Theories of learning and development provide important knowledge on which educational practices and activities are based. This document discusses the roles of teachers, factors which motivate learners and how learners acquire information as well as the factors which influence curriculum design and delivery as explained by cognitive, constructivism, social, behavioral learning as well as development theories.
Teaching and learning are important but complex activities and therefore it is essential that educators understand the factors which motivate learners to absorb things they observe, hear or read. The lack of attention to the factors underpinning the learning process certainly leads to impoverishment of education.
Learning and developmental theories provide a basis for understanding the role of the teacher as the instructional leader, factors which motivate learners to learn as well as factors which influence curriculum design and delivery process.
Several cognitive, social, constructivism, behavioral and development theories have been used to explain the importance of teachers’ and learners’ participation and role in the learning process, and the need for structured curriculum and instructions.
Skinner’s Behavioral Theory of Learning
Skinner’s behavioral theory of learning focuses on how contingencies of reinforcement can shape human behavior. In other words, it explains conditions in which reinforcement for a learner can be made conditional on a desired response.
Skinner’s behavioral theory emphasizes that teaching involves “arranging contingencies of reinforcement effectively to bring about learning” (Hartley, 1998).
As such, the teacher should carefully use reinforcement and punishments, depending on the situation, to enable learners develop high level capabilities such as creativity and critical thinking (Armstrong & Elkind, 2006). It also the role of the teachers to develop clear objectives to be accomplished in the lesson or learning activity (Hartley, 1998).
Skinner’s believes that learners are motivated to learn when they are actively involved in the learning process and are provided with learning activities which enable them interact with the environment. When learners are engaged in frequent practices and are also provided with positive reinforcements such as rewards while avoiding punishments, they are more likely to achieve learning (Hartley, 1998).
Skinner’s behavioral theory has had significant influence on curriculum design and delivery. Most drill as well as practice exercises have their roots in Skinner’s reinforcement principles. The idea behind the drill and practice exercises is to increase the frequency of accurate answering in response to stimuli (Kytle, 2004).
Practice exercises are normally used to help learners memorize important concepts or basic information that they need to learn. Besides, the learning content is usually broken down into small achievable steps beginning from the simple to complex to enhance acquisition (Hartley, 1998).
Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory
Bandura’s theory focuses on learning that takes place within social context. Bandura argues that human beings learn from one another through observation, imitation and modeling (David, 2002). Just like Skinner, Bandura also believes that punishment and reinforcement play a significant role in human learning and that the environment also plays an important role in modeling and learning (David, 2002).
Bandura’s argues that learning takes place when behavior is observed and retained through imitation and modeling and reproduced in other activities. The learner has to pay attention to the behavior and consider it as important. He or she rehearses the observed behavior so as to be able to remember it.
The learner reproduces the learnt behavior when in a situation which requires the behavior similar problem solving. This behavior is internalized when the learner is motivated whenever he or she demonstrates the behavior (Kytle, 2004). Thus, learners best acquire knowledge and skills when provide with the opportunity to make experiential learning.
Bandura explains that the learner is best motivated to learn when given opportunity to observe someone who could be the teacher or any other person who demonstrates expected behavior or problem solving skills in a subject or content area and allowed to replicate the behavior, skill or knowledge (David, 2002).
Thus, they have to be motivated to pay attention to the behavior or skill and replicate it in similar situations. They also learn best when reinforcement and punishment are used to influence the extent to which they exhibit the behavior, and when they are made to believe that they are capable of acquiring the knowledge or skill or accomplishing the task (Ormrod, 1999).
The teacher’s role according to Bandura’s social learning theory is to provide learners with a number of various models. Ormrod (1999) asserts that modeling can increase the rate of learning of new concepts and enhance teaching of new behavior. The teacher also has to help the learners develop sense of self-efficacy and communicate positive achievement to learners.
Thus, the teacher must always assure learners that they are able to accomplish tasks or execute the behaviors successfully so as to help them build their self-confidence. They also have to help the learners “set realistic expectations for their academic accomplishments” (Ormrod, 1999).
