. He celebrated the concept of childhood and

felt that children should be allowed to develop naturally. “The only habit which the child

should be allowed to form is to contract no habit whatever.” (Rousseau, quoted in Hilgard

and Bower, 1975) In Rousseau’s novel, Emile (Rousseau, 2000), the hero learns about

life through his experiences in life. Complex ideas are built from simple ideas that are

gathered from the world around him (Hilgard and Bower, 1975). The child-centered

philosophies of Dewey, Montessori, Piaget and others follow in part from similar views.

Kant (1724 – 1804) refined and modernized Plato’s rationalist theory with his

suggestion that “a priori” knowledge was knowledge that was present before experience.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 5

For Kant, awareness of knowledge may begin with experience but knowledge existed

prior to experience. Kant espoused that these ideas must be innate, and their purpose is to

create an organizing structure for the data that is received by the senses. Kant was also

one of the first to recognize the cognitive processes of the mind, the idea that the mind

was a part of the thinking process and capable of contributing to the thoughts that it

developed. This learning theory opened the door to Piaget and others who would further

develop the ideas of cognition (Monroe, 1925).


The nineteenth century brought about the scientific study of learning. Working

from the thoughts of Descartes and Kant, and especially the influence of Charles Darwin,

psychologists began conducting objective tests to study how people learn, and to discover

the best approach to teaching. The 20th century debate on how people learn has focused

largely on behaviorist vs. cognitive psychology. Psychologists have asked, “Is the human

simply a very advanced mammal that operates by a stimulus response mechanism, or

actually a cognitive creature that uses its brain to construct knowledge from the

information received by the senses?”

Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949) is considered by many to be the first modern

education psychologist who sought to bring a scientific approach to the study of learning.

Thorndike believed that learning was incremental and that people learned through a trial-

and-error approach. His behaviorist theories of learning did not consider that learning

took place as a result of mental constructs. Instead, he described how mental connections

are formed through positive responses to particular stimuli. For Thorndike, learning was

based on an association between sense impressions and an impulse to action. Thorndike

favored students’ active learning and sought to structure the environment to ensure

certain stimuli that would ‘produce’ learning (Hilgard and Bower, 1975).

The father of modern behaviorism, B. F. Skinner (1904 – 1990), further

developed Thorndike’s Stimulus-Response learning theory. Skinner was responsible for

developing programmed learning which was based on his stimulus response research on

rats and pigeons in experiments that provided positive reinforcement for “correct”

responses. He considered learning to be the production of desired behaviors, and denied

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 6

any influence of mental processes. Programmed learning gave proper reinforcement to

the student, emphasized reward over punishment, moved the student by small steps

through discrete skills and allowed the student to move at their own speed. “There are

certain questions which have to be answered in turning to the study of any new organism.

What behavior is to be set up? What reinforcers are at hand? What responses are

available in embarking upon a program of progressive approximation that will lead to the

final form of the behavior? How can reinforcements be most effectively scheduled to

maintain the behavior in strength? These questions are all relevant in considering the

problem of the child in the lower grades.” (Skinner, quoted in Hilgard and Bower 1975).

Behaviorist learning theory has had substantial influence in education, guiding the

development of highly-sequenced and structured curricula, programmed instructional

approaches, workbooks, and other tools. It has proved useful for the development of

some types of skills – especially those that can be learned substantially by rote through

reinforcement and practice. However, evidence has accrued that tasks requiring more

complex thinking and higher mental processes are not generally well-learned through

behaviorist methods and require more attention to how people perceive, process, and

make sense of what they are experiencing.

Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) was the first to state that learning is a developmental

cognitive process, that students create knowledge rather than receive knowledge from the

teacher. He recognized that students construct knowledge based on their experiences, and

that how they do so is related to their biological, physical, and mental stage of

development. Piaget spent years observing very young children and mapping out four

stages of growth: sensorimotor (birth to about 2 years), preoperational (roughly ages 2 –

7), concrete operations (encompassing about ages 7- 14) and formal operations

(beginning around ages 11 – 15 and extending into adulthood) (Hilgard and Bower,

1975). His work acknowledged the utility of some behaviorally-guided rote learning

while also arguing that other activities that support students’ exploration are essential:

Generally speaking, since every discipline must include a certain body of acquired facts as well as the possibility of giving rise to numerous research activities and activities of rediscovery, it is possible to envisage a balance being struck, varying from subject to subject, between different parts to be played by memorizing and free activity. In which case, it is possible that the

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 7

use of teaching machines will save time… (Piaget, quoted in Hilgard and Bower 1975).

