Major theories and models of learning

Several ideas and priorities, then, affect how we teachers think about learning, including the curriculum, the difference between teaching and learning, sequencing, readiness, and transfer. The ideas form a “screen” through which to understand and evaluate whatever psychology has to offer education. As it turns out, many theories, concepts, and ideas from educational psychology do make it through the “screen” of education, meaning that they are consistent with the professional priorities of teachers and helpful in solving important problems of classroom teaching. In the case of issues about classroom learning, for example, educational psychologists have developed a number of theories and concepts that are relevant to classrooms, in that they describe at least some of what usually happens there and offer guidance for assisting learning. It is helpful to group the theories according to whether they focus on changes in behavior or in thinking. The distinction is rough and inexact, but a good place to begin. For starters, therefore, consider two perspectives about learning, called behaviorism (learning as changes in overt behavior) and constructivism, (learning as changes in thinking). The second category can be further divided into psychological constructivism (changes in thinking resulting from individual experiences), and social constructivism, (changes in thinking due to assistance from others). The rest of this chapter describes key ideas from each of these viewpoints. As I hope you will see, each describes some aspects of learning not just in general, but as it happens in classrooms in particular. So each perspective suggests things that you might do in your classroom to make students’ learning more productive.

Behaviorism: changes in what students do

Behaviorism is a perspective on learning that focuses on changes in individuals’ observable behaviors— changes in what people say or do. At some point we all use this perspective, whether we call it “behaviorism” or something else. The first time that I drove a car, for example, I was concerned primarily with whether I could actually do the driving, not with whether I could describe or explain how to drive. For another example: when I reached the point in life where I began cooking meals for myself, I was more focused on whether I could actually produce edible food in a kitchen than with whether I could explain my recipes and cooking procedures to others. And still another example—one often relevant to new teachers: when I began my first year of teaching, I was more focused on doing the job of teaching—on day-to-day survival—than on pausing to reflect on what I was doing.

Note that in all of these examples, focusing attention on behavior instead of on “thoughts” may have been desirable at that moment, but not necessarily desirable indefinitely or all of the time. Even as a beginner, there are times when it is more important to be able to describe how to drive or to cook than to actually do these things. And there definitely are many times when reflecting on and thinking about teaching can improve teaching itself. (As a teacher-friend once said to me: “Don’t just do something; stand there!”) But neither is focusing on behavior which is not necessarily less desirable than focusing on students’ “inner” changes, such as gains in their knowledge or their personal attitudes. If you are teaching, you will need to attend to all forms of learning in students, whether inner or outward.

In classrooms, behaviorism is most useful for identifying relationships between specific actions by a student and the immediate precursors and consequences of the actions. It is less useful for understanding changes in students’ thinking; for this purpose we need theories that are more cognitive (or thinking-oriented) or social, like the ones described later in this chapter. This fact is not a criticism of behaviorism as a perspective, but just a clarification of its particular strength or usefulness, which is to highlight observable relationships among actions, precursors and consequences. Behaviorists use particular terms (or “lingo,” some might say) for these relationships. One variety of behaviorism that has proved especially useful to educators is operant conditioning, described in the next section.

Operant conditioning: new behaviors because of new consequences

Operant conditioning focuses on how the consequences of a behavior affect the behavior over time. It begins with the idea that certain consequences tend to make certain behaviors happen more frequently. If I compliment a student for a good comment made during discussion, there is more of a chance that I will hear further comments from the student in the future (and hopefully they too will be good ones!). If a student tells a joke to classmates and they laugh at it, then the student is likely to tell more jokes in the future and so on.

The original research about this model of learning was not done with people, but with animals. One of the pioneers in the field was a Harvard professor named B. F. Skinner, who published numerous books and articles about the details of the process and who pointed out many parallels between operant conditioning in animals and operant conditioning in humans (1938, 1948, 1988). Skinner observed the behavior of rather tame laboratory rats (not the unpleasant kind that sometimes live in garbage dumps). He or his assistants would put them in a cage that contained little except a lever and a small tray just big enough to hold a small amount of food. (Figure 1 shows the basic set-up, which is sometimes nicknamed a “Skinner box.”) At first the rat would sniff and “putter around” the cage at random, but sooner or later it would happen upon the lever and eventually happen to press it. Presto! The lever released a small pellet of food, which the rat would promptly eat. Gradually the rat would spend more time near the lever and press the lever more frequently, getting food more frequently. Eventually it would spend most of its time at the lever and eating its fill of food. The rat had “discovered” that the consequence of pressing the level was to receive food. Skinner called the changes in the rat’s behavior an example of operant conditioning, and gave special names to the different parts of the process. He called the food pellets the reinforcement and the lever-pressing the operant (because it “operated” on the rat’s environment). See below.

