Learning Theories: Understanding the 4 Major Ones for the Classroom

by Denicia Padgett — Originally published on Sept. 2, 2020 on the Leader in Me Blog

Behaviorist Theory

What is it? Behaviorist Learning Theory (or Behaviorism) utilizes key ideas from the work of B.F. Skinner, who theorized that learning occurs through a series of rewards or punishments. While Skinner believed that all learning could occur this way, Behaviorist Theory is most commonly utilized in classrooms today as a tool for behavior management. However, educators still utilize rote practice and repetition: two practices that are linked to Behaviorist Theory. According to Skinner, rewards increase the likelihood that behaviors will be repeated, while punishments decrease the likelihood of repetition. He also theorized that rewards and punishments could be either positive or negative in nature. This can confuse a lot of people!  What he meant was that when we give or add something to the environment, the interaction is positive; when we take something away, the interaction is negative. So, for example, removing an undesirable activity from the agenda might be a negative reward, and adding an undesirable activity to it might be a positive punishment. 

Scenes from a Classroom —

  • In Ms. X’s first grade classroom, she is working with one of her students, Sam, to help him with some challenging attention-span issues. She gives him a sticker whenever she sees him on task. (Positive reward)
  • In Mr. X’s third grade classroom, Mr. X quietly reminds a student to keep all four legs of his chair on the floor. (Positive punishment – yes, verbal praise & reminders qualify as adding something to the environment!)
  • To increase the number of students who turn in their homework each day, Mr. X announces that if the class has 100% completion on today’s assignment, they won’t have homework on Friday. (Negative reward)
  • Students in Mrs. X’s art class are having trouble sharing the supplies. Mrs. X writes the word ART on the board, and each time students have a disagreement over supplies, she erases a letter. If the word is erased completely, students will have to use pencil to complete their project for the day. (Negative punishment) 

What is the link to Leader in Me? Teachers in Leader in Me schools know how important it is to engage students when crafting solutions to various behavior issues. They maintain the belief that every child has worth and potential, and see a behavior challenge as an opportunity to teach a skill and educate the whole child. When appropriate, they create Win-Win Agreements, which are solutions that are mutually created in such a way that everyone is happy with the result. Teachers and students might work together to answer the following questions:

  • What behavior are we noticing? Why is it happening? When is it happening? 
  • Are we looking to increase or decrease the behavior?
  • Would we like to earn something, or have something taken away? What might that “something” be? 

When students and teachers work together to answer these questions, they craft a solution that everyone is excited about. This level of involvement will lead to greater commitment and engagement in the solution.

Cognitive Theory

What is it? Cognitive Learning Theory is largely based on the work of Jean Piaget, who rejected the idea that learners are passive and simply react to stimuli in the environment. Instead of focusing solely on observable behavior, Cognitive Theory seeks to explain how the mind works during the learning process. Like a computer, the mind takes in information, processes that information, then uses that information to produce learning outcomes. Piaget’s 4 Stages of Development indicate the learner’s ability to understand abstract, complex concepts.

Scenes from a Classroom –

  • Ms. X, a kindergarten teacher, works with students to verbally communicate their feelings. She knows that at this age, they are naturally egocentric and struggle to see things from others’ perspectives. 
  • As Mr. X begins his unit on fractions, he incorporates manipulatives in order to provide a concrete learning experience.
  • To help students memorize the Periodic Table, Mrs. X co-creates various mnemonic devices with her class.
  • Ms. X uses a graphic organizer in order to help students write paragraphs with appropriate structure. 
  • At the start of every lesson, Mr. X asks questions to activate the prior knowledge of his students. He knows this will help to link the new learning concepts to previously retained ideas, increasing the likelihood that the new learning will be remembered.

What is the link to Leader in MeTeachers in Leader in Me schools teach empathy and encourage students to develop their speaking and listening skills with Habit 5: Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood. They also provide structure and organize learning by using Quality Tools, and students may be taught to make their thinking visible by using hand signals during class discussions. Teachers empower students to learn through the Empowered Learning model, which ignites curiosity and background knowledge, then encourages hands-on investigations with specific learning targets, and ends the lesson by inviting connections.

Constructivist Theory

What is it? Constructivists see the learner as a constructor of knowledge. New learning is shaped by schemas, which the learner brings to the learning process. Lev Vygotsky is an important founder of Constructivist Learning Theory. Vygotsky believed that learning is a collaborative process, and that social interaction is fundamental for cognitive development. According to Vygotsky, students learn best when working collaboratively with those whose proficiency level is higher than their own, allowing them to complete tasks they are not yet able to do independently. Vygotsky identified these concepts as the More Knowledgeable Other and the Zone of Proximal Development. Constructivist classrooms are student-centered, with the teacher acting as the facilitator.