The Russian scientist Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) extended Piaget’s developmental

theory of cognitive abilities of the individual to include the notion of social-cultural

cognition – that is, the idea that all learning occurs in a cultural context and involves

social interactions. He emphasized the role that culture and language play in developing

students’ thinking and the ways in which teachers and peers assist learners in developing

new ideas and skills. Vygotsky proposed the concept of the zone of proximal

development (ZPD) which suggested that students learn subjects best just beyond their

range of existing experience with assistance from the teacher or another peer to bridge the

distance from what they know or can do independently and what they can know or do

with assistance (Schunk, 1996). His work led to an emphasis on the deliberate use of

discourse and cooperative learning in the classroom, and theories of assistance or

“scaffolding” that help students learn in systematic ways. Following Piaget, the

developmental learning theorists brought to education the ideas that teachers can be more

effective if they organize learning so that it is responsive to the child’s stage of

development, if they connect learning to the child’s prior knowledge and experiences,

and if they use the social and natural environments as opportunities for learning.


The Progressives embraced Piaget’s ideas about child development, Vygotsky’s

ideas about socially situated learning and the construction of knowledge, and the age-old

emphases on both experience and thinking or reflection as a basis for learning. They

endeavored to establish child-centered schools for students to approach learning through

their own experiences with the understanding that all learning is situated. They reacted to

the rigidity of the late 19th century school with its focus on the transmission of

knowledge. The debate of the Progressives, which continues today, is what is the proper

balance of the traditional school’s focus on teacher transmission and the progressive

school’s focus on the student learning from his or her own experience with guided

opportunities to explore, discover, construct, and create.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 8

John Dewey (1859 – 1952) agreed in part with Rousseau that education should

not be separate from life itself, that education should be child-centered, guided by a well-

trained teacher who is grounded in pedagogical and subject knowledge. Like Locke, he

believed that structured experience matters and disciplinary modes of inquiry could allow

the development of the mind, thus creating a dialectic between the child and the

curriculum that the teacher must manage. The teacher’s goal is to understand both the

demands of the discipline and the needs of the child and then to provide learning

experiences to enable the student to uncover the curriculum. Dewey believed that the

ability of a person to learn was dependent on many things, one of which was the

environment. Dewey, who established the first laboratory school, was one of the first to

suggest that learning was a situated activity. Like Horace Mann (1796 –1859), the first

secretary of education for the state of Massachusetts and the founder of the common

school, Dewey felt that education was the primary method of social progress and reform

(Wirth, 1966). “When education is based upon experience and educative experience is

seen to be a social process, the situation changes radically. The teacher loses the position

of external boss or dictator but takes on that of leader of group activities.” (Dewey, 1938)

In Italy, Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952), introduced a liberated concept of early

childhood education that provided more opportunity for free expression, moving children

away from their desks, providing them with activities, and respecting children as

individuals. Like Dewey, she believed that students learn through carefully chosen

activities. “The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of cultural

activities spread over a specially prepared environment and then refraining from

obtrusive interference.” (Maria Montessori, Education for a New World) Montessori

went beyond Friedrich Froebel (1782 – 1852), who is largely responsible for the

invention of Kindergarten (which was originally banned in his native Prussia), to create

K-5th grade child-centered schools (Monroe 1925). Like Froebel, Montessori felt that the

play of the child was an important aspect of their self-expression and their social and

cognitive learning, and that teachers should be guides for their students instead of

authority figures. Along with being the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree,

she was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 9

Building on the ideas of the progressives, Jerome Bruner (1915 – ) further

explored the notion that disciplines have certain structural elements – core ideas and

approaches to knowledge and understanding – that should guide curriculum development

in a manner that connects to the development of the child. Bruner developed the idea that

if complex material is broken down into its essential ideas, any student can learn any

subject matter. “Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form

to any child at any stage of development.” (Bruner, 1977) Bruner developed the concept

of spiral curriculum which returns to the same subject matter with the student at periodic

points in time, but at each “spiral” the material is substantially deeper in its intellectual

demands (Hilgard and Bower, 1975). Many of his ideas would be used by Seymour

Papert as a basis for Logo software in the 1980s.

