Theories of Learning

There are three sets of learning theory generally used in educational circles, under the headings of:

Behaviourist A particular embodiment of a positivist "scientific" approach to learning

Arising from a value-base of empowering and even liberating the learner


which includes everything else apart from

  • sheer imitation, which does not seem to be dignified with a theoretical home and

  • situated learning theory, which is primarily social, but raises important questions about how we expect people to learn.

Cognitive theories are very varied and this site does not pretend to cover all of them.

All of them make important points, and this site is not partisan: the issue is the "range of convenience" of each of the models. In other words what are they good for, or at?

Note that because education and training are professional rather than academic disciplines (i.e. “contaminated” by assumptions about what ought to be the case as well as what is so) they are selective in the way in which theories of learning have been approached, adopted, distorted and developed.

...and education is prone to fads and fashions.

Currently there are two major fads about learning (rather than about how to teach, which has a rather faster turnover) and this is probably the best place to draw your attention to them;

The latter is the biggest change since I started writing the initial versions of the site almost ten years ago. The introduction of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanners had made possible the identification of which parts of the brain are working hardest when a person undertakes various tasks, such as speaking, solving a problem, recalling a memory, and so on. All these tasks are part of real-world learning, and therefore to discover for example that solving a puzzle involving spatial awareness calls upon a different part of the brain from that used in a puzzle concerning logical inference, may suggest that different subjects and disciplines are learnt in different ways, and perhaps should be taught differently.

So we have advocates for left-brain/right-brain differentiation, in particular, and for "accelerated learning" or "brain-based learning" programmes. They make grandiose claims which cannot be justified. Unfortunately there is little critical evaluation, especially on the web.

This YouTube clip explains why, very well.

This is not to say, however, that some of the "tricks" do not work in helping people to learn. They may well do, but for much less abstruse reasons. Mind-mapping, for example, is a good idea, but people making claims for it might profitably use Occam's Razor, and look for simple reasons rather than highly technical ones. "Brain-Gym" (no link! If you really want to find it, do it yourself) recommends inter al. that children take frequent short breaks in learning and do something physical. Makes good sense, but it probably doesn't matter much what they do, more that they do it. Ditto for having drinks. (See Goldacre, 2008, ch. 2)

So for the kind of biological insight which is worth having, turn (although now rather dated) to Claxton, 1998. He covers similar ground to Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" (2006), but does it rather better.

And to apply it to practice see Zull (2002).

Clearly, ideas from genetics are now also assuming great prominence. This too is a minefield, because of the same kind of over-simplification of nature vs. nurture, or having a "gene for" this and that. See Ridley (2004) for one of the best guides.

For an excellent overview of the theories see Mark Smith's work at

Introduction to this Learning part of the site To the Teaching part of the site
To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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