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Theories of Learning

Learning Theorists


Edward Thorndike

B. F. Skinner

Albert Bandura

Richard Herrnstein

Information Processing & Cognitive Psychology

Edward Tolman

Robert Gagné

Herbert A. Simon

Robert Sternberg

Individual Constructivism

Jean Piaget*

John Dewey*

George Kelly

George Posner

Social Constructivism & Situated Learning

Lev Vygotsky

Etienne Wenger

Jerome Bruner*

Ernst Von Glaserfield

Note 1. Over very long careers, Dewey, Piaget, and Bruner made significant contributions to all but behaviorist theories of learning. Their placement in the table reflects a judgment about which contribution is most significant. Note 2. Some warnings: First, the table seems to suggest a clear distinction among theories, but each theorist was original and these categories are after-the-fact creations. Tolman's work, for instance, provides a link between behaviorism and cognitivism. Furthermore, both flavors of constructivism might be seen as types of cognitivism, and they are often discussed that way. Exploring the theorists will reveal the complexity. Second, all the theorists listed are White men. Through the end of the 20th century, relatively few women and people of color had opportunities to contribute to academic disciplines.

Theories of learning aren't just interesting exercises for researchers and professors. They are useful ways to help all educators think (and learn) about instructional practices. Of course, the theories themselves do not prescribe exactly what to do in classrooms, schools, and districts. But the theories are what lie behind many of the prescriptions guiding "evidence-based" instruction. For example, the use of praise as feedback in response to a student's correct answer comes straight from behaviorism. Theories in cognitive psychology support the practice of teaching metacognitive strategies to students, while constructivist theories support the use of inquiry approaches (e.g., project-based learning).

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