Today teachers utilize a variety of classroom practices that are based on all of

these ideas about learning. Contemporary learning theory recognizes the role that both

experience and reflection play in the development of ideas and skills. Researchers and

practitioners appreciate that reinforcement and practice play a role in the development of

skills, and so do cognitive intent, effort, and reasoning. They acknowledge the

importance of developmental stages; they also recognize that development can also be

encouraged through social interaction and the structuring of experiences within the

learners’ zone of proximal development or readiness sphere. Modern learning theories

incorporate the role of culture and other influences on experience in views of how people

construct their understandings and develop their abilities. Contemporary theories also

recognize that the content matters – the nature of the disciplines has much to do with how

they are learned and best taught. In large part because of differences in underlying views

of the purposes of education, debates continue about “best” teaching practices. There is

greater appreciation of the fact that different strategies are useful for different kinds of

learning. It is most productive to think of these issues in terms of what kind of learning

is sought in what contexts and then deliberate about what strategies may be most

appropriate for those goals.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 10


“Inside the Learning Classroom: Theory into Practice” presents a body of

learning theory for classroom teachers to use to support their students’ learning.

This course addresses the relationships among fundamental aspects of the learning

process, as we understand it today (PLT syllabus, 2001).

Through examples of teaching and learning in practice we will explore the range

of ways people construct knowledge from experience, build on prior knowledge, and

organize their own learning. Each segment highlights a particular feature of the learning

process or set of ideas about how people learn, while the course as a whole represents a

body of ideas that reinforce and connect with other ideas. All of these ideas can help

teachers make sense of what is going on in their classrooms and provide lenses for

understanding students’ growth, development, stumbling blocks, and successes.

The work of cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists and educational researchers

as well as expert practitioners has provided us with a set of understandings about how

people learn that have practical implications for teaching. Some of the key ideas about

the learning process, which are highlighted within and across video segments, are

presented here:


The mind is set up to process outside stimuli, to make sense of them, and to draw

connections. We know that while there are critical periods for motor and sensory

development, the development of the brain is lifelong, and not predetermined at birth or

within in the first three years. However, psychologists have observed that individuals do

progress through a predictable series of stages in their cognitive development. Learning

changes the physical structure of the brain through the process of continuous interactions

between the learner and the external environment. Differences in human processing and

performance have been found to be related to different brain structures and functioning.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 11


People learn by making sense of the environment and of stimuli around them.

Greater perceptual development and learning occur in environments that are rich with

stimuli and provide useful feedback in response to a learner’s efforts to act upon the

environment. The nature of the tasks confronted, the ways in which information is

presented, and the expectations for the learner’s involvement all impact the learning

process. In addition, the nature of the social environment – whether and how learners

have access to others who can model, describe, or provide feedback – shapes the learning

process. Reinforcements from the environment and the nature of feedback from

significant others can stimulate or undermine greater effort.


Learning is a process of drawing connections between what is already known or

understood and new information. Thus, prior knowledge is important to the learning

process. People make connections and draw conclusions based on a sense of what they

already know and have experienced. Learning can be viewed, in part, as a matter of

encoding and storing information in memory, processing, categorizing and clustering

material, and later retrieving this information to be applied at the appropriate times and

situations. For learning to occur, facts, concepts and ideas must also be stored, connected

to other facts, concepts, and ideas, and built upon. Knowing in advance what the big

ideas are and how they relate to each other conceptually helps learners to make sense of

information and to remember and use it more flexibly.


The associations people make and understandings they develop are dependent

upon and influenced by what is valued and what is experienced at home, in the

community, and within the classroom learning environment. Culture influences the

knowledge and experiences people bring to the classroom, the ways in which they

communicate, the expectations that have for how learning will occur, and the ideas they

have about what is worth learning. The social context created within the classroom—the

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 12

ways in which communication, teachers’ and students’ roles, and opportunities for

collaboration are structured—all influence the learner’s understanding and construction

of knowledge. The compatibility between cultural contexts, tasks, and modes of

communication inside and outside of school influence the ease with which learners will

be able to find and make connections to their experience, and hence to make sense of

school-based learning experiences,


Identifying individual differences among learners can help us to better understand

and guide the learning process. People can be seen as possessing a number of

intelligences beyond the linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities typically

emphasized in schools. Learners also possess inter- and intrapersonal intelligences,

musical, kinesthetic, and spatial abilities. We also know that individual learners process

information differently while they are reading or making mathematical calculations, for

example. Learners have processing differences that influence how they handle visual,

aural, or kinesthetic information. Information that is available through learning

modalities or pathways that are better developed will be easier to understand and use.


Both thoughts and emotions shape the learning process. Metacognitive skills

—being able to think about and monitor one’s own thinking — enable learners to manage

their learning process, to learn difficult new concepts, and to problem-solve effectively.