Bandura’s social learning theory concept of behavior consequences is usually applied in the curriculum design as well as in instruction delivery. When setting course, term, instruction or lesson objectives, the curriculum designers or teacher normally describe the expected behavior outcomes in the learner at the end of the course or instruction delivery.
During the curriculum delivery, the teacher has to formulate objectives describing the expected behavior to be demonstrated at the end of the term or lesson. The set objectives are used to guide assessments; both summative and formative assessments. It has also been applied to guide the use of people as learning resource to students.
Cognitive theory of learning
Gagne’s theory of information-processing compares the human brain to computer by arguing that human brain has certain structures which process information the same way a computer processor does (David, 2002). Gagne believes that the human mind has three types of memories or stores. These are the sensory register, short-term and long-term memory (David, 2002).
Gagne’s theory information-processing theory has had significant influence on the curriculum design. The use of instructional materials, media, worked example and split contents have their basis in the Gagne’s theory (David, 2002). Curriculum designers use evidence-based guidelines to stimulate learners’ sensory register and enhance their mental eagerness.
The curriculum is normally designed to allow for use of auditory as well as visual methods to enhance the learners’ memory and to enable learners to communicate and store information in the long-term memory. Besides, texts or subject contents presented to learners are broken down into small meaningful chunks which the learners can acquire gradually.
It is also used to select the best mix of constructivist and behaviorist learning experiences to be included in each learning activity. Gagne’s Bottom-up approach has also been applied in the curriculum design (David, 2002). Curriculum programs or contents are designed in such a way that learners begin from lower level skills as they move gradually to more technical levels of the content.
Gagne’s theory of information-processing has also influenced curriculum delivery and classroom practices. Teachers often ask interesting questions which keep learners attention to the learning process. They also display eye-catching materials so as to increase the likelihood of learners paying attention to the content or topic being taught.
These classroom practices enable learners register information learnt in their sensory register and pass it to their short-term memory (Armstrong & Elkind, 2006). If reinforced as argued by Skinner, then the information is kept in the long-term memory.
Again, when teachers present information to learners, they normally give instructions which emphasize important points as well as characteristics in the content or material being taught and suggest methods of remembering or encoding the content by linking them to the information that the learners already know (Kytle, 2004).
Teachers also apply Gagne’s information-processing theory in giving practice exercises to learners (Paas, Renkl & Sweller, 2004). Practice exercises are normally given to learners to enable them transfer information from short-term memory to long-term memory (David, 2002).
Lesson planning also has its roots in Gagne’s events of instruction concept. Lesson plans are normally designed systematically applying Gagne’s concept of learning hierarchies where performance objectives as well as sequences for instructional activities are normally used (David, 2002).
They are normally designed to allow learners learn less technical concepts as they move to more difficult or complex concepts of the content presented for the lesson. The teacher would set the objectives for that particular lesson and thereafter develop a sequence of teaching/learning activities.
Gagne’s learning hierarchies require teachers to identify intellectual skills which are prerequisite to learning a new skill (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). The teacher’s role is to ensure that the learner acquires the necessary skills that would allow the development of the new skill to be learnt. Gagne’s theory emphasize that lower level skills have to be developed to form the foundation for acquiring higher level skills since learning is a building process.
Gagne also believes that learners are more motivated to learn when the instructions are clearly structured. Hartley (1998) asserts that there should be “logical relationships between key ideas and concepts”. They are also motivated to learn when they have prior knowledge on the concept or content to be learnt so that they build on the information that they already possess.
Jerome Brunner’s constructivism learning theory
Brunner explains children’s development in three stages. The first stage is the enactive stage (birth-3 years), where children perceive the world around them mainly through actions which they initiate (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). They also describe and explain objects mainly in terms of what they can do with them.
At this stage, children learn best through showing and modeling and not telling. In the second stage, iconic stage (3-8 years), children remember and can represent information through mental pictures (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). Their visual memory also increases and can imagine things or events without experiencing them. Their decisions are also founded on perceptions and not language.
