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Learning Theories

Before considering common theories of learning, it is important to appreciate the dual meanings of epistemology.  Put simply, epistemology is a branch of philosophy which concerns knowledge - both the nature of knowledge itself, and how people come to develop knowledge.  These are important, but distinct, concepts, and there is extensive literature concerning each of them.  In a scientific context, these discussions raise questions such as:

  • What is scientific knowledge?
  • How does such knowledge come to be accepted by the scientific community?
  • How do students come to understand scientific concepts?

When reading science education literature it is important to recognise that epistemological terms are mostly being considered from the second perspective - they generally refer to questions of learning and the processes by which people come to know what they do.  By contrast, in the literature of philosophy, these same terms generally reflect the first perspective, addressing questions of the nature of knowledge.  This distinction is important, for at least two reasons: firstly, the implications of these terms from an education standpoint are generally much less controversial amongst scientists than are their implications from a philosophical standpoint, as will be illustrated below; secondly, the distinction needs to be borne in mind if the intent of some papers is to be understood.

This article will reflect the second perspective, except where explicitly indicated otherwise.  From this perspective, theories of learning can be considered to have been developed to help answer one question: how do we come to have knowledge of the world around us?  Whilst there have been many approaches taken to this question, they can be considered as emerging from essentially three distinct approaches.  Each is described below.


The rationalist view of learning takes an endogenous approach; that is, our knowledge of the world is innate, and so is something with which we are born.  From this perspective, learning is the process by which we reveal to ourselves (i.e. become aware of) the knowledge that we already have, which occurs through processes such as logical deduction and rational discourse.

This perspective can be traced back to Plato, and is reflected in modern work such as Gardner's theories of multiple intelligences, Chomsky's work on learning languages (the argument goes that, since we have the capacity to learn languages, we must be born with some language learning device), and work involving personality theories and learning styles.  (With respect to intelligence theories, it is worth noting that the supposition that higher intelligence results in more and / or quicker learning has never actually been empirically established.)

The educational implications of a rationalist approach include arguments that students should be educated according to their innate ability; gifted and talented students should be separated and provided with extension activities suited to their higher abilities.  More controversially, this approach can be used to argue that less effort should be devoted to educating those with lower innate capabilities.

Associationism / Empiricism

The empiricist view of learning takes an exogenous approach; that is, we are born with a "blank slate" (tabula rasa) and our knowledge of the world develops through our experiences - this can also be described as a behaviourist perspective.  From this perspective, learning involves the making of associations amongst sensory experiences, with contiguous events (events that occur at similar times) being associated.  These associations form a "copy" of the real world.

This perspective can be traced back to Aristotle, and is reflected in modern work such as Pavolv's research on dogs (since the laws of association are taken to be universal, animal learning research can be applied to humans), the work of Skinner, and research examining neural networking models and parallel distributive processing.

The educational implications of an associationist approach stem from an egalitarian perspective, where everyone is the same.  The important issue is the environmental circumstances in which teaching takes place, with individual differences arising from differences in prior associations.

Both of these approaches have been criticised from a constructivist perspective as being teacher-centred and as endorsing a transmission view of learning - if the teacher can transmit, intact, their knowledge to the learner, then the learner can take on a passive role whereby they absorb this knowledge..


Constructivist approaches emerge originally from the work of Kant, and attempt to find a "middle path" between the associationist and rationalist approaches.  It takes an interactionist approach, rejecting both the empiricist notion that knowledge is some type of copy of the real world, and the rationalist notion that we are born with innate knowledge which simply needs to be revealed; instead, learning occurs as a result of interactions between the individual and the world in which they live.  An example of such an approach is the one taken by Piaget, who investigated child development and posited that children are born with reflexes, but that these must be extended and developed through interaction to become the skills of thinking. (A paper by Herron (1975) provides an interpretation of Piaget's work from a chemist's perspective.)

From a constructivist viewpoint, knowledge is a creation of the mind, built as we interact with the world around us.  Learning is then an active process of sense-making, developed by constructive activities and influenced by factors including prior knowledge, beliefs, expectations, perceptions, and motivation.  A schema is a mental construction of previous experience, and can be considered as the cognitive structures that are the building blocks of prior knowledge.  The learning process involves development of these schemata.

Importantly, from this perspective there can be a disjunction between what a teacher teaches and what a learner learns.  Since the learner's process of selecting and interpreting information with which they are presented is influenced by their existing schemata, as well as by their interests and motivations, and that these schemata are unique to the individual, the learning process must be learner-centred.  It must also be active, as the construction of schemata requires mental effort.  Furthermore, it is easy to see how these individual processes can result in the formation of misconceptions.  For example, suppose a learner has an existing schema for a concept which is inconsistent with accepted scientific conception, and they are in a class being taught about something related to that conception.  Assuming that the learner selects and attempts to interpret this new information, they can attempt to reconcile it with their existing understanding - in effect, attempting to graft the information into their existing schemata (this is what is meant by assimilating the information) - which will likely result in a new misconception; or, they can modify the underlying schema in order to accommodate the information, thereby addressing the existing misconception.

