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The Theories of Learning: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism Essay


Learning Theories and Technology

E-learning or online education is the use of electronic media in education. Online education takes the learner enables the learner to get an education even from a remote location. As such, he/she does not have to be physically present in a classroom.

E-learning is one of the features of modern learning many people are wondering whether it still falls under the theories of learning that were formulated decades ago before information technology was embraced in education.

The three most popular theories of learning are behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism.

Behaviourism sees learning as taking place in response to an external stimulus. It does not consider the thought process as having any consequence in learning.

On the other hand, cognitivism states that learning takes place when the mind is able to process memory, motivation, thoughts, and to reflect upon them. It all has to do with how the learner responds to the learning environment presented to him/her.

In contrast, constructivism, which is seen as an extension of cognitivism, is a learning style in which student use past experiences to construct knowledge. In this theory, the learner is the focus of attention (Alzaghoul, n.d.).

This paper shall endeavor to describe learning occurs. In addition, the paper shall also attempt to examine the three theories of learning namely, behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. It will also show how technology can support learning within the context of the three theories.

Now that we are at the end of the course, my ideas have changed completely. I used to believe that people learn through behaviourism. I believed that students would show up to class and receive learning.

However, I had to change my mind when I discovered that some of the students show up for instructions, apply the stimulus, and still do not learn. I am now a believer of constructivism as the theory that best describes how people learn.

The central idea in constructivism is that a student uses what is happening in the environment to determine what is learnt. To a constructivist, knowledge is experienced reality not object reality (Alzhagoul, n.d.). This makes sense to me because I believe that something cannot be created out of nothing.

Knowledge has to have an origin or a basis from which it is created and improved. Such an origin could be past experiences and the environment. Knowledge gained is also dependent on the situation (Frank, 2000).

What is learnt in a certain situation may be entirely different even with the same student, the same instructor and a different situation. Knowledge is also not passively received as stated in the bahaviourist theory but actively constructed (Frank, 2000).

The three learning theories differ in the way they view learners. Behaviourism characterizes students as passive receivers who are ready to receive knowledge. In this theory, the learner has a limited role in the learning process.

All that the learner has to do is show up venue of learning and the stimulus shall be administered by the instructor (Depoy & Gilson, 2007). In this theory, the instructor has to find out which cues will result in the best response from the student.

It is important therefore for instructors to arrange situations whereby the student will interact with the stimuli. In addition, the environmental conditions should also be favorable so that students can respond appropriately according to the stimuli presented (Alzhagoul, n.d.).

The student therefore has to be informed of what is expected of him/her once the instructions have been delivered. Cognitivism and constructivism theories do not view the learner in that way.

In cognitivism, the learner plays the leading role in ensuring that learning takes place. This theory views the learner as a type of machine that processes information (Alzaghoul, n.d.). It recognizes the power of the mind in influencing learning.

The learner gets to learn as much as the mind can process, depending on the effort that he/she makes and the depth of processing involved. It sees learners as very different and capable of learning in different ways (Alzhagoul, n.d.).

This theory is flawed in its dependency of the mind as the single learning tool. Practical application of knowledge does not always require the mind to process as it is more heavily dependent on past experience.

Constructivists state that the learner’s past influences the learning process. For constructivists, learning is dependent on learner’s experiences and perceptions. If the learner does not have many learning experiences, it becomes hard to construct knowledge.

This is evident in most classroom settings where there are students from diverse backgrounds. Those who are born in the immediate environment where the instruction takes place are able to grasp concepts more easily than those who hail from afar.

Learners can also develop deep insight and understanding of what they are taught through purposeful manipulation, careful observation and thoughtful analysis (Frank, 2000).

In the constructivist theory, the learner comes up with new ideas or concepts. This theory is in line with the discoveries and innovations present in the world today. If people learned through behaviourism, they would learn new information presented to them without creating any new additional information.

If they learned through cognitivism, they would process the information presented to them and even though learning would be accomplished, no new knowledge would be created. With these two theories, the only learning that would take place is what is already known.

Knowledge would be static and it would be passed on from generation to generation without any improvement being made to it. With the constructivist theory, the knowledge impacted can be redesigned to create new concepts and original thought. This type of learning is evident in the inventions and improved developments observed in the world.

Technology can support learning within the context of the three theories. For the behaviourist approach, the instructor aims to elicit the desired response from the student by applying a stimulus. Learning is then assessed by observing and quantifying the behaviour of the student.

The instructor cannot know what the student is thinking and hence cannot quantify it. In this case, the most important thing is to ensure that the student is present to receive the stimulus. Technology can help by having students sign in to the class using a unique identifier such as a fingerprint.

Assessment of learning in this theory is done through observation. As such, students have to be tested frequently. Check tests should also be given at strategic points and technology can ease this task (Alzhagoul, n.d.).