In the last stage, symbolic stage (8 years and above), children develop the ability to use symbols to represent things, people as well as activities (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). They also develop the ability to think as well as to describe things in abstract terms. They can also use symbolic idioms and have a better understanding of mathematical principles.
Brunner’s learning theory advocates for discovering learning where learners are motivated to learn when they are allowed to interact with the environment (Charles, 2005). Learning best occurs when learners are allowed to explore and manipulate objects.
They are also motivated to learn if they are given tasks or questions to solve, conduct research or discuss to find the solution (Charles, 2005). Learners also motivated to learn when they are given experiments to perform as they find out new concepts on their own. Brunner believes that learners better understand as well as remember concepts which they have discovered or learnt through their own exploration (Dean & Kuhn, 2006).
The teacher’s role in discovery learning is to enable learners acquire pre-requisite knowledge which enhance learners ability to conduct their own research and experiments (Dean & Kuhn, 2006).
Teachers have to provide structured learning experiences to learners and provide learning resources which enhance learners’ discovery learning. Again, the teacher has a role of ensuring that the learners acquire skills which enable them acquire more sophisticated or technical levels of the subject or content.
Brunner’s theory suggests that learning is best achieved when learners are first provided with pre-requisite knowledge and skill and then allowed to conduct discovery learning through experiments, research, discussions or problem solving situations (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). To make the learning successful, the teacher has to go over the skill or knowledge that learners acquired through their discovery learning activities (Charles, 2005).
Brunner’s theory has also influenced curriculum design. Designing curricula into organized parts and instructional contents into hierarchical arrangements has its roots in Brunner’s cognitive learning theory (David, 2002).
Brunner believed that a learner of any age can learn any material provided that the instruction is organized properly (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). Brunner also influenced the development of curriculum where subject contents or skill areas are revisited at intervals although at a more complex level each time. Brunner refers to this as spiral curriculum (David, 2002).
Brunner’s theory has also contributed to lesson planning. Brunner believed that structured knowledge motivates learners to “readily grasp the information” (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). Categorization of subject content into comprehensible instructions is derived from Brunner’s theory of constructivism. Again, Brunner’s effective sequencing concept has also been applied in developing lesson plan and delivery of curriculum content.
Lev Vygotsky’s cognitive development theory
Vygotsky’s cognitive development theory describes how children’s learning as well as thinking is influenced by the surrounding environment. The social environment influences how children acquire new skills, concepts, facts, ideas as well as how they develop attitudes. Vygotsky’s describes a child’s knowledge building process as scaffolding.
The teacher’s role according to Vygotsky cognitive development theory is to provide appropriate instructions to learners by first inquiring where each learner was in his or her development period, and then building on the learner’s experience (Dean & Kuhn, 2006).
This means that the teacher must first find out about the learner’s entry behavior before so as to provide learning experience which build’s on the learner’s experiences.
They have to promote learners cognitive development by providing classroom tasks which they can accomplish only with the assistance of the teacher or an adult. This would allow them build their own experience and learn correct knowledge from teacher’s or adult’s explanation.
Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development links the child’s development to the child’s creativity potential (Dean & Kuhn, 2006). It explains that children normally develop their inner values when given tasks which they can complete individually or through some personal activity.
Therefore the teacher’s role is to provide instructions and experience which corresponds to the learner’s individual developmental stage as well as needs. Vygotsky’s cognitive development theory argues that teaching and learning should not be structured uniformly without taking into consideration learners’ different entry behaviors, needs and stages of development (Dean & Kuhn, 2006).
The teacher should also facilitate the learning process by encouraging learners to discover principles and concepts by themselves and constructing knowledge through solving realistic problems. As such, the teacher should facilitate self-directed learning, experiential learning as well as reflective practice.
Vygotsky believes that learners are motivated to learn when they are exposed to their environment. They learn best when the learning resources presented to them are within their social or cultural activities. Thus, they learn best when the learning context is built around their social activities and made to make meaning to them in their social context.