A rat in a cage. The cage has a loudspeaker, lights, a response lever, a food dispenser. The floor is also an electrified grid. The Operant is pressing the lever, which leads to the reinforcement a food pellet.

Figure 1: Operant conditioning with a laboratory rat

Skinner and other behavioral psychologists experimented with using various reinforcers and operants. They also experimented with various patterns of reinforcement (or schedules of reinforcement), as well as with various cues or signals to the animal about when reinforcement was available. It turned out that all of these factors—the operant, the reinforcement, the schedule, and the cues—affected how easily and thoroughly operant conditioning occurred. For example, reinforcement was more effective if it came immediately after the crucial operant behavior, rather than being delayed, and reinforcements that happened intermittently (only part of the time) caused learning to take longer, but also caused it to last longer.

Operant conditioning and students’ learning: Since the original research about operant conditioning used animals, it is important to ask whether operant conditioning also describes learning in human beings, and especially in students in classrooms. On this point the answer seems to be clearly “yes.” There are countless classroom examples of consequences affecting students’ behavior in ways that resemble operant conditioning, although the process certainly does not account for all forms of student learning (Alberto & Troutman, 2005). Consider the following examples. In most of them the operant behavior tends to become more frequent on repeated occasions:

  • A seventh-grade boy makes a silly face (the operant) at the girl sitting next to him. Classmates sitting around them giggle in response (the reinforcement).
  • A kindergarten child raises her hand in response to the teacher’s question about a story (the operant). The teacher calls on her and she makes her comment (the reinforcement).
  • Another kindergarten child blurts out her comment without being called on (the operant). The teacher frowns, ignores this behavior, but before the teacher calls on a different student, classmates are listening attentively (the reinforcement) to the student even though he did not raise his hand as he should have.
  • A twelfth-grade student—a member of the track team—runs one mile during practice (the operant). He notes the time it takes him as well as his increase in speed since joining the team (the reinforcement).
  • A child who is usually very restless sits for five minutes doing an assignment (the operant). The teaching assistant compliments him for working hard (the reinforcement).
  • A sixth-grader takes home a book from the classroom library to read overnight (the operant). When she returns the book the next morning, her teacher puts a gold star by her name on a chart posted in the room (the reinforcement).

These examples are enough to make several points about operant conditioning. First, the process is widespread in classrooms—probably more widespread than teachers realize. This fact makes sense, given the nature of public education: to a large extent, teaching is about making certain consequences (like praise or marks) depend on students’ engaging in certain activities (like reading certain material or doing assignments). Second, learning by operant conditioning is not confined to any particular grade, subject area, or style of teaching, but by nature happens in every imaginable classroom. Third, teachers are not the only persons controlling reinforcements. Sometimes they are controlled by the activity itself (as in the track team example), or by classmates (as in the “giggling” example). This leads to the fourth point: that multiple examples of operant conditioning often happen at the same time. A case study in Appendix A of this book (The decline and fall of Jane Gladstone) suggests how this happened to someone completing student teaching.