Technology can also be utilized to carry out mini studies that find out what observable behaviour has changed as an indication of learning.

Cognitivism expects that individuals will process information differently and that they should be able to learn differently. Technology can therefore support learning by providing a wider selection of learning tools and strategies. This theory also claims that learning utilizes memory.

To support this, technology through the use of organizers can trigger memory by presenting information that activates long term memory in a student (Alzhagoul, n.d.). Technology can also be used to maximize the student’s potential.

This can be done by focusing the learner’s attention on the material being taught and facilitating their sensors and noting important information (Alzhagoul, n.d.).

Learning through the style of constructivism can be supported by technology in various ways. Constructivism is wholly focused on the learner. The role of the instructor in the learning process is to advise students and facilitate the learning process.

Constructivism encourages students to hold discussions in groups and to apply what they learn in practical situations. In that case, technology can make it easier for the students to plan meeting times and for those who find it difficult to meet physically, technology can assist them to meet online.

This theory expects the instructor to be present while learners complete activities and to prompt them to reason and ask questions (Alzhagoul, n.d.). The completion of activities may take a long time even extending outside of the classroom.

In this case, the instructor can engage with the students easily using technology and still remain actively involved in the completion of their assignments.

This paper has described how I believe people learn. It has done this by discussing the three most commonly known theories of learning. Behaviourism is one theory which sees learning as dependent on application of a stimulus on the learner and does not consider cognitive processes as important in learning.

It has also discussed cognitivism which posits that learning takes place when the information fed to an individual is processed and reflected upon using memory, motivation and thoughts.

It has also shown that constructivism is a student-focused theory where the student is given freedom to construct knowledge from instruction provided to them.

This paper has also shown how technology can support learning within the context of the three theories. Technology that ensures that the learner is present during application of a stimulus would be helpful for behaviourism theory.

It has indicated that frequent testing necessary in behaviourism can be facilitated by technology. Support through technology can also be provided in cognitivism through the use of organizers that trigger memory and technology that focuses the learner’s attention.

For constructivists, this paper has shown that technology can be used in form of online discussion meeting points where the instructor can prompt reasoning and students can exchange ideas.

Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner

A theory is a “well substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena “(Depoy & Gilson, 2007).

Learning is the process of acquiring a skill or technique and is an aspect of nature. To understand how learning takes place, different theories have been formulated over the years. Some of the theorists who studied the way learning takes place used facts, laws and hypotheses to explain the manner in which learning takes place.

These theories are known as learning theories and they act a guide in instruction. Some of the theorists that were central to the formulation of learning theories are Piaget, Vygostsky and Bruner. After spending years studying and observing children from different cultures, they were able to understand how learning took place.

Their theories had similarities but did not present total agreements on the process of learning. Comparing and contrasting Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner’s theories of learning will assist students understand how their ideas differ.

Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner’ theories share a lot of ideas. They were mainly focused on explaining how learning took place in the childhood stages of life. Piaget spent time observing children while working on a project while Bruner studied children in nurseries, schools, playgroups, villages, highly technical laboratories and in hospitals (Tilstone & Layton, 2004).

These theorists wanted to know how children formed concepts so that they could learn how to think like adults. Piaget and Bruner understood the importance of action and problem-solving on a child’s development. Bruner asserted that by acting upon the world, the child would understand it and would store that knowledge with the use of sensory images and iconic representations (Tilstone & Layton, 2004).

The stored knowledge could then be retrieved when a similar circumstance presented itself. With time, these two theorists’ ideas took slightly different directions. Bruner aimed at explaining the processes involved in solving problems while Piaget was more focused on the mature thinking structure of children.

Learning is viewed as a survival technique. Piaget pointed out that learning was literally a matter of survival for the baby immediately after its birth and useful for proper functioning in society once the baby was older.

The learning theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner had many similar fundamental arguments. They all believed that learning took place through the environment and especially through social interactions. Vygotsky stated that the child learned by active construction through curiosity and discovery.

When a child was old enough to move, it would learn by watching what the caregivers were doing and imitating them. Bruner explored this further by stating that the learning was not unidirectional.

Once the caregiver got a response from the baby, the action would be repeated until the child was able to anticipate and respond the next time. The caregiver would then continue to build on the baby’s response but reacting to the baby’s expressions. This concept created by Bruner was what was termed as scaffolding (Tilstone & Layton, 2004).

The ideas of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner differ in various ways. Piaget considers interactions with peers as the most important factor in the learning process of a child (Tilstone & Layton, 2004). This would mean that a child is likely to learn more by playing and talking with other children.

After observing children for many years, Piaget had come to believe that they exercised mature thinking. This theory differs from that of Vygotsky who asserted that a child would learn and grow more intellectually and personally through interactions with more experienced thinkers (Tilstone & Layton, 2004).

