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Views of learning

Explore the importance of understanding who our students are in designing engaging learning experiences.
How do we learn? This question has generated a huge amount of research and produced many perspectives on how the process of learning takes place. In this video we’ll examine three learning theories. Behaviourism, constructivism and cognitivism. Behaviourism is a teacher-centred learning theory. The learners are perceived as blank slates who receive and regurgitate information provided to them by knowledgeable experts.
Behaviourism is primarily  concerned with observable behaviour rather than internal thoughts and emotions. It identifies learning as a change in behaviour based on stimulus response. For example, if a child touches something hot, they feel pain. They associate the pain with the action and thus change their behaviour to avoid the hot object.
In terms of teaching, behaviourism concentrates on reward, punishment, and repetition to achieve desired actions giving children a sticker or point as a reward is behaviourism in practice. A child will learn that if they do good work or behave in a certain way they’ll receive a reward.
Constructivism, contrary to behaviourism, constructivism places the focus on the learner rather than the teacher. Instead of passively acquiring information directly from the teacher, learners construct their own knowledge by experiencing things and then reflecting on those experiences. Constructivism considers learning an active process where learners construct knowledge by actively engaging with the world around them through experiments or problem solving. In this case, the teacher becomes a facilitator or guide rather than an instructor and provides learners with environments or situations which they can learn from.
Social constructivism suggests that learning emerges as a result of social interactions amongst learners. Learners co-construct knowledge as part of a social group and develop a shared understanding through exchange of ideas, negotiation, and collaboration here the teacher provides group work which facilitates this social interaction, and encourages conversation and peer feedback. Humanism, another branch of constructivism, is concerned with the feelings and motivations of learners and emphasises creativity, self-actualisation, and choice. In humanism, learners are encouraged to determine their own methods of learning and learning goals based on their personal needs and interests. The teacher becomes a facilitator to those choices, moulding them to the learner’s needs but also acting as a role model for positive behaviour. Cognitivism.
Cognitivism is concerned with how learners think. Learners are considered active agents in their own learning who, like a computer, receive information, process that information and their behaviour is a consequence of that new knowledge.
Rather than just being able to absorb and recall information, cognitivism suggests that learners use new information to construct their own understanding based on prior knowledge and experiences.
Teachers can use cognitivism in the classroom through questions or activities that challenge learners to redefine their prior knowledge. This can enable learners to gain a conceptual understanding of a topic and then be able to apply that knowledge to other situations.
You may be wondering which theory you should use, well, in truth there isn’t a correct theory to use and all of these theories will help you in your teaching practice in different situations. How could you use these theories in practice?

Understanding who our students are is just one of the first steps in designing engaging learning experiences.

Having learned about our students, how might we then determine the most appropriate approaches to facilitate their learning?

Schunk (as cited in Thomas, 2020) suggests that, ‘teachers need to ask the question “How does learning occur?” and that whatever answer they come up with will inform lesson design, teaching practices and student activities’.

Harasim (2017, p. 4) indicates that learning theories are critical in this process because they ‘help us to understand both how knowledge is created and how people learn’.

Armed with this information, we can create learning experiences that are meaningful and relevant to our students.


The video above will introduce you to the main theories of learning – behaviourism, constructivism and cognitivism. As you watch the video, reflect on the theories in a practical sense; relate and compare them to your own practice and consider whether learning theories influence how you design and deliver effective learning experiences for your students.

In joining the PGCLaTHE, you will be introduced to further theories of learning that you’ll critique based on your context and use to develop your practice.

Your task

Having watched the video, tell us about the ways in which you think learning theories are useful to educational practice, if at all. Provide a brief justification for your view.
Read some of your peers’ comments – how do their views and justifications compare with your own? Critically respond to some of their comments.


Harasim, L. (2017). Learning theory and online technologies (2nd ed.). Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781315716831

Thomas, H. (2020). What are learning theories and why are they important for learning design? myBRAINisOPEN. Web link

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