Because operant conditioning happens so widely, its effects on motivation are a bit complex. Operant conditioning can encourage intrinsic motivation, to the extent that the reinforcement for an activity is the activity itself. When a student reads a book for the sheer enjoyment of reading, for example, he is reinforced by the reading itself, and we we can say that his reading is “intrinsically motivated.” More often, however, operant conditioning stimulates both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation at the same time. The combining of both is noticeable in the examples in the previous paragraph. In each example, it is reasonable to assume that the student felt intrinsically motivated to some partial extent, even when reward came from outside the student as well. This was because part of what reinforced their behavior was the behavior itself—whether it was making faces, running a mile, or contributing to a discussion. At the same time, though, note that each student probably was also extrinsically motivated, meaning that another part of the reinforcement came from consequences or experiences not inherently part of the activity or behavior itself. The boy who made a face was reinforced not only by the pleasure of making a face, for example, but also by the giggles of classmates. The track student was reinforced not only by the pleasure of running itself, but also by knowledge of his improved times and speeds. Even the usually restless child sitting still for five minutes may have been reinforced partly by this brief experience of unusually focused activity, even if he was also reinforced by the teacher aide’s compliment. Note that the extrinsic part of the reinforcement may sometimes be more easily observed or noticed than the intrinsic part, which by definition may sometimes only be experienced within the individual and not also displayed outwardly. This latter fact may contribute to an impression that sometimes occurs, that operant conditioning is really just “bribery in disguise,” that only the external reinforcements operate on students’ behavior. It is true that external reinforcement may sometimes alter the nature or strength of internal (or intrinsic) reinforcement, but this is not the same as saying that it destroys or replaces intrinsic reinforcement. But more about this issue later!

Key concepts about operant conditioning: Operant conditioning is made more complicated, but also more realistic, by several additional ideas. They can be confusing because the ideas have names that sound rather ordinary, but that have special meanings with the framework of operant theory. Among the most important concepts to understand are the following:

  • extinction
  • generalization
  • discrimination
  • schedules of reinforcement
  • cues

The paragraphs below explain each of these briefly, as well as their relevance to classroom teaching and learning.

Extinction refers to the disappearance of an operant behavior because of lack of reinforcement. A student who stops receiving gold stars or compliments for prolific reading of library books, for example, may extinguish (i.e. decrease or stop) book-reading behavior. A student who used to be reinforced for acting like a clown in class may stop clowning once classmates stop paying attention to the antics.

Generalization refers to the incidental conditioning of behaviors similar to an original operant. If a student gets gold stars for reading library books, then we may find her reading more of other material as well—newspapers, comics, etc.–even if the activity is not reinforced directly. The “spread” of the new behavior to similar behaviors is called generalization. Generalization is a lot like the concept of transfer discussed early in this chapter, in that it is about extending prior learning to new situations or contexts. From the perspective of operant conditioning, though, what is being extended (or “transferred” or generalized) is a behavior, not knowledge or skill.

Discrimination means learning not to generalize. In operant conditioning, what is not overgeneralized (i.e. what is discriminated) is the operant behavior. If I am a student who is being complimented (reinforced) for contributing to discussions, I must also learn to discriminate when to make verbal contributions from when not to make them—such as when classmates or the teacher are busy with other tasks. Discrimination learning usually results from the combined effects of reinforcement of the target behavior and extinction of similar generalized behaviors. In a classroom, for example, a teacher might praise a student for speaking during discussion, but ignore him for making very similar remarks out of turn. In operant conditioning, the schedule of reinforcement refers to the pattern or frequency by which reinforcement is linked with the operant. If a teacher praises me for my work, does she do it every time, or only sometimes? Frequently or only once in awhile? In respondent conditioning, however, the schedule in question is the pattern by which the conditioned stimulus is paired with the unconditioned stimulus. If I am student with Mr Horrible as my teacher, does he scowl every time he is in the classroom, or only sometimes? Frequently or rarely?

Behavioral psychologists have studied schedules of reinforcement extensively (for example, Ferster, et al., 1997; Mazur, 2005), and found a number of interesting effects of different schedules. For teachers, however, the most important finding may be this: partial or intermittent schedules of reinforcement generally cause learning to take longer, but also cause extinction of learning to take longer. This dual principle is important for teachers because so much of the reinforcement we give is partial or intermittent. Typically, if I am teaching, I can compliment a student a lot of the time, for example, but there will inevitably be occasions when I cannot do so because I am busy elsewhere in the classroom. For teachers concerned both about motivating students and about minimizing inappropriate behaviors, this is both good news and bad. The good news is that the benefits of my praising students’ constructive behavior will be more lasting, because they will not extinguish their constructive behaviors immediately if I fail to support them every single time they happen. The bad news is that students’ negative behaviors may take longer to extinguish as well, because those too may have developed through partial reinforcement. A student who clowns around inappropriately in class, for example, may not be “supported” by classmates’ laughter every time it happens, but only some of the time. Once the inappropriate behavior is learned, though, it will take somewhat longer to disappear even if everyone—both teacher and classmates—make a concerted effort to ignore (or extinguish) it.

