Theories of Learning

Learning Theories in the Early Childhood Classroom Environment

During the early stages of development, children learn by playing.  Play, in a developmentally appropriate environment, inspires the child to relate oneself to the environment while making sense of the infinite elements uniting internal processes with external influences.  As children play, they learn.  They learn about the size, shape, smell, taste, and tactile quality of their world.  As they internalize the sensations of the environment, they integrate personal experiences to hypothesize the impossible.  Imaginary play is constant as children relate their hopes and experiences to new sensations.  As their minds translate external experiences with personal meaning, children become masters of their environment (Bodrova and Leong, 1996, p.125).  The child’s environment may be defined as a continuum between the imaginary and the sensory. 

Complex yet accessible relationships occurring in the classroom enrich the mental processes of young students.  “The rationale for emphasizing the construction of relationships in education is that it is basically by constructing relationships that children elaborate their knowledge and develop their intelligence” (DeVries, 2004, p. 412).  When children reflect on their environment, they instinctively classify experiences according to both individual personality and the surrounding culture. (Gardner, 1982, p.30-35)  As children become familiar with the syntax of social knowledge, their worlds are shared with one another to form a social imagination.

As the child struggles to comprehend new experiences, he or she will naturally utilize scientific notions of problem solving and critical thinking.  As the child begins to understand experience, social cooperation augments skills of perspective and interpretation:

Shared activity provides a meaningful social context for learning…Social interaction provides support in a physical sense as well as a motivational sense…Through talking and communicating, the gaps and flaws in one’s thinking become explicit and accessible to correction…thought becomes sequential and visible to the thinker. (Bodrova and Leong, 1996, p. 110)

A classroom of authentic experiences shared by eager children becomes “a community of learners.” (Chard & Katz, 2001,

With the aforementioned as a foundation, the following paper will relate Behaviorist, Social Cognitive, Cognitive and Constructivist learning theories to the early childhood classroom based on a common curriculum standard.  Each theory is described by the same curriculum standard using different lesson plans as defined by specific learning theories.   

The Lesson Plan        

In an early childhood classroom operating within a public elementary school, the teacher prepares a lesson on food production.  According to the classroom curriculum standards, the teacher should provide the children with an awareness of the process of taking food from the farm producer and preparing it for the grocery store consumer.  The generalized curriculum standard offers the teacher the freedom to choose from a variety of examples to use for teaching the process.  The community of the school is rural and many of the children are familiar with small farms.  The children drink milk everyday at school and, therefore, have personal experiences with the beverage.  Because of these factors, the teacher decides to focus on milk production.
Behaviorist Learning Theories

Behaviorism defines learning as a change in observable behaviors due to environmental stimuli.  Using behaviorist learning theories, a teacher begins a lesson on milk production by having the children gather during group time on a large carpet.  As the children sit on the carpet facing the teacher only, he or she presents the book, The Milk Makers, by Gail Gibbons.  The children face only the teacher to avoid undesirable reinforcement that could distract from the goal of the lesson.  The teacher uses the picture book to explain the topic because the children are engaged with the visual material as the teacher narrates the pictures.  As the children listen to the story, they receive a summary of the information they are expected to learn.

When the teacher is finished reading the story, he or she re-explains the four stages of milk production.  As she summarizes the information, she introduces four pictures that illustrate each stage.  After the summary, the teacher passes each child a set of pictures to view.  The teacher tests the children on their understanding by having them hold up the pictures in sequential order.

The assessment is based on both classical and operant conditioning.  Each child will hold up a picture, the unconditioned response, when the teacher asks for a certain card, the unconditioned stimulus.  The teacher’s positive feedback, a conditioned stimulus, will prompt the correct choice, the conditioned response, according to the lesson.  Operant conditioning is utilized as the children are reinforced with stickers and chosen activities.

During the teacher’s assessment the children hold up one picture at a time.  The children face the teacher so each child is focusing on the appropriate picture and the teacher’s feedback.  Each child who holds up the appropriate picture receives a star.  When a child has received four stars in a row, he or she may leave the group area for a chosen activity.  The teacher retests the remaining children until each has mastered the material.

Behaviorist learning theories simplify lessons so that the child’s focused attention and the teacher’s curriculum goals remain specific.  Because of the efficiency of a behaviorist lesson plan in terms of planning, execution, and assessment, the teacher has more time for alternate classroom tasks.  The clear structure of a behaviorist lesson can be especially beneficial for children who are easily distracted or over-stimulated.  However, the categorical focus of behaviorism can be wearisome for children in need of variety and stimulation.    

Social Cognitive Learning Theories

Using social learning methods, the teacher has the children sit in a circle on a large carpet for group time.  The children are arranged so that every person is visible.  The teacher sits at the head of the circle and reads The Milk Makers, by Gail Gibbons.  After the story, the teacher distributes four cards to each child displaying four stages of milk production. 