Scenes from a Classroom –

  • Mr. X intentionally pairs students performing on or above grade level with students performing below grade level, inviting them to turn and talk about their learning throughout a lesson. 
  • Mrs. X uses collaborative learning to facilitate engagement with specific learning targets, ensuring heterogeneous student groupings.
  • Ms. X uses Problem-Based Learning to engage her students in solving real world problems, meeting several learning targets while giving students autonomy to make decisions. She encourages students to work with peers who have different strengths than their own. 

What is the link to Leader in MeTeachers in leadership schools begin the year by building high-trust relationships and dedicate time throughout the year to maintaining the social-emotional environment of their classrooms. They aim to incorporate student voice throughout their day, allowing students to take great ownership over their environment and learning. Teachers believe that everyone has genius, and teach their students to acknowledge and utilize the strengths of their classmates, creating synergy. Leadership classrooms buzz with excitement, signaling purposeful student interaction. As teachers aim to empower students, they use teaching strategies that require collaboration and higher order thinking, acting as a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage. 

Humanist Theory

What is it? Humanist Learning Theory approaches learning as a way to fulfill an individual’s potential rather than meeting specific learning targets. Maslow’s research on the Hierarchy of Needs is a major concept within this theory, as it focuses on the whole person, specifically the cognitive and affective needs of the learner. The theory holds that self-actualization is the ultimate goal of each individual. Learners are trusted to determine their own goals, set standards, and evaluate their own work. Thus, students are at the center of the Humanist classroom. Teachers are facilitators and coaches, recognizing the unique needs of each student and supporting their academic and social development.  

Scenes from a Classroom –

  • Ms. X begins each day with a morning meeting to check in on her students’ emotional well-being and proactively teach them specific coping skills & strategies. 
  • Mr. X, an 8th grade science teacher, provides his students a menu of assessment options to illustrate their mastery of learning targets for the unit. 
  • Mrs. X, a 2nd grade teacher, invites each student to set their reading goal for the quarter. 
  • Mr. X, the school’s counselor, partners with local organizations to fill backpacks with food that students can take home to ensure they have food to eat over the weekend. 
  • Mrs. X, a 5th grade teacher, sets aside an hour of time each week for students to learn about and create anything they want, utilizing the framework she provides.

What is the link to Leader in MeTeachers at Leader in Me schools utilize The 7 Habits to address the social and emotional needs of their students, and actively partner with families to develop the whole child. They recognize that each student has needs within their heart, mind, body, and spirit, and teach students how to take care of themselves in all four dimensions. They empower students to set their own goals and determine their own action steps. At the highest levels, teachers in leadership schools may co-create rubrics with their students and encourage students to evaluate their own work throughout each unit.

As you can see, today’s classrooms do not solely utilize one learning theory over another, but instead incorporate multiple theories throughout the learning experience. Each theory has strengths and limitations, especially considering the realities of education in the 21st century. Educators must walk the narrow line between creating a student-centered classroom and meeting rigorous learning standards. Through our world-class workshops and coaching, teachers at Leader in Me schools are well equipped to succeed and utilize the best of each learning theory. Want to learn more? Click here!

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Principal Efficacy

By Staci Souhan, principal at Turtle Lake Elementary School in Shoreview, MN and president-elect of the East Suburban Division

As building administrators we often research best practice, read the latest books, as well as attend institutes and other professional development to support teachers to improve their practice. Things come and go and as the cycle of initiatives moves, we move with it. This is all common and part of our work. Whether we see ourselves as learners, leaders, scholars, or teachers we follow similar paths. The constant cycle allows for little time in one spot. We are pulled in different directions by our staff needs, our district’s expectations, and how to best serve students. The constant change has an impact and a cost on our personal balance and our professional efficacy. As administrators we are rarely extended grace and flexibility. We know what we are getting into when we accept our roles but these are still the real, lived experiences as a building principal. 

As principals, we know about efficacy. Efficacy is discussed and researched as it pertains to teachers. As many definitions exist, the definition of efficacy I use is: How able an educator feels and believes themselves to be to impact outcomes for students. Many of us will link efficacy to Visible Learning by John Hattie—I want to acknowledge the critiques of Hattie’s research regarding the methodology of the meta-analysis. I have read it and feel strongly that the critiques do not reduce the importance of the impact of efficacy as it impacts outcomes. 

