Traditional Learning Theories

Learning theories are intelligent ways of describing how human beings combine intellect and environmental influences to acquire new knowledge or refine already acquired knowledge. These theories describe how information is likely to be acquired, processed and retained for future use. The three main categories of traditional learning theories include: constructivism, behaviorism and cognitivism (University of Wurzburg, 2007). Behaviorism focuses on the idea that every human behavior gets acquired through conditioning. Behaviorists state that there is no relationship between behavior and intelligence or conscious state in any way. Constructivism looks at learning as a conscious attempt to try and explain the world around us. Constructivists state that learning is an active conscious process that has an internal drive (Brunner, 2012). Cognitive theorists explain human behavior by bringing a clear understanding of the thought process. It states that these thought processes are the ones that influence our understanding and interaction with the world around us. All three theories are a basis for teaching and learning as they all can be used to enable one to acquire new knowledge.


Behaviorism is manipulative. Its aim is to understand behavior, predict behavior and control behavior. We witness this through Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning and B.F Skinner’s operant conditioning. In classical conditioning, Pavlov manipulated the dog to salivate to the sound of the bell and the site of the white lab coat. B.F Skinner explained behavior as dependent on rewards or punishment. He stated that the likelihood of behavior to be repeated in the future would depend on the reward or punishment (University of Wurzburg 2007).

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The first teaching method that can be employed from the behaviorist theory is to arrange the environment. This should be done in a way that will elicit the kind of response that we desire, like in the Pavlov experiment with the dog. We should set specific objectives before teaching a new concept and arrange your materials and resources in a way that will directly lead to achievement of your objective. These objectives must be observable and measurable. For example, if you want five-year-olds to master the concept of filling and emptying then arrange the classroom in a way that they are able to tell the empty tins, the full ones and the liquid to be used in filling and emptying. Arrange all your materials in a way that is obvious to elicit your desired response. Break down the skills and concepts to be learnt into small units that get easily understood.

Using direct instructional strategies or teacher-centered instruction is another way of using behaviorist theory to teach. This is to shape the desired skill. Since the end desired result is known, we can instruct the learner on how to gain the objective. The best way to teach a four-year-old how to write letter “a” using behaviorist theory is to show him the motions followed when writing letter “a”.

If we go with B.F Skinner’s operant theory, a perfect way to teach is to reinforce accomplishments with appropriate feedback (University of Wurzburg, 2007). By controlling punishments and rewarding, we can shape behavior. If we want to teach a nine-year-old to keep quiet in class, every time the desired behavior gets elicited we should reward with a token. With time the nine-year-old learns to associate keeping quiet with tokens. This draws on the classical conditioning theory where the nine-year-old has now been conditioned to elicit specific behavior associated with something else. Checking learner’s work on a regular basis and giving feedback is also a good method of teaching.

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Constructivism divides learning into accommodation and assimilation. Assimilation is when a learner perceives new information and explains it according to already existing schemes. Accommodation is the process of alteration of old thinking in order to be able to understand new information. It has many variations like active learning, discovery learning and knowledge building. It promotes exploration and own discovery (Brunner, 2012). From this perspective learners do not respond to stimulus. Instead, there is a construction of meaningful ideas about the world around them. Emphasis in constructivism is on the process rather than on the product. In constructivism, the learner constructs his own knowledge from his own experience with the environment. Jean Piaget stated that learning takes place by active construction of explanation for events in the environment rather than passive receiving of information.

A good teaching method using the constructivism theory is to put emphasis on the methodology rather than the end product. Pay more attention to how you teach the concept rather than paying attention to the concept itself. If you are to teach children how to skip a rope, you should pay attention on how they jump, how they swing the rope and how they time the rope. Mistakes should be highly appreciated during the teaching process as it is a part of learning. When teaching we must also find out what the learner already knows before we begin to teach. Constructivists advocate for teaching from known to unknown (Merriam, Baumgartner and Caffarella, 2007).

We should teach the learner how to think critically so as to create active and motivated learners. Train learners to be inventive, autonomous, investigative and inquisitive in all subject areas. This helps them to invent ideas and to be able to explain old things in new ways. When learners know how to break down situations, they are able to learn about the world around them. Teachers need to beware of how people make use of prior knowledge, experience as well as interaction with their environment to construct knowledge and meaning.

Another teaching method using this theory is to set up the environment in a way that learners will be able to construct their own understandings about the concept that is being taught. Bring new things into the learners’ environment and make them attractive. This will interest learners and cause them to explore more. When applying this method in teaching, the teacher must be very creative while setting up his or her environment. This will ensure that the environment gets explored (Merriam, Baumgartner and Caffarella, 2007).

The best teaching method that should be employed when using the constructivist theory is to use the learner-centered method where everything revolves around the learner.

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Cognitive theory attempts to explain how the way we think ultimately influences how we interact and understand the world around us. Cognitive theorists state that prior knowledge plays an important role in learning. They attempt to explain how the human brain works to promote learning. Information processing becomes looked at as a key thing in learning of any concept.

The first teaching method when using the cognitive theory is to focus on enhancing intelligence of the learner. When you are teaching a child to write letter “b’ the first thing you must teach them is what letter “b’ is and how to differentiate it from other letters. This internal memory will assist a child when it needs to remember how it looks like and write it down. You should also find out which other letters the learner can recognize and write and use that as a basis for learning.

When teaching, first we must help the learners to recognize that the information is important. When learners know that information they are learning is important then they will pay more attention and learn more. Use examples, images, elaborations and link current learning to prior.

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