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Learning Theories and Theorists

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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For more information on the learning theorists mentioned here and many others that are not, the Theories into Practice database developed by Greg Kearsley and now integrated into www.instructionaldesign.orgis an excellent resource.


The posting below profiles several of the key learning theories and their theorists that inform much of our current teaching and learning.  It is from Chapter 1 – Teaching Online: The Big Picture,in the book The Online Teaching Survival Guid:Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tip,Second Edition, by Judith V. Boettcher,and Rita-Marie Conrad.  Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. SanFrancisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Learning Theories and Theorists


The principles, practices, and tips in this book are grounded in learning theory, principles, and research. More specifically, the tips in this book build extensively on constructivism, the philosophy that learners actively construct and create their personalized knowledge structures from the interaction of three inputs: what they already know; what they pay attention to in their environment, including language, people, and images; and what they process deeply. The constructivism philosophy is the foundation of how we view learning and how our minds work. Closely related to constructivism is the social theory of learning, which emphasizes the role of the context or environment of learning. 

Figure 1.1. presents a few of the more significant theories and theorists that inspired this integrated view of constructivism and social (situated) learning. These sketches of key learning theorists are in no particular order other than generally chronological. We have also attempted to show relationships and linkages among these theorists who are so important to the tips. There are many other truly significant theorists and theories, but all cannot be profiled in this chapter. However, many of these others will be mentioned in the principles, practices, and tips. 

For more information on the learning theorists mentioned here and many others that are not, the Theories into Practice database developed by Greg Kearsley and now integrated into www.instructionaldesign.orgis an excellent resource. This database contains descriptions of over 50 theories relevant to human learning and instruction, descriptions of learning concepts, and important domains of learning. 

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934): Theory of Social Development

Vygotsky is a twentieth-century Russian psychologist, linguist, and philosopher whose work became accessible in the mid-1960s when it was translated into English. His theory is usually referred to as a social development theory because a major theme in his theoretical framework is that social interaction plays an essential role in the development of cognition. His work also included significant investigations into the processes of concept acquisition that led to a study of problem-solving strategies. Perhaps his best-known concept is the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which defines for each individual the state of readiness for learning. The formal definition of the zone is “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotzky, 1978, p. 86). It is always interesting to think about the similarities of Vygotsky’s thinking with his contemporaries, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and John Dewey, the giant of American psychological thought (whose profiles follow). The writings of van der Veer (1996) suggest that Vygotsky and Piaget definitely were in contact with each other, but that language and geography[E4] barriers prevented regular contact to resolve differing perspectives. What is worth focusing on, we believe, are their shared core concepts of the staging of learning and the importance of context in learning. 

Figure 1.1. Influential Learning Theorists 


John Dewey (1859-1952): Experiential Learning 

John Dewey, an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, was a major proponent of experiential learning in the first half of the twentieth century. He foresaw an active and collaborative student experience that, almost a hundred years later, we finally have the tools and shared collective acceptance to implement. Dewey emphasized the unique and individualized nature of interaction in the learning experience. He believed, as do many constructivist theorists, that learners construct new knowledge based on previous knowledge and that experiences are unique to each learner. Dewey promoted the active participation of the learner in the learning environment, and he championed the role of an instructor as a facilitator or mentor. 

Dewey focused his ideas on developing what he believed to be the aims of education: the development of reflective, creative, responsible thought. In his 1933 treatise, How We Think, Dewey said, “We state emphatically that, upon its intellectual side, education consists of the formation of wide-awake, careful, thorough habits of thinking” (p. 78). This single sentence, which captures the essence of Dewey’s thinking, sets forth one of the ultimate goals of education. Another key concept in Dewey’s work is that interaction and continuity are the two primary characteristics of effective teaching and learning experiences. The characteristic of interaction reinforces the importance of dialogue and communication and engagement in learning; the characteristic of continuity reinforces the perspective that the individual learner must be viewed as the key design element. 

Jean Piaget (1896-1980): Theory of Genetic Epistemology or Origins of Thinking 

A twentieth-century Swiss psychologist and natural scientist, Piaget is best known for his stage theory of child development, beginning with the sensorimotor stage (0 to 2 years), preoperational thinking (3 to 7 years), concrete operations (8 to 11 years), culminating in abstract thinking in the formal operations stage (ages 12 to 15 years). Piaget called his general theoretical framework “genetic epistemology” because he was primarily interested in how cognitive knowledge, including moral reasoning, develops in humans. In his view, cognitive development consists of a constant effort to adapt to the environment in terms of the processes of assimilation (adding information to existing knowledge structure) and accommodation (modifying a knowledge structure to accommodate new information). In this sense, Piaget’s theory is similar in nature to the constructivist perspectives of Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner (whose profile follows), including an emphasis on context and environment. Another concept central to Piaget’s theory is cognitive structures, which he defined as patterns of physical or mental action that underlie specific acts of intelligence and correspond to stages of child development. These cognitive structures are similar to the schemas of Roger Schank and the concepts of mental models (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Piaget’s theories have been used extensively in the development of logic and math programs, providing a planned sequence or spiraling of instruction, from simple to more complex. Seymour Papert, the MIT mathematician who developed the Logo programming language for children, worked with Piaget in the 1950s and 1960s. Papert expanded on Piaget’s thinking with a focus on how children build knowledge structures through a progressive internalization of actions, or making things. 