As administrators it is in our best interest to approach all staff learning with efficacy in mind. To me, the factor that stands out most for increasing efficacy is mastery experiences for staff. For example, if a teacher tries a new math initiative and sees that as a result the math data for the class improves, that would be a mastery experience. A successful experience makes the teacher feel more able to affect student outcomes. The connections between mastery experiences and efficacy are so powerful that it caused me to consider efficacy and mastery experiences for administrators. 

I will be vulnerable and admit that I sometimes do not experience high levels of efficacy in my own practice. Principal efficacy levels could be reflective of many things including: feeling siloed in our work as early-career principals; district and staff expectations; and difficult on-boarding as every building and district is unique. As a principal we can feel pulled in many directions while managing a budget and managing the desire to serve as the instructional leader of a building. And, we are juggling a staff of varied personalities and needs. Some folks we interact with daily are unkind (typically for reasons outside our control). So I ask myself…how can I get better? Are mastery experiences possible with so many balls in the air? Do other administrators feel the same way? How could we support one another toward higher levels of efficacy?

I do not have all the answers but I am driven to keep looking and asking questions. One thing that absolutely saved me early on was attending the early-career principal training through MESPA. This is not an advertisement, it is fact. The next year I returned as a facilitator and grew even more. Now, it is my favorite group of folks to meet with, talk to, and grow alongside. Sharing ideas, stories, and experiences of principal problems of practice adds meaning to what we do each day. The conversations make me feel connected and competent and, most importantly, never alone. Frankly, it might be the closest we can get to a mastery experience in our roles. In principal peer-groups, we get to talk through many problems of practice and learn from the experiences of others. As our principal roles are so unique, sharing scenarios allows us to see ourselves as also being able to have successful outcomes if faced with similar situations—that is a mastery experience. It might be the closest we can get as administrators. The conversations add confidence as well as comradery. These types of conversations do not have to be limited to our early years. I know I will benefit my entire career from these types of interactions. The group is planning to meet monthly going forward and I would love to see any of you or all of you attend the virtual conversations. I have learned something from everyone in the group that shares, no matter how long they have had their role.

We do not get many opportunities to grow our own efficacy, so take advantage of this opportunity, attend a conversation and share your knowledge or just listen and learn. These virtual meetups continuously grow my belief in my ability to impact outcomes for students and staff—that’s efficacy.

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Multi-Tiered System of Supports for the Adults

By Amanda Feterl, principal of Sibley East Elementary School in Gaylord, MN, and president-elect of the Southwest Division

In preparing to write this month’s MESPA blog article, I began browsing through the blog archives to gain a better sense of the different types of topics other principals have written about. A clear pattern started to emerge around the topic of the human beings in our profession–concerns with retention, shortages, mental health, self-care, and so on. More so this year than any other, I have been surprised by the high number of educators I’ve come in contact with that are making comments such as, “This year is hard…the hardest of my career.” An article published by the National Education Association (NEA) on February 1, 2022 reflects that same sentiment. It reported that 55 percent of educators are considering leaving the profession earlier than they had planned. 

Connecting the previous blog articles, personal conversations, and the statistics in the NEA report, an image of the well known Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) pyramid kept creeping into my consciousness. By now we’ve all had plenty of practice identifying students and their placement in the different tiers for academic or behavioral reasons, but what about applying this same concept for the adults in our schools? Is it possible that our staff can be placed into one of the three tiers when it comes to the level of support or resources they might need in order to successfully complete this school year and return in the fall? 

I began by operating with the underlying assumption that many of the enablers needed for student academic performance are the same for adult professional performance:  well-being, belonging, and engagement. For the sake of this article, I narrowed my focus to the concept of belonging since feeling valued and appreciated is also a part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Depending on your prior knowledge of the staff, it may be necessary to first administer some type of survey or screener to gather additional information about each employee’s sense of belonging at school. For ideas on what questions to ask your staff, consider reading this article from The Lattice Team. Once you’ve had a chance to analyze the results of your screener and place adults in the respective tiers, begin matching possible strategies (see graphic below) in order to meet everyone’s individual belonging needs. Be sure to monitor progress and make adjustments along the way…our educators are depending on it! 

Please note:  The graphic below is very much a work-in-progress. If you have other ideas or recommendations for adult interventions, please be sure to leave a comment with your suggestions.

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