Theories of Learning
An introduction to some
of the theoretical
background to teaching
Standards Q10 Q14
What is Learning?
• Need to adopt a definition e.g.
learning is the gaining of new
knowledge / skills.
• Teaching an attempt to facilitate
Learning is being taught
• Very popular view and underlies much
of National Curriculum.
• Behaviourist view.
• Sees learner as an empty vessel (or
tabula rasa –clean slate).
Behaviourist theories of
• Pavlov, Watson, Skinner
• observable behaviour not thinking and
• Stimulus ⇒ response ⇒ reinforcement
• Behaviour that is not reinforced is unlikely
to be repeated
Uses and Abuses of
• Programmed instruction
• But – inflexible
• Does not describe the whole learning
• Useful in lion taming!
Learning is about making
• The learner is not passive
-constructs the sense and
incorporates new knowledge into
existing structure or adapts
structure to accommodate new
• Not “modern” e.g. Socrates 470-399 BC
method of leading the learner on by
questioning. And Plutarch AD 45 “The mind
is not a vessel to be filled, but a vessel to
• Active view. Active learning also implies
active experience, use of materials and
role of play.
• The importance of play even for trainees
• Associated with ideas of conception and
• Learners need to be able to stand back
and reflect / review to be able to make
sense of experience– role of meta
cognition – thinking about thinking.
• Learners need to take charge of their own
learning. Teacher is more “the guide on
the side” than the “sage on the stage” so
the focus has to be on learning.
Children do not think like adults.
• Sensorimotor stage
• Preoperational stage
• Concrete operational stage
• Formal operational stage
• Now somewhat discreditedDevelopment leads learning v Learning
leads to development
Examples from Piaget
• Conservation of volume – which holds
Learning is socially
• Learning is building knowledge
as part of doing things with
• Think of a time when someone
has supported your learning.
• 1896 – 1934 but work published much
• ZPD Zone of Proximal Development
• "What a child can do with assistance
today she will be able to do by herself
tomorrow" (Vygotsky 1978:p87).
Spiral Curriculum-We begin with the
hypothesis that any subject can be
taught effectively in some intellectually
honest form to any child at any stage of
• Make the knowledge ready for the child
rather than waiting for the child to be
ready for the knowledge
• How we support children's growing
• Enactive - knowing how
• Symbolic learning
Knowing is a process not a
• To instruct someone... is not a matter of
getting him to commit results to mind.
Rather, it is to teach him to participate in
the process that makes possible the
establishment of knowledge. We teach a
subject not to produce little living
libraries on that subject, but rather to get
a student to think mathematically for
himself, to consider matters as an
historian does, to take part in the process
of knowledge-getting. J.Bruner..
Learning by doing
• I hear and I forget
• I see and I remember
• I do and I understand
Attributed to Confucius
What are the implications for lesson
• Statistical learning (learning correlations
e.g. baby can recognise own feet)
• Learning by imitation (e.g. Baby sticking
• Learning through analogy
• Causal learning (explanation based
Are all present in rudimentary form from
soon after birth
• cumulative learning is crucial
• Need to encounter the learning in varied
• multi-sensory approaches
• ‘novice’ system that is very responsive to
learning from errors followed by an
‘expert’ system which is more entrenched
in its learning
• motivation to learn and engagement of an
• memories that can be brought
consciously and deliberately to mind
(semantic and episodic memory)
• knowledge that is usually indexed by
changes in performance (for example
riding a bicycle)
Do Teachers Help?
• Children (and adults) construct declarative
memories, and therefore prior knowledge
and personal interpretation affect what is
• Adapting our dialogue with young children
leads to more organised and detailed
learning and memory.
• Learning in classrooms can be
enhanced by developing selfreflection and self regulation
• Recognising that you do not
understand is prerequisite of asking
From Goswami & Bryant
• Thinking, reasoning and understanding can
be enhanced by imaginative or pretend play
contexts. However, scaffolding by the
teacher is required if these are to be
• Individual differences in the ability to
benefit from instruction (the zone of
proximal development) and individual
differences between children are large in
the primary years, hence any class of
children must be treated as individuals.
Report to Cambridge
• Research Survey 2/1a: Children's
Cognitive Development and Learning
(Usha Goswami and Peter Bryant)