Jerome Bruner (1915-2016): Constructivism 

Jerome Bruner, an American educational psychologist, was a senior research fellow at the New York University School of Law. As a constructivist, Bruner’s work incorporates strong support for discovery learning. He believes that mastery of the fundamental ideas of a field involves not only the grasping of general principles, but also the development of an attitude toward learning and inquiry, toward guessing and hunches, toward the possibility of solving problems on one’s own (Bruner, 1963). As a constructivist, Bruner emphasizes the active process of discovery and trial and error through which a student can uncover the interrelationships of concepts and ideas (Clabaugh, 2009). 

One of Bruner’s best-known statements and one of my favorites is that any subject can be taught to any child at any stage of development if it is presented in the proper manner (Bruner, 1963). 

Another oft-used quote is about the usefulness of knowledge. Bruner (1963) stated, “The first object of any act of learning, over and beyond the pleasure it may give, is that it should serve us in the future. Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us later to go further more easily” (p. 17). The focus of this thought is twofold. First, Bruner emphasizes that learning should be purposeful: for example, developing skills to serve us in the future. Second, every time we learn something, we add links or nodes to a cognitive structure on which we can build and link to later; as we grow these connections and nodes, we are able to learn more and to learn faster. In this view, the more one knows, the more one can know, and know quickly. Also attributed to Bruner is the concept of scaffolding. He observes that it takes a very skilled teacher to structure a learning experience so that the learner discovers new knowledge on his own. This means “scaffolding the task in such a way that assures that only those parts of the task within the child’s reach are left unresolved, and knowing what elements of a solution the child will recognize though he cannot yet perform them” (p. xiv of 1977 edition of The Process of Education). This statement reiterates the importance of design for successful learning experiences. 

Bruner’s belief can be summarized as follows: “Learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based on current/past knowledge.”

John Seely Brown (1940--): Cognitive Apprenticeship 

John Seely Brown is best known as the chief scientist at the Xerox Corporation; he directed the company’s Palo Alto Research Center, known as PARC, for twelve years, up to 2000. He is now a visiting scholar and advisor to the provost at the University of Southern California and independent cochairman of Deloitte Center for the Edge. As early as 1991, in a Harvard Business Review article, Brown envisioned how “advanced multi-media information systems” would make it possible to plug into a “collective social mind” (Brown, 1977), laying the groundwork for our thinking about communities in online learning. Brown explored similar ideas about “learning communities capable of generating, sharing, and deploying highly esoteric knowledge” (p. 127) in The Social Life of Information, the book he coauthored with University of California, Berkeley researcher Paul Duguid in 2000. His work on cognitive apprenticeships (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991) and learning environments (Brown, 2006) examines how technologies can support problem solving and hands-on learning. A recent article explores how activities within virtual worlds create a “sense of shared space and co-presence which make real-time coordination and interaction not only possible, but a necessary part of the world” (Thomas & Brown, 2009, p. 37). Brown’s latest initiative focuses on the maker movement, which leverages technology and the world economy for making anything and everything. What is a maker? “Broadly, a maker is someone who derives identity and meaning from the act of creation” (Hagel, Brown, & Kulasooriya, 2014, p. 3). 

Our students are maturing in the midst of this wave of making; if we can find ways to incorporate “making” into our courses, students will engage with energy and enthusiasm.

Roger Schank (1946--): Schema Theory 

Roger Schank was one of the influential early contributors to artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology in the 1970s and 1980s and continues as a major contributor to learning theory and the building of virtual learning environments. His concepts of case-based reasoning and dynamic memory were significant contributions to these fields. The central focus of Schank’s work has been the structure of knowledge, especially in the context of language understanding. He is well known for his work on schema theory – the concepts of scripts, plans, and themes to handle story-level understanding (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Schema theory is similar to the concept of mental models; it is another way of describing knowledge structures and a way of predicting and inferring information from incomplete information. His work in this area extended into developing programs to enable computers to understand and predict what might be coming next. 