Finally, behavioral psychologists have studied the effects of cues. In operant conditioning, a cue is a stimulus that happens just prior to the operant behavior and that signals that performing the behavior may lead to reinforcement. In the original conditioning experiments, Skinner’s rats were sometimes cued by the presence or absence of a small electric light in their cage. Reinforcement was associated with pressing a lever when, and only when, the light was on. In classrooms, cues are sometimes provided by the teacher deliberately, and sometimes simply by the established routines of the class. Calling on a student to speak, for example, can be a cue that if the student does say something at that moment, then he or she may be reinforced with praise or acknowledgment. But if that cue does not occur—if the student is not called on—speaking may not be rewarded. In more everyday, non-behaviorist terms, the cue allows the student to learn when it is acceptable to speak, and when it is not.

Constructivism: changes in how students think

Behaviorist models of learning may be helpful in understanding and influencing what students do, but teachers usually also want to know what students are thinking, and how to enrich what students are thinking. For this goal of teaching, some of the best help comes from constructivism, which is a perspective on learning focused on how students actively create (or “construct”) knowledge out of experiences. Constructivist models of learning differ about how much a learner constructs knowledge independently, compared to how much he or she takes cues from people who may be more of an expert and who help the learner’s efforts (Fosnot, 2005; Rockmore, 2005). For convenience these are called psychological constructivism and social constructivism (or sometimes sociocultural theory). As explained in the next section, both focus on individuals’ thinking rather than their behavior, but they have distinctly different implications for teaching.

Psychological constructivism: the independent investigator

The main idea of psychological constructivism is that a person learns by mentally organizing and reorganizing new information or experiences. The organization happens partly by relating new experiences to prior knowledge that is already meaningful and well understood. Stated in this general form, individual constructivism is sometimes associated with a well-known educational philosopher of the early twentieth century, John Dewey (1938–1998). Although Dewey himself did not use the term constructivism in most of his writing, his point of view amounted to a type of constructivism, and he discussed in detail its implications for educators. He argued, for example, that if students indeed learn primarily by building their own knowledge, then teachers should adjust the curriculum to fit students’ prior knowledge and interests as fully as possible. He also argued that a curriculum could only be justified if it related as fully as possible to the activities and responsibilities that students will probably have later, after leaving school. To many educators these days, his ideas may seem merely like good common sense, but they were indeed innovative and progressive at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Another recent example of psychological constructivism is the cognitive theory of Jean Piaget (Piaget, 2001; Gruber & Voneche, 1995). Piaget described learning as interplay between two mental activities that he called assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the interpretation of new information in terms of pre-existing concepts, information or ideas. A preschool child who already understands the concept of bird, for example, might initially label any flying object with this term—even butterflies or mosquitoes. Assimilation is therefore a bit like the idea of generalization in operant conditioning, or the idea of transfer described at the beginning of this chapter. In Piaget’s viewpoint, though, what is being transferred to a new setting is not simply a behavior (Skinner’s “operant” in operant conditioning), but a mental representation for an object or experience.

Assimilation operates jointly with accommodation, which is the revision or modification of pre-existing concepts in terms of new information or experience. The preschooler who initially generalizes the concept of bird to include any flying object, for example, eventually revises the concept to include only particular kinds of flying objects, such as robins and sparrows, and not others, like mosquitoes or airplanes. For Piaget, assimilation and accommodation work together to enrich a child’s thinking and to create what Piaget called cognitive equilibrium, which is a balance between reliance on prior information and openness to new information. At any given time, cognitive equilibrium consists of an ever-growing repertoire of mental representations for objects and experiences. Piaget called each mental representation a schema (all of them together—the plural—were called schemata). A schema was not merely a concept, but an elaborated mixture of vocabulary, actions, and experience related to the concept. A child’s schema for bird, for example, includes not only the relevant verbal knowledge (like knowing how to define the word “bird”), but also the child’s experiences with birds, pictures of birds, and conversations about birds. As assimilation and accommodation about birds and other flying objects operate together over time, the child does not just revise and add to his vocabulary (such as acquiring a new word, “butterfly”), but also adds and remembers relevant new experiences and actions. From these collective revisions and additions the child gradually constructs whole new schemata about birds, butterflies, and other flying objects. In more everyday (but also less precise) terms, Piaget might then say that “the child has learned more about birds.”

