Part 2: Establishing Theories of Learning

Reading time: 3

Will Swaithes

Will trained as a secondary school Physical Education teacher in 2001. Since then he has enjoyed a number of roles at a variety of schools in Nottinghamshire to include Advanced Skills Teacher, Lead Practitioner and Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning. Most recently, he spent...
Read more about Will Swaithes

Do you know the underlying theories that shape our pedagogy?

It is imperative that teachers understand the mechanics of the learning process so that classroom practices maximise learning gains and utilise tools or strategies that have been proven effective at promoting learning.

In part 1 of this blog, I discuss how teachers apply theories of learning.

Current practice

The Education Endowment Foundation provides a very accessible and evidence-based teaching and learning toolkit that helps identify interventions and pedagogical approaches that have maximum impact. Included, topics range from ‘reading comprehension strategies’, ‘metacognition and self-regulation and ‘feedback’, shown as having the biggest value-added and at a low cost.

However, what is the origin of that work?

When considering how we learn, perspectives can be separated into three basic categories. Despite some common threads, there are clear distinctions between these.


Behaviourists such as Skinner, Thorndyke, Pavlov and Watson propose that conditioning results in a strengthening of the stimulus-response bond and hence, changed behaviours. This early understanding still has value and can be seen in today’s classrooms with repetitive practice, learning by rote, token economies and ‘‘behaviour for learning’ policies to reinforce desired student outcomes. Recently, popularised in England with Michaela schools.

To embed discipline, the process is also relevant when it comes to examination requirements to define and describe key subject terminology via AO1 assessment criteria. As a physical educator, I also recognise the value of this drill. It is used to gain sporting skills and techniques; over-learning makes replication almost automatic.

Cognitive-information processing

Cognitive-information processing suggests that it is the thought process that goes on behind the behaviour that is more important for learning. Jean Piaget helped us understand that the learner plays an active role in understanding and processing information and the consequent behaviour reflects what has gone on in the learner’s mind.

As an ‘evolutionary biologist’ by background, he argues that we develop first and then learn: ‘intelligence is a biological process’. We construct mental models to understand the world around us. Therefore, effective teaching strategies should:

  1. Seek to link concepts.
  2. Provide real-world examples or analogies.
  3. Give opportunity for exploration and problem-solving.


Constructivists suggest that in fact, learning is unique to the individual and their personal perspective of the world around them –  based on previous experiences, perceptions and interpretations.

Learning is a process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences and consequently, outcomes are not always predictable. Effective teaching strategies include case studies, research projects, and collaborative work to capitalise on what Vygotsky describes as social constructivism.

Vygotsky rejected Piaget’s assumption that separating learning from its social context is possible.

Bandura’s social learning theory provides an important bridge, suggesting that we learn from one another via observation, imitation and modelling. For this to be most effective the following four conditions (processes of observational learning) must be considered:

  1. Attention
  2. Retention
  3. Reproduction
  4. Motivation

Social Cog

Learning is a cognitive process that is affected by social context, and subsequent vicarious reinforcement of behaviours via rewards and punishments.

Unlike traditional behaviour theories, this theory recognises the importance of information processing and internal processes.

Bandura identified three interconnected factors that determine human behaviour, as depicted in this image.




Learning is a complex phenomenon with many biological, personal, socio-cultural and environmental factors at play.

Consequently, identifying the most effective approaches should be considered as much an art as it is a science.

Research and evidence-informed practice is necessary within the education profession, given the high stakes contribution it can make to best prepare the next generation for work. As well as broader societal contributions.

The work of Piaget, Vygotsky, Bandura and others lend significant insight for effective practice where context is key.

If it has been a while since you, as a practitioner or school leader have taken the time to reflect on the work of the various learning theorists or even consider what you understand by the term learning, then hopefully this has been a useful snapshot.

As we enter the dawn of artificial intelligence, perhaps the most pressing question is what knowledge, understanding and learning will best equip humans to thrive in the future?


Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.