A comparison of theories of learning

A man is outdoors and is holding a book open in front of him. The book is glowing, as if the contents are illuminating.

This may come as a surprise to some, but education, instruction, and learning aren’t synonyms of each other. Those concepts have quite a bit of overlap, but they are each a bit different from one another. I believe education is sort of the big umbrella that covers instruction and learning. Instruction is the process of imparting knowledge to someone else, while learning is the process of acquiring information from someone else. Despite that, I think of educators and instructors as being synonymous.

To be a good educator or instructor, one must understand the different theories of learning, but to be a good learner, one doesn’t necessarily need to know the different theories in use; one simply learns. That said, Grabinger makes a good point in “Rich Environments for Active Learning”, where he states “To be intentional learners, students must learn to learn as well as learn to accrue knowledge. Learning to learn involves the teaching of generic skills as much as it does occupational or domain-specific skills.” Sadly, I feel I wasn’t given those skills as a child, which is probably why my grades in junior high and high school were terrible. Over the intervening decades, however, I’ve managed to find the study skills that work best for me. But I digress…

One of the suggested readings for this week was a chapter simply titled “Learning” from Communication and Technology: Handbook of Communication Science. The authors, Thomas and Patricia Reeves, present summaries of a number of learning theories, including behaviorist, cognitivist, humanist, constructivist, constructionist, social, and connectivist. I wasn’t even aware of a humanist theory of learning. The summaries in this chapter are quite informative without getting bogged down in details, The authors present the theories in fairly simple terms and present some of the key characteristics of each theory. The chapter isn’t intended to be comprehensive, as the authors limited themselves to writing about the significant theories that emerged after World War II.

They start with behaviorism, since it is the oldest, and really came into vogue following the war, being promoted by B.F. Skinner in his influential 1954 paper “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching”. Behaviorism is mainly known for stimulus response, and for positive reinforcements (rewards). Although it still has its proponents, it has largely been eclipsed by theories that were developed later.

First among these is cognitivism. Cognitive learning theories are derived from cognitive psychology and are concerned with how the brain works. Cognitive theory looks at intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, as well as how memory works. This latter point has led some to liken learning to a form of information processing, so it’s gained popularity among computer scientists and artificial intelligence researchers.

As with cognitivism, humanist learning theory is an offshoot of a branch of psychology, and was pioneered by psychologist Abraham Maslow and educator Maria Montessori. The authors write, “Humanism as a learning theory emphasizes the importance of free will, an innate desire for growth an competence, and the need for individuals to fulfill their highest potential.” Humanist learning theory seems to lay the groundwork for some more contemporary learning theories. For example, it has teachers becoming facilitators, and that children should work on real-world activities.

Constructivism is sometimes held in opposition to behaviorism. While behaviorism assumes every learner (or children, at least) is a blank slate when it comes to their lessons, constructivism says they bring their knowledge and experiences with them. The authors go on to state, “Radical constructivists also maintain that ‘learning to learn’ and problem-solving skills are more important outcomes for students than others kinds of outcomes such as specific content knowledge.” The idea of radical constructivists is fairly amusing, and the statement about their beliefs is quite bold. “Learning to learn” is important, as I noted earlier, but I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the content of lessons is less important than critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In constructivism, learners work on real-world activities, and are able to make mistakes without being penalized.

Constructionism is an offshoot of constructivism, and both are giving my spellchecker a workout. Constructionist theory centers on creating an “artifact” of some type, which could be a computer program, a model built with Lego bricks, or something else. These projects are good for small groups, where the learners can collaborate with each other. The teacher provides scaffolding, which is removed when they determine it is no longer needed.

Social learning theory says people learn best in small groups, and by observing others. The authors write that in social learning theory “people learn from observations of others.” This reminded me of the old saying, “Learn from the mistakes of others.” While watching others make mistakes is certainly a valuable way to learn, I suspect this isn’t what the social learning theorists had in mind. The authors go on to explain two important contributions from Lev Vygotsky, namely the “More Knowledgeable Other” (MKO) and the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD), and the way they explain it, it sounds very much like an apprenticeship. The MKO is someone who knows more than the learner and is helping them develop their skills/knowledge. In this case, the MKO sounds very much like a master to an apprentice. The ZPD is a zone between what the learner can do and what they can’t do. The MKO tries to help the learner pass through the ZPD so they can become more skillful/knowledgeable and better at what they do.

Connectivism is a learning theory that has been developed more recently, coming from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). According to this theory, knowledge is chaotic and complex, and very rarely is it unambiguous. One of the characteristics they describe is “Helping learners develop the capacity to know more through expanding their personal, social, and environmental environments is more important than acquiring what is currently known within any given subject area,” which doesn’t seem very far from what the radical constructivists believe. Connectivism also sees learners gathering information from differing sources and differing opinions, which is how critical thinking is developed.

Several years ago, I was taking French classes, and once I got to the third year, our instructor explained how students in France did essays (it was also explained in the textbook). They start with a “thesis”, then present an “antithesis”, and from these they conclude with a “synthesis”. While the instructor didn’t mention connectivism (my French classes pre-date MOOCs), they don’t seem far off the mark. At any rate, they were an interesting alternative to the hamburger essays I wrote as an undergrad.

This may come as a surprise to some, but education, instruction, and learning aren’t synonyms of each other. Those concepts have quite a bit of overlap, but they are each a bit different from one another. I believe education is sort of the big umbrella that covers instruction and learning. Instruction is the process of…


  1. Hi Michael!
    Your blog post this week does a great job of detailing all the different approaches to learning. I like how you made a distinction between education, instruction, and learning. Too often those terms are used interchangeably, and you’re right to notice that they do have slightly different meanings.
    You’ve mentioned in previous postings about how you find hands-on learning to be the most effective way for you to learn. How do you feel about constructionism? Do you find that you learn by making things, or are you more intrigued by real-world problems? I suppose it could be both!

    1. Hi Katie,

      I like the concept of constructionism, and appreciate the idea of learning through creation, but I also find a lot of value in taking things apart to see how they work. I think it would still be a part of constructionism, because doing so helps me understand the concepts that went into the construction. Plus, deconstructionism is already taken.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I also found quite a bit of value from the Reeves and Reeves piece. It sure came in handy as I continue to pick away at project #5. Constructivism, constructionism, and connectivism sure do give the spell checker a workout, nicely said! I appreciate your succinct blend of readings and theories. I have had to work hard to keep it all straight, but I think I am getting there. I feel like I’m fighting for inches at times.


Leave a Reply

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