Exhibit 1 diagrams the relationships among the Piagetian version of psychological constructivist learning. Note that the model of learning in the Exhibit is rather “individualistic,” in the sense that it does not say much about how other people involved with the learner might assist in assimilating or accommodating information. Parents and teachers, it would seem, are left lingering on the sidelines, with few significant responsibilities for helping learners to construct knowledge. But the Piagetian picture does nonetheless imply a role for helpful others: someone, after all, has to tell or model the vocabulary needed to talk about and compare birds from airplanes and butterflies! Piaget did recognize the importance of helpful others in his writings and theorizing, calling the process of support or assistance social transmission. But he did not emphasize this aspect of constructivism. Piaget was more interested in what children and youth could figure out on their own, so to speak, than in how teachers or parents might be able to help the young figure out (Salkind, 2004). Partly for this reason, his theory is often considered less about learning and more about development, or long-term change in a person resulting from multiple experiences that may not be planned deliberately. For the same reason, educators have often found Piaget’s ideas especially helpful for thinking about students’ readiness to learn, another one of the lasting educational issues discussed at the beginning of this chapter. We will therefore return to Piaget later to discuss development and its importance for teaching in more detail


Assimilation + Accommodation → Equilibrium → Schemata

Social Constructivism: assisted performance

Unlike Piaget’s orientation to individuals’ thinking in his version of constructivism, some psychologists and educators have explicitly focused on the relationships and interactions between a learner and other individuals who are more knowledgeable or experienced. This framework often is called social constructivism or sociocultural theory. An early expression of this viewpoint came from the American psychologist Jerome Bruner (1960, 1966, 1996), who became convinced that students could usually learn more than had been traditionally expected as long as they were given appropriate guidance and resources. He called such support instructional scaffolding—literally meaning a temporary framework like the ones used to construct buildings and that allow a much stronger structure to be built within it. In a comment that has been quoted widely (and sometimes disputed), Bruner wrote: “We [constructivist educators] begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” (1960, p. 33). The reason for such a bold assertion was Bruner’s belief in scaffolding—his belief in the importance of providing guidance in the right way and at the right time. When scaffolding is provided, students seem more competent and “intelligent,” and they learn more.

Similar ideas were independently proposed by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978), whose writing focused on how a child’s or novice’s thinking is influenced by relationships with others who are more capable, knowledgeable, or expert than the learner. Vygotsky made the reasonable proposal that when a child (or novice) is learning a new skill or solving a new problem, he or she can perform better if accompanied and helped by an expert than if performing alone—though still not as well as the expert. Someone who has played very little chess, for example, will probably compete against an opponent better if helped by an expert chess player than if competing against the opponent alone. Vygotsky called the difference between solo performance and assisted performance the zone of proximal development (or ZPD for short)—meaning, figuratively speaking, the place or area of immediate change. From this social constructivist perspective, learning is like assisted performance (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991). During learning, knowledge or skill is found initially “in” the expert helper. If the expert is skilled and motivated to help, then the expert arranges experiences that let the novice to practice crucial skills or to construct new knowledge. In this regard the expert is a bit like the coach of an athlete—offering help and suggesting ways of practicing, but never doing the actual athletic work himself or herself. Gradually, by providing continued experiences matched to the novice learner’s emerging competencies, the expert-coach makes it possible for the novice or apprentice to appropriate (or make his or her own) the skills or knowledge that originally resided only with the expert. These relationships are diagrammed in Exhibit 2.


Novice → Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) ← Expert

In both the psychological and social versions of constructivist learning, the novice is not really “taught” so much as simply allowed to learn. But compared to psychological constructivism, social constructivism highlights a more direct responsibility of the expert for making learning possible. He or she must not only have knowledge and skill, but also know how to arrange experiences that make it easy and safe for learners to gain knowledge and skill themselves. These requirements sound, of course, a lot like the requirements for classroom teaching. In addition to knowing what is to be learned, the expert (i.e. the teacher) also has to organize the content into manageable parts, offer the parts in a sensible sequence, provide for suitable and successful practice, bring the parts back together again at the end, and somehow relate the entire experience to knowledge and skills meaningful to the learner already. But of course, no one said that teaching is easy!

