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
EPISODE #1 INTRODUCTION CHAPTER
HOW PEOPLE LEARN:
INTRODUCTION TO LEARNING THEORIES
Developed by Linda-Darling Hammond,
Kim Austin, Suzanne Orcutt, and
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
EPISODE #1: INTRODUCTION CHAPTER
HOW PEOPLE LEARN: INTRODUCTION TO LEARNING THEORIES
I. UNIT OVERVIEW
HISTORY OF LEARNING THEORY
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
PHILOSOPHY-BASED LEARNING THEORY
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).
PSYCHOLOGY-BASED LEARNING THEORY
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.
PROGRESSIVE LEARNING THEORY
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.
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THE LEARNING PROCESS
“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
THE BRAIN PLAYS A ROLE
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
THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT MAKES A DIFFERENCE
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 BASED ON ASSOCIATIONS
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.
LEARNING OCCURS IN CULTURAL AND SOCIAL CONTEXTS
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,
PEOPLE LEARN IN DIFFERENT WAYS
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.
PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THEIR OWN LEARNING, AND THEIR FEELINGS MATTER
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
WHAT TEACHERS CAN DO TO ASSIST LEARNING
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:
TEACHING IS A PROCESS OF ORGANIZING THE ENVIRONMENT
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.
TEACHING IS A PROCESS OF ORGANIZING KNOWLEDGE, INFORMATION, AND ACTIVITIES
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.
TEACHING IS A PROCESS OF ORGANIZING PEOPLE
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 RELATION OF THEORY TO PRACTICE
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).
DEFINITION OF A THEORY
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 Subject The Environment
of KnowledgeTransfer of
#1 Introduction – How people learn p. 17
APPLYING THEORY TO PRACTICE
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 IS ALSO A THEORIST
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
II. UNIT SYLLABUS
• 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
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:
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.
III. ACTIVITIES AND ASSESSMENT
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,
Hilgard, E.R. & Bower, G.H. (1975). Theories of learning. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A Sociological study. Chicago, IL: University of
Monroe, P. (1925). A Text-book in the history of education. New York, NY:
Oakes, J. & Lipton, M. (1999). Teaching to change the world. New York, NY:
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
V. WEB SITES AND ORGANIZATIONS
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.
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.