Good metacognitive thinkers are also good intentional learners; they are able to redirect

the normal frustration that occurs when things are confusing or not initially productive

into further learning. Emotions also play a role; students who are fearful, anxious,

depressed, or distracted cannot focus to process information. Positive emotions –

feelings of confidence and willingness to exert effort – help students to think, perform a

learning task, and process new knowledge. Emotional intelligence – the ability to

recognize and manage one’s emotions, to solve conflicts, to motivate oneself, and to

persevere in the face of difficulty – can also be taught.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 13


Teachers can be more effective in their work if they teach in ways that are

compatible with the natural processes of learning. How can what we know about

learning help us to think about effective teaching? What is the teacher’s role in student

learning? The following points are emphasized throughout the series:


Effective teachers can organize the environment to provide students with active,

hands-on learning and authentic tasks and audiences. Opportunities for “active” learning

experiences, in which students are asked to use ideas by writing and talking about them,

creating models and demonstrations, applying these ideas to more complex problems, and

constructing projects that require the integration of many ideas, have been found to

promote deeper learning, especially when they are combined with reflective learning

experiences. Teachers can develop learning activities with real purposes, audiences, and

activity structures that mirror those outside of school settings. By encouraging discourse

among students about ideas, concepts, and relationships they can create environments

where the teacher is not the only source of knowledge. Teachers can also organize

reflection on activity and analysis of ideas and products that enables learners to transform

activity into broader understandings.


Teachers can organize information in the environment by taking into account how

people process information, and by linking learning to prior experience and prior

knowledge. Learning with understanding is more likely to occur when students are

provided with categories of understanding, or concepts, as opposed to an unrelated body

of facts. By using advance organizers, teachers can help students structure knowledge and

information so that the big ideas within a content area are clear. With an understanding of

the structure of the discipline they are teaching, teachers can provide cognitive maps of

the terrain to be learned, along with content-specific strategies, examples, analogies, and

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 14

diagrams to make material meaningful to students and to address common

misconceptions. They can also teach students how to think about and monitor their own

learning and performance by providing opportunities to practice metacognitive strategies.

Teachers can foster students’ understanding and capacity to undertake complex

performances by organizing a systematic process of modeling and demonstrating how

experts approach the task, scaffolding steps in the learning process, coaching learners,

and providing feedback. These roles and strategies can change over time in response to

how learners develop and change.


Much learning occurs in groups and among individuals engaged in tasks together.

Students learn from each other and from adults outside the school as well as from their

classroom teachers. Effective teachers organize learning opportunities in social contexts

by enabling students to learn together. Teachers can create a sense of community within

their classrooms by developing clear norms for behavior, creating an emotionally safe

environment, encouraging collaborative learning, and having students teach students.

This includes identifying roles for students as they interact with one another in group

tasks, pairs, and other arrangements, fostering student discourse, and managing the

complexities of multiple ongoing tasks and activities.

Teachers can capitalize upon the diversity within their classes by helping students

make connections between their home experiences and school experiences, enabling

them to teach each other about their experiences (thus expanding each student’s

knowledge base), and by providing choices for how to pursue learning activities in ways

that work best for them.

Teachers can also organize adults in their environments to improve learning by

creating more coherent curriculum across grade levels and classrooms, by sharing

knowledge with one another to increase everyone’s teaching repertoire and curriculum

choices, and by collaborating with colleagues to encourage learning for understanding

throughout their schools.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 15


The challenge of teaching may be viewed as the creation of bridges between the

knowledge embodied in the subject matter, on the one hand, and the minds and motives

of students, on the other hand. This course is designed to bridge the contested territory

between theory and practice, where both perspectives are needed but neither can suffice.

At a theoretical level, this course includes the contributions of many disciplines, such as

psychology, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy. At a practical level no

two situations are quite comparable. Learning to teach thus demands that we weave

delicate webs of the general and the particular, finding ways to enrich our personal

experiences through studying the experiences of others, seeking theoretical insights that

give meaning to what we do, or raising skeptical questions about what we think we know

(PLT syllabus, 2001).


A theory is a way of thinking and a model of how things work, how principles are

related, and what causes things to work together. Learning theories address key

questions, for example, how does learning happen? How does motivation occur? What

influences students’ development? A theory is not just an idea. It’s an idea that is a

coherent explanation of a set of relationships that has been tested with lots of research. If

the idea survives rigorous testing, that theory is said to have empirical grounding.