This would mean that by interacting with adults rather than children, a child would have a greater potential for learning. Bruner’s theory did not specify any single critical factor in learning.

He asserted that optimum learning would be dependent on many factors such as past learning, the developmental stage of the child, the material’s nature and the individual differences. According to Bruner, the development stage is important because development takes place before learning.

The three theorists differ in terms of development. Piaget sees development as the substitution and elaboration of innate responses (Gauvin & Cole, 1997). He sees development as occurring concurrently with learning. This view is unlike that of Bruner who sees development as a prerequisite to learning.

To him, development had to take place before learning. If the instructions were given before the right cognitive development took place, the results of learning would be negative (Gauvin & Cole, 1997). On the topic of development, Vygotsky and Piaget were somewhat in agreement.

Vygotsky believed that from the early stages of the life of a child, it would learn from its parent or guardian through verbal or nonverbal means. Development would therefore take place concurrently with the learning process. He went further to create what is termed as a zone of proximal development.

This concept is unlike the actual development as it characterizes the mental development. It detects those cognitive functions that have not yet fully developed but are in the process of developing (Gauvin & Cole, 1997).

This is evident in cases where a child is faced with a problem and is able to solve it with the help of an instructor. To Vygotsky, this meant that the child was capable of understanding what was being taught even though the cognitive functions were not yet fully developed.

Vygotsky and Bruner differed from Piaget when it came to the influence of certain environmental factors on learning. While Piaget believed that children learned in the same manner regardless of their culture, Vygotsky saw culture as a major factor in the development of the child.

He argued that knowledge is specific to cultures as it results from human thoughts that accumulate with time and are passed on from generation to generation (Tilstone & Layton, 2004). Culture plays a role in our thought processes through language and other manner of interaction.

Vygotsky also strongly believed in learning through instructions. He used the zone of proximal development to show that there was a big difference between the level of learning that a child could accomplish when left alone and what could be accomplished if the child had the appropriate guidance through culture.

Culture was also important in Bruner’s theory. He believed that mental development is influenced by external factors and resources which are determined by culture. He lists three factors that are emphasized by different cultures differently and at different times in the child’s development.

These factors are motoric (tools which are extensions of limbs such as writing tools), sensory and reflective (Tilstone & Layton, 2004).

These three theorists differ in explaining the path through which learning take place. Bruner asserts that learners cannot follow one unique sequence. This is unlike Piaget who asserted that stages in development proceeded in an invariable and universally observable sequence.

He believed that stages in development were associated with the way a child responded intellectually. He also did not see language as making any contribution to growth of intelligence. He saw language as simply a means through which intelligent thoughts were communicated.

On the language factor, Piaget differed greatly from both Bruner and Vygotsky. Bruner saw language as a symbolic representation of experience. According to Bruner, language transformed experience in that if children were unable to communicate through language, then they would grow up depending on childhood enactive and iconic methods.

Use of such methods would not be the ideal outcome in learning. Vygotsky stated that language was a psychological tool that liberates the thinking process allowing learning to take place beyond the present. In his view, language allowed the child to become capable of intelligent thought (Tilstone & Layton, 2004).

In trying to explain how the ideas of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner differ, this paper has compared and contrasted their theories. The three theories are similar in that they focus on learning in the formative stages of life. They also agree that learning takes place due to interactions with the social environment.

Their differences lie in the processes through which learning takes place. Vygotsky asserts that learning takes place when children interact with adults while Piaget argues that learning takes place through peer to peer interaction.

Bruner did not specify one critical factor that influences learning but stated that the best learning would take place depending on several different factors. He argues that learning cannot follow a single unique sequence which is contrary to Piaget’s argument that learning takes sequential stages.

The three also differ in the way learning is related to development. Piaget states that the learning and development occur simultaneously while Bruner believes that development has to take place before learning can.

Vygotsky created a development zone which took into account future developments as factors that influenced learning. This paper has also shown that the influence of culture was not regarded as consequential by Piaget while Vygotsky and Bruner saw it as a critical factor in learning.

Reference List

Alzaghoul, A. F. (n.d.). The implication of the learning theories on implementing e-learning courses. The Research Bulletin of Jordan ACM, 11, 27-30.

Depoy, E., & Gilson, S. (2007). The human experience: description, explanation, and Judgment. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Frank, S.L. (2000). Collaborative learning and web-based instruction in a cognitive apprenticeship model. Developments in business simulation & experiential learning, 27, 188-194.

Gauvin, M., & Cole, M. (1997). Readings on the development of children. Retrieved from

Tilstone, C. & Layton, L. (2004). Child development and teaching pupils with special educational needs. London and New York: Routledge.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "The Theories of Learning: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism." August 20, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/learning-theories-for-online-education/.


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