There have been many theories based on constructivist perspectives - the work of Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky, Bartlett and Rogoff are some examples.  Indeed, as Phillips (1995) has noted, constructivism can be seen as having many faces.  These can be divided into two basic categories - cognitive constructivism and social constructivism, which will be described below.  This distinction is based on whether the learning process is seen as fundamentally individual or fundamentally social.

Cognitive constructivists include Bartlett, Piaget, and von Glasersfeld - they see learning as the process whereby an individual develops their own theories.  The role of the real world is debated amongst this group - some cognitive constructivists take a realist perspective and, whilst rejecting the empiricist perspective that a person's knowledge structures are some sort of copy of the world around them, nonetheless hold that there is some sort of correspondence between a person's knowledge and the world around them.  By contrast, radical constructivists argue that there is no relationship between the real world and a person's knowledge structures, but that a person's perception of the real world serves only to organise our experiences.  In fact, adopting a radical constructivist perspective allows one to argue about the existence of the real world, and to discuss philosophical questions of epistemology.

Social Constructivism

Social constructivism, or more properly sociocultural theory, is the more widely adopted constructivist position in educational psychology today.  It derives from the work of Vygotsky; other significant workers in the field include Brown, Cole, and Rogoff.  According to this approach, all learning is fundamentally social, and the focus of learning is on the internalisation and appropriation of social practices - knowledge is not the focus of learning from a social constructivist perspective.

Although Vygotsky was working in the early part of the twentieth century, the majority of his writings were almost unknown outside of the Soviet Union until constructivist perspectives began to be discussed in the 1970s.  Vygotsky was interested in languages and symbolic systems; he considered that language was a tool and that one of a child's most important tasks is to internalise language (appropriating the tool for their use) through social interaction.  Once the tool has been appropriated, it is used as an aid to thinking and learning, and is subsequently externalised (and thus used) in other social interactions.  Furthermore, the use of this tool fundamentally changes learning, as we become almost unable to think and learn without its use.

From a social constructivist perspective, all learning is social as learning involves the appropriation of tools for later use - as part of the process of learning to use these tools, a learner becomes enculturated into the social practices of the community using the tool.  A community of learners can then be considered as apprentices to the community of practice.

In the area of science, this can be seen on both small and large scales.  In relation to a school science classroom setting, for example, when we say we want students to think like a scientist we mean that we want them to adopt the practices of the scientific community.  At a higher level, new members are accepted into the scientific community after they have served an apprenticeship with a skilled peer; this admission comes when the student demonstrates that they have adopted the practices of the community by producing a thesis which is judged by existing members of the community.

Educational Implications of Constructivist Perspectives

Whether one adopts a cognitive or a social constructivist perspective on learning, some educational implications remain the same.  The first, and most important, is that the learning process must be centred on the learner; teacher-centred approaches, in which the teacher is the provider of knowledge, are demonstrably less effective.  This is not to say that the teacher does not have an important role, merely that the teachers role should not be the kind of role seen in (for example) traditional undergraduate lectures.  The roles of the teacher include:

  • a creator of learning environments - the teacher designs environments so that the learner has experiences which will help them to learn about the desired topic.
  • a facilitator of learning - the teacher generally guides students (with questions, comments, experiences, etc.) through the process of them coming to understand the material under study.
  • a diagnoser of problems - it may be necessary for the teacher to create situations which will serve to confront misconceptions held by students, so that they may reorganise their schemata.

Constructivist perspectives are already having considerable impacts on university teaching and learning.  Inquiry based approaches to teaching - including case- and problem-based learning, and inquiry-based laboratory exercises are based on constructivist approaches to learning.  The growing implementation of generic graduate attribute policies represent attempts to foster social constructivist learning environments with the students being part of a gigantic and diverse community of learners, apprenticed to the community of practice made up of the academic staff.

So, What About the Philosophical Questions?

At the top of this page, I said that the differences between the educational and philosophical approaches to questions of epistemology was important, in part because the philosophical approaches are more controversial.  Recent papers by Scerri have been highly critical of adopting constructivism in chemistry education.  He criticises the constructivist view that "the laws of nature as we know them are social constructs – essentially laws that scientists have agreed between themselves and do not have any fundamental significance", and it seems likely that most scientists would be similarly critical of such a position.  However, it is important to recognise that this is approaching constructivism very much from a philosophical standpoint.  One can adopt the educational view that learning involves constructing an understanding of phenomena, and can recognise that that understanding will frequently differ in substance from the accepted position of the scientific community, and can recognise that the scientific viewpoint was itself originally constructed without endorsing the philosophical view of some that the accepted position must, as a consequence, have no fundamental significance.  One could also adopt the view that, since the laws of nature are models which approximate reality, and are not reality itself, that their significance beyond being tools for thinking is questionable - in other words, whilst gravity fundamentally does exist, the laws of gravity are merely constructions, created as tools to aid in thought, and as such the laws do not have the same fundamental significance as the phenomena they are meant to describe.

The purpose of this discussion is not to argue for or against any one position; it merely serves to provide some useful background to aid in understanding the literature of the science education and educational psychology fields.





Need Phillips (1995) - I think - plus von Glasersfeld, Vygotsky, Piaget, Herron, Scerri, and some Rogoff, Greeno, and Brown.


 Copyright ©: Justin Read, 2006

This page was last updated on 6 June 2006; it may be referenced as:

Read, J. R. (2006). Learning Theories. Available from