Educational Theories

Constructivism | Behaviorism | Piaget | Brain-based Learning | Control Theory of Motivation | Observational Learning | Social Cognition Learning

Early Childhood Theory


 Constructivism  is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own "rules" and "mental models," which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.

The guiding principles of Constructivism:

How Constructivism impacts learning:
  • Curriculum - Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum. Instead, it promotes using curricula customized to the students' prior knowledge. Also, it emphasizes hands-on problem solving.
  • Instruction - Under the theory of constructivism, educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to student responses and encourage students to analyze, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.
  • Assessment - Constructivism calls for the elimination of grades and standardized testing. Instead, assessment becomes part of the learning process so that students play a larger role in judging their own progress.

 Behaviorism  is a philosophy of learning that only focuses on objectively observable behaviors and discounts mental activities. Behavior theorists define learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behavior.

Experiments by behaviorists identify conditioning as a universal learning process. There are two different types of conditioning, each yielding a different behavioral pattern:

How Behaviorism impacts learning:
  • Positive and negative reinforcement techniques of Behaviorism can be very effective.
  • Teachers use Behaviorism when they reward or punish student behaviors.

 Jean Piaget  authored a theory based on the idea that a developing child builds cognitive structures, mental "maps", for understanding and responding to physical experiences within their environment. Piaget proposed that a child's cognitive structure increases in sophistication with development, moving from a few innate reflexes such as crying and sucking to highly complex mental activities.

The four developmental stages of Piaget's model and the processes by which children progress through them are:

The child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations. As physical experience accumulates, the child starts to conceptualize, creating logical structures that explain their physical experiences.

Abstract problem solving is possible at this stage. For example, arithmetic equations can be solved with numbers, not just with objects.

By this point, the child's cognitive structures are like those of an adult and include conceptual reasoning.
Developmental Stage Cognitive Process
Sensorimotor stage
(birth - 2 years old)
The child, through physical interaction with the environment, builds a set of concepts about reality and how it works. This is the stage where a child does not know that physical objects remain in existence even when out of sight.
Preoperational stage
(ages 2 - 7)
Concrete operations
(ages 7 - 11)
Formal operations
(beginning at ages 11 - 15)

Piaget proposed that during all development stages, the child experiences their environment using whatever mental maps they have constructed. If the experience is a repeated one, it fits easily - or is assimilated - into the child's cognitive structure so that they maintain mental "equilibrium". If the experience is different or new, the child loses equilibrium, and alters their cognitive structure to accommodate the new conditions. In this way, the child constructs increasingly complex cognitive structures.

How Piaget's theory impacts learning:


 The Brain-based Learning Theory  is based on the structure and function of the brain. As long as the brain is not prohibited from fulfilling its normal processes, learning will occur.

Every person is born with a brain that functions as an information processor. Traditional schooling, however, often inhibits learning by discouraging, ignoring, or punishing the brain's natural learning processes.

The core principles of Brain-based Learning state that:

The three instructional techniques associated with Brain-based Learning are:

Creating learning environments that fully immerse students in an educational experience. Trying to eliminate fear in learners, while maintaining a highly challenging environment. Allowing the learner to consolidate and internalize information by actively processing it.
Orchestrated immersion
Relaxed alertness
Active processing

How Brain-based Learning impacts education:

  • Curriculum - Teachers must design learning around student interests and make learning contextual.
  • Instruction - Educators let students learn in teams and use peripheral learning. Teachers structure learning around real problems, encouraging students to also learn in settings outside the classroom and the school building.
  • Assessment - Since all students are learning, their assessment should allow them to understand their own learning styles and preferences. This way, students monitor and enhance their own learning process.

 The Control Theory of Motivation proposed by William Glasser, contends that behavior is never caused by a response to an outside stimulus. Instead, the behavior is inspired by what a person wants most at any given time.

Responding to complaints that today's students are "unmotivated," Glasser attests that all living creatures "control" their behavior to maximize their need satisfaction. According to Glasser, if students are not motivated to do their schoolwork, it's because they view schoolwork as irrelevant to their basic human needs.

Glasser identifies two types of teachers:

How the Control Theory impacts learning:

  • Curriculum - Teachers negotiate both content and method with students. Students' basic needs literally help shape how and what they are taught.
  • Instruction - Teachers rely on cooperative, active learning techniques that enhance the power of the learners. Lead teachers make sure that all assignments meet some degree of their students' need satisfaction. This secures student loyalty, which carries the class through whatever relatively meaningless tasks might be necessary to satisfy official requirements.
  • Assessment - Instructors only give "good grades" to certify quality work. Student assessment uses an absolute standard, rather than a relative "curve."

 Observational Learning, also called The Social Learning Theory occurs when an observer's behavior changes after viewing a behavioral model. An observer's behavior can be affected by the positive or negative consequences - called vicarious reinforcement or vicarious punishment - of a model's behavior.

The guiding principles behind Observational Learning, or Social Learning Theory:

Attention and retention account for acquisition or learning of a model's behavior; production and motivation control the performance.

How Observational Learning impacts learning:

  • Curriculum - Students must get a chance to observe and model the behavior that leads to a positive reinforcement.
  • Instruction - Educators must encourage collaborative learning, since much of learning happens within important social and environmental contexts.
  • Assessment - A learned behavior often cannot be performed unless there is the right environment for it. Educators must provide the incentive and the supportive environment for the behavior to happen. Otherwise, assessment may not be accurate.

 The Social Cognition Learning Model  asserts that culture is the prime determinant of individual development. Humans are the only species to have created culture, and every human child develops in the context of a culture. Therefore, a child's learning development is affected in ways large and small by the culture - including the culture of family environment - in which he or she is enmeshed.

The core principles of The Social Cognition Learning Model are:

How The Social Cognition Learning Model impacts learning:

  • Curriculum - Since children learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks.
  • Instruction - With appropriate adult help, children can often perform tasks that they are incapable of completing on their own. With this in mind, scaffolding - where the adult continually adjusts the level of his or her help in response to the child's level of performance - is an effective form of teaching. Scaffolding not only produces immediate results, but also instills the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future.
  • Assessment - Assessment methods must target both the level of actual development and the level of potential development. What children can do on their own is their level of actual development and what they can do with help is their level of potential development. Two children might have the same level of actual development, but given the appropriate help from an adult, one might be able to solve many more problems than the other.
More Learning Theories:

 Early Childhood Theory 

Early childhood theories are somewhat different. However, what happens in a lower grade always has some impact on the grades above it. This website author has neither the training nor experience to be conversant in early childhood theories.

Here are links to a few early childhood theories:

Educational Theories | Bloom's Taxonomy | Learning Styles | Authentic Pedagogy | Critical Thinking