Vygotsky’s cognitive development concept of scaffolding is often applied in the curriculum delivery process. Teachers normally provide visual learning tools to learners to help them build their understanding to higher levels.
Learners are also provided with graphic examples and given real-life experiences which are relevant to their individual needs to enhance their understanding of the teaching/learning content (Paas, Renkl & Sweller, 2004).
Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development
Piaget describes four stages of children’s development. The first stage of development is the sensory motor stage (birth-2 years) where children begin to explore the environment through their senses as well as motor activities (National Research Council, 2000).
They also develop the ability to follow objects with their eyes and also develop “perceptions of cause and effects”. In the second stage, pre-operational stage (2-7 years), children develop communication abilities through speech as well as through symbolic activities (National Research Council, 2000).
They also begin to develop numerical abilities but they are still unable to conserve tasks. In the third stage, which is the concrete operational stage (7-11 years), children begin to perform conservation tasks and develop abstract reasoning (National Research Council, 2000).
They also develop ability to make generalizations from concrete experiences. Finally, in the formal operational stage (12-15 years), children develop the ability to organize information and begin to reason scientifically (National Research Council, 2000). At this stage, children can form as well as test hypotheses. They are also able to show results of their abstract thinking by use of symbolic materials.
The role of the teacher according to Piaget’s cognitive development theory is to provide concrete examples as well as “experiences when teaching abstract concepts” to learners who have not yet reached the formal operations stage (Paas, Renkl & Sweller, 2004).
Teachers are also supposed to provide outside classroom learning to enable learners to interact with the environment and acquire real life experiences through observations and allow them make meaning to the abstract concepts they learn in classroom teaching. In addition, the teacher has to provide a range of activities to allow learners to interact directly with the environment.
The teacher’s role also include providing differentiated teaching to enable all learners with different developmental rates and learning styles to be able to learn. The teacher has to understand that learners have different learning rates and learning styles.
The teacher has to understand the processes which the learner uses to arrive at the answer and therefore provide experiences which enhance the cognitive functioning of the learner.
Learners are motivated to learn when they are exposed to real life experiences and provided with learning resources which help them make meaning to what they are learning (Brown& Ryoo, 2008). They also learn best when provided with content that they have prior knowledge or related knowledge to. The learning styles used should also be able to help them achieve learning.
Piaget’s cognitive development stages have also been applied in curriculum development. Piaget believes that learners can only achieve cognitive understanding if the learning content is delivered gradually beginning from the simplest concepts to the most technical concepts.
Thus, curriculum is usually designed to be consistent with the learner’s educational progress and is structured in sequence to avoid premature teaching, and therefore enhance learning (Berk, 2002).
Piaget’s concrete experience concept is also applied in the curriculum delivery process. Teachers use visual resources like simulations and real objects to enhance learners’ developmental levels as well as their understanding of concepts.
Learning and development theories have contributed significantly to the teaching and learning process. They are normally used to justify the teacher’s intervention and the learner’s active participation in the learning process. They provide the theoretical underpinning for curriculum design as well as curriculum delivery plus classroom practices usually employed by educators.
Armstrong,T. & Elkind,D. (2006). The best schools: How human development research should inform educational practice. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Berk, L. (2002) Child development, 5th Ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon
Brown, B. & Ryoo, K. (2008). Teaching science as a language: A “content-first” approach to science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45 (5): 529–553.
Charles, C. (2005). A human development view of learning disabilities. Springfield: Thomas Publisher
David, C. L. (2002). Learning theories A–Z. Westport: Greenwood Publishing.
Dean, D. & Kuhn, D. (2006). Direct instruction vs. discovery: The long view. Science Education 91 (3): 384–397.
Hartley, J. (1998) Learning and Studying: A research perspective. London: Routledge.
Kytle, J. (2004). To want to learn: Insights and provocations for engaged learning. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, motivation, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academic Press.
Ormrod, J.E. (1999). Human learning, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Paas, F., Renkl, A. & Sweller, J. (2004). Cognitive load theory: Instructional implications of the interaction between information structures and cognitive architecture. Instructional Science 32: 1–8