- How do people learn?
- How can learning theory inform teaching practice?
- History of learning theory
– Teachers will become familiar with the central debates
and major concepts in the history of learning theory.
- Learning processes and teaching for learning
– Teachers will begin to uncover and articulate
their assumptions, understandings, and questions about how
students learn and the nature of teaching. Teachers will
become familiar with the main themes of the video course.
- Theory and practice – Teachers
will begin to consider learning theory and its role in their
How do we learn? What helps us learn? How can
teachers assist learning? In The Learning Classroom: Theory
into Practice we explore
how people learn through examples of teaching and learning
History of Learning Theory
How Philosophers Have Thought of Learning
People have been trying to understand learning for over 2,000
years. A debate on how people learn 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.
- Plato and Aristotle asked, "Is truth and
knowledge to be found within us (rationalism) or is it to
be found by using our senses to discover what is outside
of ourselves (empiricism)?"
Rationalism: Plato developed the belief that knowledge and truth
can be discovered by self-reflection. Socrates believed that
certain knowledge was only attainable through reason.
Empiricism: Aristotle suggested that we use our senses to look
for truth and knowledge in the world outside ourselves.
- Romans differed from the Greeks in their
concept of education. They felt that the purpose of education
was to develop a citizenry that could contribute to society
in a practical way.
- When the Roman Catholic Church became a strong
force in European daily life (500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.), knowledge
was transmitted from the priest to the people. The primary
conception of the purpose of education was to transmit information.
- The Renaissance (15th to the 17th
centuries) revived the Greek concept of liberal education,
which stressed education as an exploration of the arts and
- Ren? Descartes (1596 – 1704) also built upon
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.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was one
of the first philosophers to suggest that education should
be shaped to the child.
- Kant (1724 – 1804) refined and modernized
Plato's rationalist theory when he suggested that awareness
of knowledge may begin with experience, but much knowledge
exists prior to experience ("a priori" knowledge). Kant
was one of the first to recognize the cognitive processes
of the mind.
How Psychologists Have Thought of
The nineteenth century brought about the scientific study
of learning. The 20th century debate on how people
learn has focused largely on behaviorist vs. cognitive psychology.
- Edward Thorndike (1874–1949) believed that
learning was incremental and that people learned through
a trial-and-error approach.
- B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) further developed
Thorndike's behaviorist learning theory focused on stimulus
and response. He considered learning to be the production
of desired behaviors and denied any influence of mental
- 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.
- Lev 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.
Learning Theory in Practice
In the 20th century, as schooling became compulsory,
more widespread and more systematic, large-scale reforms of
practice were built upon these learning theories. The debate
sparked by 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 experience with guided opportunities
to explore, discover, construct, and create.
- John Dewey (1859 – 1952) believed that the
teacher's goal is to understand both the demands of the
discipline and the needs of the child and to provide learning
experiences to enable the student to uncover the curriculum.
- Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) introduced
a more liberated concept of early childhood education that
provided more opportunity for free expression, moving children
away from their desks, providing them with hands-on activities,
and respecting children as individuals.
- Jerome Bruner (born 1915) has 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.
Today teachers utilize a variety of classroom
practices that are based on all of these ideas of learning.
Effective teachers understand that different strategies are
useful for different kinds of learning. It is most production
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.
The Learning Process
Learning theorists have provided us with a set of ideas
about how people learn that have practical implications for
teaching. Research has found that:
- The brain plays a role in learning,
- The way the learning environment is constructed
makes a difference,
- Learning is based on the associations and
connections we make,
- Learning occurs in particular social and
cultural environments, and, finally,
- The different ways people think and feel
about their own learning affects their development as learners.
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 process of learning.
How can what we know about the learning process help us to
think about effective teaching practices? The following points
about teaching and learning are emphasized throughout the
course. Effective teaching involves:
- Organizing the environment,
- Organizing knowledge, information, and activities,
- Organizing people.
The Relation of Theory to Practice
This course addresses the relationship among three fundamental
aspects of the educational process: the subject matter of
the curriculum, the diverse capabilities of students, and
the teacher's responsibilities to design and implement instruction.
While general principles about learning can be drawn from
many disciplines–such as psychology, sociology, linguistics,
anthropology, and philosophy–at a practical level, no two
teaching situations are quite comparable. Learning to teach
thus demands that we understand both the general and the particular,
seek theoretical insights that give meaning to what we do,
and raise skeptical questions about what we think we know.
Definition of a Theory
A theory is both an explanation and a model of how
things work. Learning theories attempt to answer key questions:
- How does learning happen?
- What influences students' development?
- What motivates students to learn?
A theory is not just an idea. It is an idea
that explains a set of relationships that can be tested. If
the idea is supported through rigorous research, that theory
is said to have empirical grounding.
- A theory is developed from research as well
as practical experience and systematic observation.
- A theory is modified overtime on the basis
of practioners' insights as well as the work of researchers.
- Theories are interconnected.
Applying Theory to Practice
To apply learning theories to instructional practices, we
need to understand theories as principles that have been tested
and that have some power to explain how things work across
different situations and contexts. There is, however, no one-to-one
correspondence between theory and practice. Integrating theory
and practice is a process of connecting what teachers know
about their own students with what they know about learning,
motivation, development, cultures, and social contexts, as
well as teaching. Excellent teachers use their storehouse
of intersecting theories, research, and personal as well as
professional knowledge to solve problems of practice that
emerge in the classroom.
The Teacher as a Theorist
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 must apply theories judiciously using
careful decision making informed by her own inquiry and her
own understanding of the situation at hand. The theories illustrated
in this course represent a sampling of what we know about
learning theory today, which is constantly evolving. Teachers
play an important role in building on and expanding what we
know about how people learn.
Back to the top
Return to Support
Materials for Session 1.