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Theories of Learning

This Foundational Concept can be found in the following module pages:

Sometimes it may seem that theories of learning have little to do with teaching and learning in actual classrooms. Why? So far as we can tell from history and anthropology, human beings have been (1) learning for a very long time and (2) handing down what they have learned to each subsequent generation. It's certainly been going on for thousands of years, so why bother with theories of learning?

One answer is that educators – especially those who work with children and youth in schools to help them learn – should be able to understand and explain why their methods of teaching make sense. Such explanations are theories. Of course, there isn't just one theory that explains learning. Instead, sets of related theories coalesce in theoretical traditions (also known as paradigms). The major paradigms all have some merit, and researchers have assembled empirical evidence about learning under the auspices of each of these paradigms.

For professional educators – teachers and administrators working day in and day out in schools – due diligence requires familiarity with the differing outlooks reflected in existing "theories of learning," especially those aligned with the major paradigms. These paradigms address big questions about learning:

  • What is learning?
  • How do we learn?
  • What conditions help us learn well?
  • What conditions keep us from learning well?
  • What should people do to help students learn?