Learning Theories All Teachers Should Know

by TeachThought Staff

Learning theory–and the research that goes into it–is a topic seen frequently in universities and teaching programs, then less frequently after once teachers begin practicing in the classroom.

Why this is true is complicated. (If you’re teaching, you may have more pressing concerns than being able to define obscure learning theories which don’t seem to have a place or role in what you’re teaching tomorrow.) We thought it might be useful to have a brief overview of many of the most important learning theories teachers should know in a single graphic, which is why we were excited to find Richard Millwood‘s excellent graphic.

Millwood is Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, Director of Core Education UK. (You can read his blog here.) While the graphic is necessarily brief (and has a few typos), we found it did a great job of bringing together a lot of the most critical–and common–learning theories in one place.

If you get nothing else from a post like this, perhaps the most critical takeaway is that there are dozens of theories that underpin what and how you teach already and that the better you understand them, the better chance you’ll have to master your current approach and begin to bring new possibilities into your classroom as your ‘teaching brain’ makes room for this kind of thinking.

Some definitions were a bit too brief, so I added language for clarity or depth (though a few we need to go back and further deepen and explain, like ‘Interpersonal Relations.)

For related reading, see our Dictionary for 21st-Century Teachers.

A Visual Summary: 32 Learning Theories Every Teacher Should Know

1. Instructivism

The premise behind ‘Instructivism’ is that teachers take on a central role in the learning process and transfer that knowledge directly to the students.

See also Transfer and Direct Instruction.

2. Multiple Intelligences

We have several different ways of learning and processing information, but these methods are relatively independent of one another: leading multiple intelligences as opposed to a (single) ‘general intelligence) factor among correlated abilities.

3. Experiential Learning

Knowledge is continuously gained through both personal and environmental experiences. The learner must be able to reflect on the experience, use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience, and make decisions and solve problems to use the ideas gained from the experience.

4. Learning Styles

Optimal learning demands that students receive instruction tailored to their learning styles. (And stop learning styles don’t work.)

5. De-schooling Society

School is damaging to education: “The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something (well) or new.”

6. Homeschooling

Homeschooling: Characterized primarily by the family being responsible for the child’s ‘education.’ There’s a spectrum of approaches available from reproducing school at home, to project-based learning in authentic and self-actuated and organized learning environments, to complete ‘unschooling.’

7. Unschooling

The underlying assumption of Unschooling is that children will learn naturally if given the freedom to follow their own interests and a rich assortment of resources.

8. Critical Pedagogy

An educational movement guided by passion and principle to help students develop a consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action.

9. Interpersonal Relations

Teacher types: lion-tamer, entertainer, and new romantic–the problem of self-judgment in assessment

10. Montessori Education

Montessori Principles:

Mixed-age classrooms, with classrooms for children aged 2.5 or 3 years old to 6 years old.

Student choice of activity within a prescribed range of options

Uninterrupted blocks of work time

A ‘Constructivist’ or ‘discovery’ model where students learn concepts from working with materials rather than by direct instruction

11. Scientific Pedagogy

Education-based science that modifies and improves the individual

12. Experiential Education

The process that occurs between the teacher and student infuses direct experience with the learning environment and content.

13. Constructionism

The underlying principle of Constructionism as a learning theory is that the learner is not a passive ‘vessel,’ but must actively participate in their own learning. It requires learners to build on existing knowledge when acquiring new knowledge.

14. Social Constructivism

A learning theory founded on the idea that meaning is both built and socially negotiated through interactions with others.

15. Constructivism: Radical Constructivism

Knowledge as mental representation:

1a. Knowledge is not passively received  either through the senses or by way of communication;

1b. Knowledge is actively built up by the cognizing subject;

2a. The function of cognition is adaptive, in the biological sense of the term, tending towards fit or viability;

2b. Cognition serves the subject’s organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of objective ontological reality.

16. Project-Based Learning

A framework for unifying otherwise disparate ‘strands’ of teaching and learning. In ‘PBL,’ students learn through the design, completion (and often ongoing iteration) of ‘projects.’ One way to think of PBL is in contrast to traditional ‘units’ of ‘instruction.’

17. Genetic Epistemology

A human being develops cognitively from birth throughout his or her life through four primary stages of development; sensorimotor (0-2), preoperational (2-7), concrete operational (7-11), and formal operational (11+). Assimilation (occurs through the) incorporation of new experiences into existing mental schema; accommodation changes mental schema.

18. Zone of Proximal Development

The area of capabilities that learners can exhibit with the support from a teacher.

19. Scaffolding

Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process, which is tailored to the needs of the student with the intention of helping the student achieve his/her learning goals.

See also The Gradual Release of Responsibility.

20. Discovery Learning

Learners obtain knowledge by forming and testing hypotheses.

21. Meaningful Learning

New knowledge acquired is related with/to previous knowledge.

22. Mastery Learning

In Mastery Learning, ‘the students are helped to master each learning unit before proceeding to a more advanced learning task.”

23. Educational Objectives

Taxonomy of learning objectives that educators set for students in three ‘domains’: Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor. Learning at the higher levels is dependent on achieving lower levels (first). Designed to motivate educators to focus on all three domains, creating a more holistic form of education.

24. Radical Behaviorism

Learning as a process of forming associations between stimuli in the environment and the corresponding responses of the individual. Reinforcement strengthens responses and increases the likelihood of another occurrence when the stimulus is present again.

25. Communities of Practice

Groups of people who share a concern of a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

26. Situated Learning

According to Northern Illinois University, Situated Learning is “an instructional approach developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in the early 1990s, and follows the work of Dewey, Vygotsky, and others (Clancey, 1995) who claim that students are more inclined to learn by actively participating in the learning experience. Situated learning essentially is a matter of creating meaning from the real activities of daily living (Stein, 1998, para. 2) where learning occurs relative to the teaching environment.”

27. Conversation Theory

A cybernetic and dialectic framework that offers a scientific theory to explain how interactions lead to ‘knowing.’

28. Competency-Based Learning

Competency-Based Learning is an approach to learning that focuses on actual, observable skills (or ‘competencies’) rather than a grasp of concepts as measured by traditional academic assessments. Though mastering competencies obviously requires understanding of concepts, it is not driven towards that end.

29. Problem-Based Learning

An approach to learning where the solving or important ‘problems,’ often through inquiry and Project-Based Learning catalyzes the learning experience.

30. Place-Based Education

The emphasis of a meaningful ‘place’ (that is, one meaningful to the learner) in the circumstance of learning.

31. Question-Based Learning

A formal process of inquiry where questions are formed then improved based on the revelation of relevant, significant, and accurate data.

See also, the Question Formation Technique.

32. Learning Blends/Combination Learning

An alternative to traditional academic ‘lessons,’ combination learning blends are combinations of learning ingredients (e.g., topic, audience, outcome, apps,

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