A theory is developed from practical experience as well as research. Any given

theory is usually about one aspect of the learning process. For example, Piaget looked at

the stages of cognitive development. He watched his own children and carefully observed

how they learned things and what they could do. From his observations, he created an

explanation or a theory of the different stages of development. Piaget’s stage theory of

cognitive development has been tested in thousands of subsequent studies.

A theory is modified over time based on the insights of practitioners as well as the

work of researchers. Theories also intersect with each other. Other theorists have tested

Piaget’s ideas by examining his developmental stage theory from many different angles.

There is a lot of support for the theory that children progress sequentially from one

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 16

cognitive stage to another. However, some have challenged Piaget’s methods and the

limitations that result from studying a only small number of children. Others have

critiqued the fact that he didn’t take into account the impact of the learning environment,

the individuals’ motivation, and the nature of the social interactions involved in his work.

Vygotsky, who was a secondary school teacher as well as a researcher, noticed aspects of

his students’ learning that caused him to develop additional theoretical ideas that could be

evaluated and tested by others. Vygotsky and other theorists have built upon Piaget’s

theories by taking into account the larger social context of the learning process.

Theories are interconnected. Various theories describe different, interrelated

parts of a more comprehensive learning process. Below is a visual that illustrates some

of the ways in which learning theories are related, and how the chapters and video

vignettes in this course are intended to form a more connected whole.


The Learner

The Subject The Environment

Mind and


Emotions Multiple



and Culture













of KnowledgeTransfer of



#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 17


To apply learning theories to instructional practices, we need to understand them

as principles that have been tested and that have some power to explain how things work

across different situations and contexts. These theories can give us some consistent ways

of looking at classroom practice and some rational explanations for what occurs.

However, the events in classrooms are influenced by many different variables, and no

single theory explains how they will all come together under different circumstances.

The teacher has a complicated job. She has to consider the various sources of knowledge

and theory that exist, take into account the very specific classroom situation and students

she is facing, and determine when and how theory can inform her practice.

Teachers in the classroom experience what Dan Lortie (1975) called the “multi-

dimensionality and simultaneity of teaching.” Every student, for instance, brings his/her

idiosyncratic, individual unique challenges, personality, and ability to the classroom. As

a teacher you experience your students’ individual differences. Even if there are some

similarities in the developmental processes experienced by 7-year olds, or some

commonalities in how high school students process information, every classroom, school

year, and set of curricular demands is distinct and unique in certain ways. Teachers need

to acknowledge these differences and build on students’ prior knowledge, languages, and

cultures if the teacher is to build a bridge from where students start to the curriculum

goals schools would like them to reach. The importance of these differences and means

of addressing them are informed by an understanding of sociocultural and other learning

theories (Oakes & Lipton, 1999:370).

For these reasons there is not a one-to-one correspondence between theory and

practice. Integrating theory into practice involves an iterative process of developing a

deep understanding of how people learn and what influences motivation, what influences

development, what counts in the social context, and how family and culture and teaching

all make a difference. For teachers, theory provides some guidance in making decisions

about curriculum and teaching strategies. Perhaps more important, it supports some

sensitivities that enable a teacher to ask useful questions about what may be going on

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 18

with his students and some indications about hypotheses that might be helpful in solving

particular problems. Theory doesn’t give teachers a simple, direct answer to Johnny’s

problem or a recipe for how to teach on Monday. It provides some lenses and some

insights to help a teacher determine what could be going on with Johnny and how the

teacher might plan the next lesson, given what the field has learned about learning and

teaching and what she knows about her own teaching context. What the teacher does is

to dip into a deep basket of intersecting theories, research, and personal as well as

professional knowledge and decide how they come together for his or her classroom.


The teacher has to do his or her own research as well. Good teachers have a kind

of “personal practical knowledge” that enables them to understand what’s going on with

their students. By watching students, observing them in action, examining their work,

and talking and listening to them, teachers learn about what makes their students “tick” as

learners. This knowledge has to be merged with other knowledge about learning and

learners in general and in different contexts.

Piaget’s research will not tell a teacher what to do exactly with Samantha who has

not yet learned to read by the age of seven. Piaget’s work may suggest that most children

are ready to read by the age of seven and that the teacher should look into the matter

further to see what else may be worth knowing. Other theorists will tell the teacher that

there may be aspects of the teaching that Samantha has experienced, or the language

background that she has had access to, or the motivational elements or social elements

that influence her learning that are influencing her process of learning to read. They may

enable the teacher to assess learning difficulties and they may suggest specific teaching

strategies for working with Samantha. The teacher will take into account a wide range of

learning theories to develop the right approach for teaching Samantha how to read.