The teacher’s role in Psychological and Social Constructivism

As some of the comments above indicate, psychological and social constructivism have differences that suggest different ways for teachers to teach most effectively. The theoretical differences are related to three ideas in particular: the relationship of learning and long-term development, the role or meaning of generalizations and abstractions during development, and the mechanism by which development occurs.

The relationship of learning and long-term development of the child

In general psychological constructivism such as Piaget emphasize the ways that long-term development determines a child’s ability to learn, rather than the other way around. The earliest stages of a child’s life are thought to be rather self-centered and to be dependent on the child’s sensory and motor interactions with the environment. When acting or reacting to his or her surroundings, the child has relatively little language skill initially. This circumstance limits the child’s ability to learn in the usual, school-like sense of the term. As development proceeds, of course, language skills improve and hence the child becomes progressively more “teachable” and in this sense more able to learn. But whatever the child’s age, ability to learn waits or depends upon the child’s stage of development. From this point of view, therefore, a primary responsibility of teachers is to provide a very rich classroom environment, so that children can interact with it independently and gradually make themselves ready for verbal learning that is increasingly sophisticated.

Social constructivists such as Vygotsky, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of social interaction in stimulating the development of the child. Language and dialogue therefore are primary, and development is seen as happening as a result—the converse of the sequence pictured by Piaget. Obviously a child does not begin life with a lot of initial language skill, but this fact is why interactions need to be scaffolded with more experienced experts— people capable of creating a zone of proximal development in their conversations and other interactions. In the preschool years the experts are usually parents; after the school years begin, the experts broaden to include teachers. A teacher’s primary responsibility is therefore to provide very rich opportunities for dialogue, both among children and between individual children and the teacher.

The role of generalizations and abstractions during development

Consistent with the ideas above, psychological constructivism tends to see a relatively limited role for abstract or hypothetical reasoning in the life of children—and even in the reasoning of youth and many adults. Such reasoning is regarded as an outgrowth of years of interacting with the environment very concretely. As explained more fully in the next chapter (“Student development”), elementary-age students can reason, but they are thought to reason only about immediate, concrete objects and events. Even older youth are thought to reason in this way much, or even all of the time. From this perspective a teacher should limit the amount of thinking about abstract ideas that she expects from students. The idea of “democracy,” for example, may be experienced simply as an empty concept. At most it might be misconstrued as an oversimplified, overly concrete idea—as “just” about taking votes in class, for instance. Abstract thinking is possible, according to psychological constructivism, but it emerges relatively slowly and relatively late in development, after a person accumulates considerable concrete experience.

Social constructivism sees abstract thinking emerging from dialogue between a relative novice (a child or youth) and a more experienced expert (a parent or teacher). From this point of view, the more such dialogue occurs, then the more the child can acquire facility with it. The dialogue must, of course, honor a child’s need for intellectual scaffolding or a zone of proximal development. A teacher’s responsibility can therefore include engaging the child in dialogue that uses potentially abstract reasoning, but without expecting the child to understand the abstractions fully at first. Young children, for example, can not only engage in science experiments like creating a “volcano” out of baking soda and water, but also discuss and speculate about their observations of the experiment. They may not understand the experiment as an adult would, but the discussion can begin moving them toward adult-like understandings.

How development occurs

In psychological constructivism, as explained earlier, development is thought to happen because of the interplay between assimilation and accommodation—between when a child or youth can already understand or conceive of, and the change required of that understanding by new experiences. Acting together, assimilation and accommodation continually create new states of cognitive equilibrium. A teacher can therefore stimulate development by provoking cognitive dissonance deliberately: by confronting a student with sights, actions, or ideas that do not fit with the student’s existing experiences and ideas. In practice the dissonance is often communicated verbally, by posing questions or ideas that are new or that students may have misunderstood in the past. But it can also be provoked through pictures or activities that are unfamiliar to students—by engaging students in a community service project, for example, that brings them in contact with people who they had previously considered “strange” or different from themselves.

In social constructivism, as also explained earlier, development is thought to happen largely because of scaffolded dialogue in a zone of proximal development. Such dialogue is by implication less like “disturbing” students’ thinking than like “stretching” it beyond its former limits. The image of the teacher therefore is more one of collaborating with students’ ideas rather than challenging their ideas or experiences. In practice, however, the actual behavior of teachers and students may be quite similar in both forms of constructivism. Any significant new learning requires setting aside, giving up, or revising former learning, and this step inevitably therefore “disturbs” thinking, if only in the short term and only in a relatively minor way.