After reading the story, the teacher explains the pictures before explicitly demonstrating how to present the pictures in sequential order.  The teacher passes the four pictures to each child and begins the assessment.  The children are asked to show the first card in the process of milk production.  The teacher calls on each child who displays the appropriate picture.  A model child is asked to describe the picture.  The teacher then asks for the same picture again, waiting for each child to present the correct answer as demonstrated by the model.  Based on social cognitive learning theories, the children expect to receive recognition for selecting the appropriate picture.  Once the teacher begins to assess the children’s understanding, the children use each other’s responses to evaluate their individual progress as compared to others.  The final assessment utilizes modeling, reinforcement, and feedback as described by social cognitive theories.

The group approaches each picture in the same manner.  After every picture has been discussed, the teacher quickly calls for the pictures again, giving the children less time to present the appropriate answer.  Children who choose the correct pictures are recognized by the teacher and are reinforced with praise.  Using vicarious reinforcement, these children serve as models for the ignored children who have selected incorrectly.  At the end of the lesson the children place their cards in correct order and hand them back to the teacher.  The teacher uses the order of each set to assess individual learning.

Social cognitive theories reflect the natural tendencies of individuals to alter personal behaviors based on the observed behavior of others.  They are effective because they are natural.  In classroom groups, children often rely on each other for support and guidance in both explicit and implicit ways.   However, teachers should be wary of the essence of motivation as defined by classroom competition.  Excessive use of modeling to influence children can lead to unnecessary competition.  Unnecessary competition can affect the inherent motivation of children in a variety of ways.

Cognitive Learning Theories

A lesson about milk production using cognitive learning methods begins with a group discussion about milk.  The teacher asks the children if they drink milk, where they buy it, and where the milk comes from.  The children are encouraged to hypothesize about the process of transferring milk from the cow to the grocery store.  As the children make guesses, the teacher transcribes ideas so the children can view the words.  After the children are finished hypothesizing, the group votes on which idea makes the most sense. As children discuss ideas related to milk production, personal experiences are encouraged and evaluated.  The teacher listens to discover each child’s level of understanding.    

When the topic seems exhausted the teacher reads the book, The Milk Makers, by Gail Gibbons.  The children are encouraged to interrupt the story for questions related to the previous hypotheses.  As the children interact with the story they are asked to edit their earlier ideas.

After the story, the teacher asks the group to review the new ideas.  Pictures illustrating the main ideas of the story are introduced to focus the children on the most distinct stages of milk production.  After discussing the story, materials are removed and a numbered board is introduced.  The group is asked to assign the four stages in order without seeing the pictures.  As the group discusses the appropriate order, the pictures are re-introduced and attached to the board.  As the children finish, the teacher summarizes the information.  The book and board is left in the room so the children can revisit the lesson autonomously. 

The basic principles underlying cognitive learning theories include thought as an active pursuit, a foundation of experience used to organize new information, a personal perspective regarding new information, a social environment to acquire new knowledge, and the use of practice to further differentiate between experience and new information.  When children think, they use all of their senses.  The process of sensing is a highly involved network of stimuli, as described by neuroscience.  As children contemplate using their senses, they incorporate Piaget’s notions of assimilation and accommodation to regain equilibrium.  By placing learning in a social environment, children expand their repertoire of experiences by contemplating the experiences of others.  The process of learning is enhanced with reconsiderations of past experiences and new details.  By using these ideas to form a learning environment rather than a lesson plan, the teacher makes the “lesson,” or learning environment, more naturally motivated. 

Using cognitive learning theories, the teacher offers a variety of experiences to approach information, assess understanding and summarize the combination of information and understanding.  The children are active in the exploration using social interaction and feedback to stimulate individual thinking processes.  Even during the physically passive activity of listening to the picture book, the children are encouraged to converse with the story, allowing new information to clarify previous understanding. 

When the teacher writes down the children’s hypotheses, the class is able to revisit a solidified idea during the dynamic process of differentiating experience.  This is perhaps the defining characteristic of the lesson because this solidification provides the framework for the children’s processes of thought.  The children see simultaneously the journey of their thinking and the highly varying nature of contemplation as sense becomes knowledge.

Cognitive learning theories infuse the classroom curriculum with meaningful interaction.  Children grow together in intricate ways.  Not all experiences can be measured equally, because everyone’s experience is utterly unique.  By collecting individual experiences the classroom builds a learning environment that is both deep and authentic.  The assessment of such an environment may seem difficult at first glance, because the philosophy collides with standardized assessment practices.  However, with practice, the teacher can realize a more artistic approach to assessment that values depth of understanding rather than test measures.  

Constructivist Learning Theories

To prepare for the topic of milk production in a constructivist environment, the teacher organizes a field trip to the local dairy.  He or she coordinates the field trip with the cafeteria milk delivery so the children can visit the delivery truck the following morning.

The day before the field trip, the children and teacher discuss milk production.  Personal experiences are collected and hypotheses are formulated regarding the field trip.  The children make a list of items to find in the dairy and draw pictures of farmers and their cows. 

The children spend the following day visiting the dairy.  Each child carries a clipboard to record information.  The teachers photograph the tour and write down the children’s verbal reflections.

