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5 Educational Learning Theories

5 Theories of Educational Learning

  • Behaviorism
  • Cognitivism
  • Constructivism
  • Humanism
  • Connectivism

Many people believe that all one needs to be a good teacher is a solid foundation of knowledge in the subject or grade level and a decent ability to connect with children or adolescents. This might be true, however, great teachers also become experts at applying the educational learning theories covered in every teacher training program. Here are the five most common theories currently used by the majority of educators.

1. Behaviorism

At its core, behaviorism refers to the notion of learning to do or not do certain behaviors by way of reinforcements and punishments. This refers to both natural consequences and those implemented by another person. In the context of educational learning, teachers use behaviorism in the form of grades, classroom behavior economies, detentions, time-outs, recommendation letters, and parent-teacher conferences, just to name a few. The specific consequences are determined by the age of the students. Behaviorism involves learning how to most effectively apply and help students appreciate internal consequences, such as pride in one’s work.

2. Cognitivism

Cognition refers to the human processes of understanding. It is grounded in the work of Jean Piaget, who developed a theory of cognitive development throughout the lifespan. This theory involves four stages of cognitive development including sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, formal operations. The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth to two years of age. Infants and toddlers acquire knowledge through motor skills and the five senses. The preoperational stage lasts from two to seven years. Children learn to make connections based on symbols by playing pretend, connecting letters to sounds and eventually to words. The concrete operational stage lasts from seven to twelve years. This is when children and preadolescents develop logic. The formal operations stage begins around age twelve and lasts through adulthood. This involves the ability to understand and talk about abstract ideas, and students develop critical thinking skills. The role of a teacher is to tailor the curriculum to students’ stages and spot and address cognitive deficiencies.

3. Constructivism

Constructive theorists found that human beings are unique in their ability to construct unique understandings of their immediate environments and the world beyond them. Every individual experiences life differently based on an immeasurable number of physiological and emotional factors. What this means for teachers is that students cannot be expected to absorb and apply the material in the same way. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development published an informative article about differentiating instruction to help teachers meet each student’s unique needs.

4. Humanism

Closely related to constructivism is humanism, which concerns the idea of self-actualization. All people function under a hierarchy of needs, beginning with the most basic physiological survival needs, and culminating in self-actualization. Self-actualization refers to those brief yet beautiful moments when one feels as though all of their physical, cognitive, and emotional needs are met, and one is the best possible version of oneself. This is a state that all humans are always striving for but the vast majority of people do not remain in for long periods. People influence each other’s places on the hierarchy, so it is important that teachers structure their curriculum and classroom environments to help students move towards self-actualization.

Related Resource: Top 5 Online Doctorate in Educational Psychology

5. Connectivism

Connectivism is the newest educational learning theory. As the name implies, it is grounded in the notion that people learn and grow by forming connections. This includes connections with each other and connections between their increasing number of roles, obligations, hobbies, and other aspects of life. The rise of technology presents both challenges and opportunities for connection. Teachers must learn how to encourage students to make the right kinds of connections and utilize educational technology in the most effective ways.

No two students are created equal, and neither are any two teachers. These five educational learning theories inform teachers about both the similarities and differences between their students in terms of their development and understanding. Teachers are responsible for instructing their students about life as much as their individual subjects. These five theories form their foundation for accomplishing this.