Schank is now working to design and implement learning-by-doing, story-centered curricula in schools, universities, and corporations. Why is Schank’s work important to learning tips? His work encourages categorizing content knowledge into patterns, relationships, and dependencies. If we identify patterns and relationships, our knowledge structures will be more useful and memorable, and we will be able to see more quickly and clearly the application of knowledge in new situations. 

Albert Bandura (1925--): Social Learning Theory 

Albert Bandura is best known as the psychologist responsible for learning theories that transition behaviorism and observational learning, also referred to as social learning theory. While behaviorism depends on learning theories of reward and punishment, Bandura researched the power of observational learning, that children could learn from simple observation of others. He is also known for the construct of self-efficacy, the belief in oneself to be able to take appropriate actions. 

What does his work contribute to learning design? Observational learning theory suggests the use of models, case studies, examples, and videos of behaviors and actions. The concept of self-efficacy suggests that learning is multidimensional – not just cognitive, but also attitudinal – foreshadowing the emotional intelligence focus of Daniel Goleman (see later profile). 

Jean Lave (1939--): Situated Learning Theory 

Jean Lave, University of California, Berkeley, is a social anthropologist whose learning theories emphasize the role of the context in which learning occurs. Her situated learning theory suggests that classroom activities that are abstract and lack context are not effective. Situated learning theory is similar to social learning theory, which describes learning as a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. Her theories may go to the extreme of the emphasis on social learning, as she says, “participation in everyday life may be thought of as the process of changing understanding in practice, that is, as learning” (Lave, 2009, p. 201). 

What does her work contribute to learning design? Situated learning theory includes elements of observation, extraction of ideas, decision-making, and reflection. This view of learning sees social interaction as a critical component encouraging learners to become a community of learners espousing certain beliefs and behaviors. 

K. Anders Ericsson (1946--): Expert Performance Theory

K. Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist widely recognized for his theoretical and experimental research on expertise. One of his most well-known contributions is the framework for development of expertise and the need for “deliberate practice” (Ericsson, 2000). Deliberate practice is more than simply practicing a skill over and over. In Ericsson’s words, deliberate practice “entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills. This type of practice usually requires a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice, but also to help you learn to coach yourself” (Ericsson, Prietula, & Cokely, 2007, p. 2). 

What does this mean for designing learning? It suggests the need for designing monitored practice into varied and multiple contexts to develop expertise. It also suggests the use of many examples across and within a discipline to provide a range of experiences with evaluative activities. 

Ellen Langer (1947--): Theory of Mindful Learning 

Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has applied the concept of mindfulness to any situation requiring decision-making. She defines mindfulness as having three characteristics: continually creating new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective (Langer, 1997, p. 4). Mindfulness might be a close relation to critical thinking, encouraging teaching skills and facts set within multiple different contexts. 

What does this mean for designing learning? Mindful learning means engaging thoughtfully with the content and questioning positions, values, and decisions. One strategy to use is to encourage noticing the novel within the familiar, and the familiar within the novel. The value of mindfulness also argues for making time for thoughtful and questioning reflections. 

Daniel Goleman (1947--): Theory of Emotional Intelligence 

Daniel Goleman is the author of a 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,that caused a rethinking of the skills and traits needed for effective leadership and management. Goleman’s research found that the qualities usually associated with effective leadership – such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision – were insufficient. Emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill, is also needed. 

What does this mean for designing learning? It suggests that we include dimensions of feeling and attitude in learning experiences. The buzz around this “new” topic encourages a look back to the 1973 affective domain work of Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia, corresponding to the much more familiar Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy. 


Brown, J.S. (2006). New learning environments for the 21stcentury: Exploring the edge. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 38(5), 18-24. Retrieved from

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42. Retrieved from

Bruner, J.S. (1963). The process of education.New York, NY: Vintage Books. 

Clabaugh, G.K. (2009). Jerome Bruner’s educational theory. Retrieved from

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator.Retrieved from

Ericsson, K.A. (2000). Expert performance and deliberate practice: An updated excerpt from Ericsson. Retrieved from

Ericsson, K.A., Prietula, M.J., & Cokely, E.T. (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard Business Review, 114-121. Retrieved from

Hagel, J., Brown, J.S., & Kulasooriya, D. (2014). A movement in the making (pp.24). Retrieved from

Langer, E.J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 

Lave, J. (2009). The practice of learning. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning. (pp. 200-208). New York, NY: Routledge. 

Schank, R.C., & Abelson, R.P. (1977). Scripts, plans, goals and understanding: An inquiry into human knowledge structures (1sted.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 

Thomas, D., & Brown, J.S. (2009). Why virtual worlds can matter. International Journal of Media and Learning,1(1). Retrieved from

Van Der Veer, R. (1996). Vygotsky and Piaget: A collective monologue. Human Development (39), 237-242. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.