During the following morning, the children visit the cafeteria to meet the milk delivery man.  The children tour the truck and watch him refill the cafeteria refrigerators.  Some children draw pictures of the truck while others tally the number of carts carried by the delivery man.

 The children and teacher gather during the afternoon to discuss their experiences.  The teacher records personal observations related by the children.  As the children discuss their favorite experiences, teachers encourage the children to explore significant elements.  As the children relate to the group, the teachers discover which topics are most exciting to the children.

The following week the room is transformed into a dairy.  The water table is equipped with milk jugs and funnels.  The writing area is prepared with clipboards holding inventory charts.  The block area contains farm animals and semi-trucks.  The dramatic play area is decorated according to farm themes.  The reading area includes books about cows, dairies, and nutrition. 

During the morning, the children gather on a large carpet to prepare for the day and discuss the current activities.  Based on the children’s interests, the teachers divide the children in two groups.  One group discusses the trip to the dairy and reviews pictures and observations recorded by the students and teachers.  The other group discusses the morning visit with the delivery man.  Each group defines favorite moments and illustrates these moments by drawing pictures.

After the separate groups have finished their illustrations, they share with the class.  Each group discusses the events as recounted by students according to their illustrations.  To conclude, the children create a milk production timeline using their pictures.  As the children work together to create the timeline, they discuss the different stages involved in milk production.

The principles of constructivist learning require that teachers ask the children many questions about a variety of examples, which occur within the learning environment.  The constructivist learning environment must be authentic and learning experiences must be relevant.  Based on both Piaget and Vygotsky, learning experiences must be social in context to augment individual development.  Learning should never be forced, but should be appreciated as it occurs naturally.  By keeping the learning environment authentic and the children’s natural perceptions worthy, motivation exists as an element of the environment.  The teacher is an observer of perception rather than a presenter of information.  The teacher provides for the learner rather than imposing on the learner.

During the constructivist process of studying milk production, the children use natural thinking methods to survey an authentic environment.  As the children become more experienced, play experiences are provided to elaborate on those experiences.  To access higher order reasoning, the children are expected to illustrate with both drawings and conversations. “For Vygotsky, this symbolic use of objects, actions, words, and people prepares the way for the learning of literacies based on the use of symbols like reading, writing, and drawing.” (Bodrova & Leong, 1996, p. 58)  As children explore their new knowledge, they summarize and reassess the information in small groups.  The structured format as practiced in small groups allows children to take their learning to the next level.  As children discuss their learning, the imagination is fortified for new experiences.

Constructivist learning theories are most problematic in areas of special education.  The experiences of constructivist education necessitate a more coercive mediator for special learners than is necessary for children of typical development.  In this situation, the teacher must regard focused attention as the most important relationship between the teacher and the student.  What detail the child focuses on is less important than the process of focusing on a detail.  This detail can take on an infinite number of shapes and sizes in the mind of the teacher, but can become quite specific and permanent to the child.  While other students may be capable of observing intricate relationships between a variety of details, the special learner may be satisfied with a sole element for contemplation.  This element could provide the path for the teacher to mediate focused attention without losing inherent motivation.  Constructivist learning in special education can be effective, but it requires more patience, acceptance, and focus by the teacher without being absolute in areas of control.  The most obscure observation of a lesson as provided by the special learner, can be the most enlightening if given a direction.


Behaviorist, Social Cognitive, Cognitive, and Constructivist learning theories represent a continuum of approaches available for teaching young children.  Behaviorist theories are described by categorical processes based on observed behavior.  These theories focus on molding the child’s repertoire of behaviors using the array of behaviorist methods of classical and operant conditioning.  Social Cognitive theories elaborate the behaviorist ideas of observed behavior by using the notion of modeling as the main approach.  By capitalizing on the notion of human beings as inherently social creatures, teachers can use social feedback to augment the curriculum.  Cognitive learning theories focus on the thinking processes of the learner rather than the behavior of the learner.  According to cognitive theory, learning is an active process taking place in the largely unobservable domain of the human brain.  The learner approaches information using first the senses and later reflection.   Constructivist learning theories also define learning as an active pursuit.  Using constructivist theory, the pursuit of knowledge is dependent on a combination of internal and external processes as the individual interacts with his or her environment.  Together, the four learning theories present a highly complex knowledge base of how individuals learn. 

Young children are able to define their own experiences both individually and as a collective.    As children process and revisit experience, they define social knowledge according to their experiences of their culture.  At the height of learning, the learning community becomes a scientific cooperative, dedicated to researching and celebrating the world. 

Sources cited

Bodrova, E. & Leong D.J. (1996).  Tools of the mind:  The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education.  Merrill:  Ohio.
DeVries, R. (2004).  Why the child’s construction of relationships is fundamentally important to constructivist teachers.  Prospects, 34(4), 411-422.

Gardner, H (1982).  Art, mind and brain: A cognitive approach to creativity.  Basic Books:  USA.

Chard, S.C. & Katz, L.G. (2001).  Project Approach.

Rebecca Stone McNeeley
Last Updated:  Winter 2007