The teacher has the job of bringing together what the profession, researchers, and

other professionals have come to know about what matters and what works under

different situations. The teacher has to apply theories judiciously with careful decision-

making, informed by her own inquiry, and relying on her own understanding of the

situation at hand. Marilyn Cochran-Smith & Susan Lytle (2001), Lee Shulman (1993),

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 19

Gordon Wells (1994), and others describe “teacher-researchers” as both individual

teachers who use inquiry to make sense of their own practice, and “communities of

scholars” working together to create new “practice-based knowledge” about learning and


In these ways, the teacher is also a theorist. Roland Barth (1990) suggests that all

teachers and principals work from an “organizing principle” or “framework; they are

“theory makers” and they are “theory consumers” (p.107). The teacher is theorizing

about what is going on in the social dynamics of the classroom and what is going on with

individual children and their particular learning process. The body of work contributed by

researchers gives them more tools and resources to do this classroom theorizing and




• How have philosophers, psychologists, and educators thought about the learning

process over the course of history?

• What is the relationship between learning theory and teaching practice?


1. Acquaint students with the central debates and major concepts in the history of

learning theory

2. Introduce students to the main themes of the course and key ideas about the learning

process and teacher assisted learning

3. Discuss the relationship between theory and practice


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind,

experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Chapter 1: Learning: From speculation to science

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 20

Oakes, J. & Lipton, M. (1999). Teaching to change the world. New York, NY:

McGraw-Hill College.

Chapter 2: Traditional learning theories: Transmission, training, and IQ (pp. 39-


Chapter 3: Contemporary learning theories


Dewey, J. (1968, [ 1900] ). The school and society. Chicago: Uni ver si ty of Chicago Pr ess.



Barth, R. (1990). Improving schools from within: Teachers, parents, and principals can

make the difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. (2001). Beyond certainty: taking an inquiry stance on

practice. In Lieberman, A. & Miller, L. (Eds.). Teachers caught in the action:

Professional development that matters. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). The Experience of education. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster

Hergenhahn, B.R. (1976). An Introduction of theories of learning. Englewood Cliffs,

Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Hilgard, E.R. & Bower, G.H. (1975). Theories of learning. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-

Hall, Inc.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A Sociological study. Chicago, IL: University of

Chicago Press

Monroe, P. (1925). A Text-book in the history of education. New York, NY:

MacMillan Company.

Oakes, J. & Lipton, M. (1999). Teaching to change the world. New York, NY:

McGraw-Hill College.

Rousseau, J.J. (2000). Emile. London, UK: Everyman.

#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 21

Schunk, D. H. (1996). Learning theories. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Shulman, L. (Nov./Dec.,1993). Teaching as community property: Putting an end to

pedagogical solitude. Change. P. 6-7.

Wells, G. (1994). Changing schools from within: Creating communities of inquiry.

Portsmouth, N.H., Heinemann

Wirth, A. (1966). John Dewey as educator. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons


Cole, M. & Wertsch, J. (1996). Beyond the individual-social antimony in discussions of

Piaget and Vygotsky. Retrieved September 6, 2001, Massey University , New

Zealand, The Virtual Faculty Web site:


Funderstanding (1998-2001). About learning. Retrieved September 6, 2001, from


Kurzweil, R. (1996) The Age of intelligent machines “Chronology”. Retrieved September

6, 2001 from http://www.kurzweiltech.com/mchron.htm

Maria Montessori: A brief biography. Retrieved September 6, 2001, from


Learning theories and models. Retrieved September 6, 2001, from



Center for Dewey Studies


Based at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, this center provides extensive

information and history about John Dewey’s life and research. Discussion groups and

links are included.

Explorations in learning and instruction: The Theory into Practice Database


#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 22

Entries from the learning theory sections of the online JSU Encyclopedia of Psychology.

Organized by theories, domains, and concepts. Provides resources to other web sites.

About Learning


This site provides an overview of major learning theories from Funderstanding. Includes

information about constructivism, behaviorism, Piaget, Vygotsky, and others.

Issues and debates: Educational theory links


A collection of links to web sites that cover a number of topics in educational theory and

history from Interactive Instructional Material Research and Resources.

The School Improvements Program (SIP)



Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, SIP consists of a number of

freestanding organizations that support education reform.


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