Week 1

Week 1 – A reflection on the evolution of learning theories

Studies that endeavor to quantify the efficacy and benefits of different learning theories may seem a modern occurrence; nevertheless, the subject has been discussed since antiquity (Bauman, 1998). The ancient Greeks speculated how knowledge could be acquired and transmitted, an exercise that has had profound consequences to the development of Science, Philosophy and assisted humans understand the universe they live in (Bauman, 1998; Siegel, 2009).

A good example for the search for answers comes from what is called “Plato’s problem”, where Plato posed the question, “how can a person learn new concepts if he cannot question that which he does not know of?”. Plato answers himself saying that, “a person never truly gains new knowledge, but rather the process of learning is more accurately a process of remembering knowledge that he once held in past lives” (Lightfoot, 2005). This spiritual vision of learning meant that knowledge is passive, and an individual cannot learn or acquire new knowledge unless the person’s soul had already obtained that knowledge in a past life. More recently, John Locke tackled the issue differently saying that, “people are born as blank states, or tabula rasa”, meaning that an individual will learn by experience (Anstey, 2011)

The explosion of knowledge and wealth brought by the Industrial and Scientific Revolution was responsible for the development of a vast number of different approaches and, equivocally called, new “theories”. In fact, it is important to see such theories as hypothesis since it would be naïve to imagine that a single theory could be employed for the education of all humankind. Instead, it is clear that the 21st Century classroom requires educators to see such theories as different ingredients that can, or cannot, be used to produce the best possible outcome to students. Today, the more widely accepted methodologies include: BehaviourismCognitivismConstructivism, and more recently, Connectivism, and it seem that schools use, knowingly or not, a combination of all or most of these educational theories to achieve their educational goals.

For example, mainstream schools rely on a set of values and rules to guide student behaviour. Often, this includes consequences such as detentions, suspensions and expulsions for students who do not conform. Such rules and regulations within schools would seem to correspond with ‘behaviourism’. In addition, we also know that teachers are required to collect data (tests, NAPLAN, OnDemand) in relation to student performance. One purpose of collecting this data is to pinpoint (arguably) students’ zones of proximal development in relation to particular learning outcomes, which can then be used to inform future pedagogy to take students to their next level. This approach in relation to using data would seem to be based on ‘cognitivism’.

Furthermore, teachers are encouraged to determine students’ prior knowledge of particular skills, topics, and issues prior to commencing a lesson or a unit of work. This is so teachers build upon students’ foundational knowledge instead of teaching those things they already know. This strategy assumes that a student’s previous experiences, of which may not directly relate to the topic at hand, can influence how they learn a new topic or skill. This demonstrates that teachers nowadays are engaging in constructivist theory (to some extent) to guide how they teach.

Therefore, it seems clear that schools in Australia already base many of their practices on a number of these educational theories. Hence, the question perhaps isn’t which educational theory is superior, or even which combination and levels of educational theories will maximise students’ experiences at school. Rather, it is important to manage our expectations since education is an ever-evolving entity, which has been the subject of much discussion since Plato’s times, and has the potential to be studied and discussed in the coming centuries.


Anstey, P. 2011. John Locke and Natural Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bauman, R. W. 1998. Aristotle’s Logic of Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Lightfoot, D. (2005). Plato’s Problem, UG, and the language organ. In: James McGilvray (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. pp. 42-59. [Online]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available from: Cambridge Companions Online <http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521780136.003&gt; [Accessed 11 March 2015].

Siegel, H. 2009. Introduction: Philosophy of Education and Philosophy, in: H. Siegel. (ed.) 2009.The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3–8.

Too, Y. L. 2001.Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity. Leiden: Brill. 2001. Introduction: Writing the History of Ancient Education, in: Too (ed.) 2001: 1–22.


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