Implications of constructivism for teaching

Whether you think of yourself as a psychological constructivist or a social constructivist, there are strategies for helping students help in develop their thinking—in fact the strategies constitute a major portion of this book, and are a major theme throughout the entire preservice teacher education programs. For now, look briefly at just two. One strategy that teachers often find helpful is to organize the content to be learned as systematically as possible, because doing this allows the teacher to select and devise learning activities that are better tailored to students’ cognitive abilities, or that promote better dialogue, or both. One of the most widely used frameworks for organizing content, for example, is a classification scheme proposed by the educator Benjamin Bloom, published with the somewhat imposing title of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook #1: Cognitive Domain (Bloom, et al., 1956; Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Bloom’s taxonomy, as it is usually called, describes six kinds of learning goals that teachers can in principle expect from students, ranging from simple recall of knowledge to complex evaluation of knowledge. (The levels are defined briefly in Error: Reference source not found with examples from Goldilocks and the Three Bears.)

Bloom’s taxonomy makes useful distinctions among possible kinds of knowledge needed by students, and therefore potentially helps in selecting activities that truly target students’ zones of proximal development in the sense meant by Vygotsky. A student who knows few terms for the species studied in biology unit (a problem at Bloom’s knowledge and comprehension levels), for example, may initially need support at remembering and defining the terms before he or she can make useful comparisons among species (Bloom’s analysis level). Pinpointing the most appropriate learning activities to accomplish this objective remains the job of the teacher-expert (that’s you), but the learning itself has to be accomplished by the student. Put in more social constructivist terms, the teacher arranges a zone of proximal development that allows the student to compare species successfully, but the student still has to construct or appropriate the comparisons for him or herself.

Table 1: Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives: cognitive domain
Category or type of thinking Definition Example
Knowledge Remembering or recalling facts, information, or procedures List three things Goldilocks did in the three bears’ house.
Comprehension Understanding facts, interpreting information Explain why Goldilocks liked the little bear’s chair the best.
Application Using concepts in new situations, solving particular problems Predict some of the things that Goldilocks might have used if she had entered your house.
Analysis Distinguish parts of information, a concept, or a procedure Select the part of the story where Goldilocks seemed most comfortable.
Synthesis Combining elements or parts into a new object, idea, or procedure Tell how the story would have been different if it had been about three fishes.
Evaluation Assessing and judging the value or ideas, objects, or materials in a particular situation Decide whether Goldilocks was a bad girl, and justify your position.

A second strategy may be coupled with the first. As students gain experience as students, they become able to think about how they themselves learn best, and you (as the teacher) can encourage such self-reflection as one of your goals for their learning. These changes allow you to transfer some of your responsibilities for arranging learning to the students themselves. For the biology student mentioned above, for example, you may be able not only to plan activities that support comparing species, but also to devise ways for the student to think about how he or she might learn the same information independently. The resulting self-assessment and self-direction of learning often goes by the name of metacognition—an ability to think about and regulate one’s own thinking (Israel, 2005). Metacognition can sometimes be difficult for students to achieve, but it is an important goal for social constructivist learning because it gradually frees learners from dependence on expert teachers to guide their learning. Reflective learners, you might say, become their own expert guides. Like with using Bloom’s taxonomy, though, promoting metacognition and self-directed learning is important enough that I will come back to it later in more detail (in the chapter on “Facilitating complex thinking”).

By assigning a more active role to expert helpers—which by implication includes teachers—than does the psychological constructivism, social constructivism may be more complete as a description of what teachers usually do when actually busy in classrooms, and of what they usually hope students will experience there. As we will see in the next chapter, however, there are more uses for a theory than its description of moment-to-moment interactions between teacher and students. As explained there, some theories can be helpful for planning instruction rather than for doing it. It turns out that this is the case for psychological constructivism, which offers important ideas about the appropriate sequencing of learning and development. This fact makes the psychological constructivism valuable in its own way, even though it (and a few other learning theories as well) may seem to omit mentioning teachers, parents, or experts in detail. So do not make up your mind about the relative merits of different learning theories yet!


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *