Theory for the New Millennium

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Unit 2: Theory for the New Millennium

Piaget, Erikson, and Constructivism



Swiss biologist and psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is renowned for constructing a highly influential model of child development and learning. Piaget's theory is based on the idea that the developing child builds cognitive structures - in other words, mental "maps," schemes, or networked concepts for understanding and responding to physical experiences within his or her environment. Piaget further attested that a child's cognitive structure increases in sophistication with development, moving from a few innate reflexes such as crying and sucking to highly complex mental activities.


Piaget's theory identifies four developmental stages and the processes by which children progress through them. The four stages are:

  1. Sensorimotor stage (birth - 2 years old). The child, through physical interaction with his or her environment, builds a set of concepts about reality and how it works. This is the stage where a child does not know that physical objects remain in existence even when out of sight (object permanence).

  2. Preoperational stage (ages 2-7). The child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations.

  3. Concrete operations (ages 7-11). As physical experience accumulates, the child starts to conceptualize, creating logical structures that explain his or her physical experiences. Abstract problem solving is also possible at this stage. For example, arithmetic equations can be solved with numbers, not just with objects.

  4. Formal operations (beginning at ages 11-15). By this point, the child's cognitive structures are like those of an adult and include conceptual reasoning.

Piaget outlined several principles for building cognitive structures. During all development stages, the child experiences his or her environment using whatever mental maps he or she has constructed so far. If the experience is a repeated one, it fits easily - or is assimilated - into the child's cognitive structure so that he or she maintains mental "equilibrium." If the experience is different or new, the child loses equilibrium, and alters his or her cognitive structure to accommodate the new conditions. This way, the child erects more and more adequate cognitive structures.

How Piaget's Theory Impacts Learning

Curriculum: Educators must plan a developmentally-appropriate curriculum that enhances their students' logical and conceptual growth.

Instruction: Teachers must emphasize the critical role that experiences - or interactions with the surrounding environment - play in student learning. For example, instructors have to take into account the role that fundamental concepts, such as the permanence of objects, play in establishing cognitive structures.


Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1902 - 1994) describes the physical, emotional, and psychological stages of human development, and relates specific issues, or developmental work or tasks to each stage.


Infant (Trust vs. Mistrust)

The child needs maximum comfort with minimal uncertainty to trust himself/herself, others, and the environment. It is essential to create an atmosphere of care - a sense that a child feels she exists in the world and is valuable.

Toddler (Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt)

The child works to master physical environment while maintaining self-esteem. Here, the toddler wants to be a whole person, ready to take on the world, and moves past immediate rewards and punishments. This is the beginning of the child's realization that he is a person who has rights. It is essential, at this stage, to give some choices while ensuring that rules are followed and that adults are in charge. The child will make some unsafe gestures and decisions, so it is important for caregivers to be vigilant.


Preschooler (Initiative vs. Guilt)

The child begins to initiate, not imitate, activities; develops conscience and sexual identity. She realizes that she can begin an activity, not just be told what to do. The child begins to make some sense of right and wrong. It is important to talk with the child calmly and with reason in the process of helping her develop a sense of moral judgment.


School-Age Child (Industry vs. Inferiority)

The child tries to develop a sense of self-worth by refining skills. A school-age child learns to distinguish between himself and the others in terms of judgment. What am I good at? How am I doing? It is here that the child begins to try different activities to test some theories about who he is. It is important to provide an atmosphere of trust, experimentation, and praise for accomplishments, while minimizing competition between students which could result in lowered self-esteem.


Adolescent (Identity vs. Role Confusion)

Adolescents try integrating many roles (child, sibling, student, athlete, worker) into a self-image, taking into consideration other adults and other adolescents. Around the world, adolescence is not an easy task. It is a time of resistance against parents and teachers in order to distinguish oneself. Risk-taking can be much more dangerous. The role of identity is crucial here, and it is important for students to see the consequences of their behavior, rather than for parents or teachers to protect them from life. At the same time, their intellectual abilities are blossoming, and so it is quite important to respect the intelligences of adolescents. Finally, we must provide them with opportunities that stir their hearts - such as service to others. The results will be a vital, active, interested young person who stands behind her beliefs and who tries hard.


Young Adult (Intimacy vs.Isolation)

Young adults learn to make personal commitment to another as spouse, parent, or partner. At this time, college-age students are beginning to see who they are and what they can do. They think about long-term commitments and about their identity - a "definition" for and of themselves. It is important to listen carefully and, as a caretaker still, respect their ability to make their own choices.


Middle-Age Adult (Generativity vs Stagnation)

Adults seek satisfaction through productivity in career, family, and civic interests.


Older Adult (Integrity vs. Despair)

Older adults review life accomplishments, deal with loss, and with preparation for death.

ConstructivismThe latest catchword in educational circles is Constructivism, and it is applied both to learning theory and to epistemology (to how people learn and to the nature of knowledge). We don't need to succumb to each new fad, but we do need to think about our work in relation to theories of learning and knowledge. So we need to ask: What is Constructivism? What does it have to tell us that is new and relevant, and how do we apply it to our work?


What is meant by Constructivism?

The term refers to the idea that learners construct knowledge for themselves (each learner builds meaning individually and socially) as they learn. Constructing meaning is learning. The dramatic consequences of this view are two-fold:

  1. We have to focus on the learner in thinking about learning (not on the subject/lesson to be taught).
  2. There is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner, or community of learners.

Although it appears radical on an everyday level, it is a position that has been frequently adopted ever since people began to ponder epistemology. If we accept constructivist theory, we have to recognize that there is no such thing as knowledge "out there", independent of the knower, but only knowledge we construct for ourselves as we learn.

Learning is not understanding the "true" nature of things, nor is it remembering dimly perceived perfect ideas, but rather it is a personal and social construction of meaning out of the bewildering array of sensations that have no order or structure besides the explanations (and we stress the plural) that we fabricate for them.

The more important question is: Does it actually make any difference in our everyday work whether deep down we consider knowledge to be about some "real" world independent of us, or whether we consider knowledge to be of our own making? The answer is: Yes, it does make a difference, because of the first point suggested above - in our profession our epistemological views dictate our pedagogic views.

If we believe that knowledge consists of learning about the real world out there as a pre-packaged set of facts, then we endeavor first and foremost to understand that world, organize it in the most rational way possible, and, as teachers, present it to the learner. This view may still engage us in providing the learner with activities, with hands-on learning, with opportunities to experiment and manipulate the objects of the world, but the intention is always to make clear to the learner the structure of the world, independent of the learner. We help the learner understand the world, but we don't ask him to construct his or her own world.

In many cultures, the history of learning never considered the learner. The task of the teacher was to communicate to the learner the content of the lesson and any accommodation to the learner was only to account for different appropriate entry points for different learners. Times have changed.

Constructivist theory requires that we turn our attention by 180 degrees: we must turn our back on any idea of an "all-encompassing machine" that describes nature and, instead, look towards all those wonderful, individual living beings - the learners - each of whom creates his or her own model to explain nature. If we accept the constructivist position, we are inevitably required to follow a pedagogy which argues that we must provide learners with the opportunity to:

  1. interact with sensory data, and
  2. construct their own understanding.

This second point is a little harder for us to swallow, and most of us constantly vacillate between faith that our learners will indeed construct meaning that we will find acceptable (whatever we mean by that) and our need to construct meaning for them; that is, to structure situations where learners are not free to carry out their own mental actions, but "learning" situations that channel them into our ideas about the meaning of experience.

What are some guiding principles of constructivist thinking that we must keep in mind when we consider our role as educators? Here is an outline of a few ideas, all predicated on the belief that learning consists of individuals' constructed meanings:

  1. Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning out of it. The more traditional formulation of this idea involves the terminology of the active learner (John Dewey's term) stressing that the learner needs to do something, and that learning is not the passive acceptance of knowledge which exists "out there." In other words, learning involves the learner engaging with the world.
  2. People learn to learn as they learn: learning consists both of constructing meaning and constructing systems of meaning. For example, if we learn the chronology of dates of a series of historical events, we are simultaneously learning the meaning of chronology. Each meaning we construct makes us better able to give meaning to other sensations that can fit a similar pattern.
  3. The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in the mind. Physical actions and hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands (John Dewey called this Reflective Activity.)
  4. Learning involves language: the language we use influences learning. On the empirical level, researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. On a more general level, there is a collection of arguments, presented most forcefully by Lev Vygotsky (1896 - 1934), that language and learning are bound together. This point is clearly emphasized in the work of Elaine Gurian, who spoke of the need to honor native language in developing Native American museum exhibits. The desire to have material and programs in their own language was an important request by many members of various Native American communities.
  5. Learning is a social activity: our learning is intimately associated with our connection with other human beings, our teachers, our peers, our family, as well as casual acquaintances, including the people before us or next to us at the museum exhibit. We are more likely to be successful in our efforts to educate if we recognize this principle rather than try to avoid it. Much of traditional education is directed towards isolating the learner from all social interaction, and towards seeing education as a one-on-one relationship between the learner and the objective material to be learned. In contrast, progressive education recognizes the social aspect of learning and uses conversation, interaction with others, and the application of knowledge as an integral aspect of learning.
  6. Learning is contextual: we do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives - we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices and our fears. On reflection, it becomes clear that this point is actually a corollary of the idea that learning is active and social. We cannot divorce our learning from our lives.
  7. One needs knowledge to learn: it is not possible to assimilate new knowledge without having some structure developed from previous knowledge to build on. The more we know, the more we can learn. Therefore, any effort to teach must be connected to the state of the learner, must provide a path into the subject for the learner based on that learner's previous knowledge.
  8. It takes time to learn: learning is not instantaneous. For significant learning to occur, we need to revisit ideas, ponder them, try them out, play with them, and use them. This cannot happen in the 5-10 minutes usually spent in a gallery (and certainly not in the few seconds usually spent contemplating a single museum object.) If you reflect on anything you have learned, you soon realize that it is the product of repeated exposure and thought. Even, or especially, moments of profound insight, can be traced back to longer periods of preparation.
  9. Motivation is a key component in learning. Not only is it the case that motivation helps learning; it is essential for learning. This idea of motivation as described here is broadly conceived to include an understanding of ways in which the knowledge can be used. Unless we know "the reasons why," we may not become engaged in using the knowledge that may be instilled in us, even by the most severe and direct teaching.


Learning Styles, Brain Thinking, and Control Theories


Learning Styles Theory

This approach to learning emphasizes the fact that individuals perceive and process information in very different ways. The learning styles theory implies that how much individuals learn has more to do with whether the educational experience is geared toward their particular style of learning than whether or not they are "smart." In fact, educators should not ask, "Is this student smart?" but rather "How is this student smart?" 


The concept of learning styles is rooted in the classification of psychological types. The Learning Styles theory is based on research demonstrating that, as a result of heredity, upbringing, and current environmental demands, different individuals have a tendency to both perceive and process information differently. The different ways of doing so are generally classified as:

Concrete and abstract perceivers.

Concrete perceivers absorb information through direct experience: by doing, acting, sensing, and feeling. Abstract perceivers, however, take in information through analysis, observation, and thinking.

Active and reflective processors.

Active processors make sense of an experience by immediately using the new information. Reflective processors make sense of an experience by reflecting on and thinking about it.

Traditional schooling tends to favor abstract perceiving and reflective processing. Other kinds of learning are not rewarded and reflected in curriculum, instruction, and assessment nearly as much.

How the Learning Styles Theory Impacts Education

Curriculum: Educators must place emphasis on intuition, feeling, sensing, and imagination in addition to the traditional skills of analysis, reason, and sequential problem solving.

Instruction: Teachers should design their instruction methods to connect with all four learning styles using various combinations of experience, reflection, conceptualization, and experimentation. Instructors can introduce a wide variety of experiential elements into the classroom, such as sound, music, visuals, movement, experience, and talking.

Assessment: Teachers should employ a variety of assessment techniques focusing on the development of the whole brain capacity and each of the different learning styles.


Right- and Left-Brain Thinking Theory

This theory of the structure and functions of the mind suggests that the two different sides of the brain control two different modes of thinking. It also suggests that each of us prefers one mode over the other.

Experimentation has shown that the two different sides, or hemispheres, of the brain are responsible for different manners of thinking. The following table illustrates the differences between left-brain and right-brain thinking:


Left Brain Right Brain
Looks at parts 
Looks at wholes


Take a look at this video called Right Brain and Left Brain Education (, a gentle but powerful method of activating both left and right hemispheres of the brain to work together to accelerate learning, activate photographic memory, promote speed reading, and make early learning fun for both children and parents.


Most individuals have a distinct preference for one of these styles of thinking. Some, however, are more whole-brained and equally adept at both modes. In general, schools have favored left-brain modes of thinking while downplaying the right-brain ones. Left-brain scholastic subjects focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy. Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity.


How Right-Brain vs. Left-Brain Thinking Impacts Learning

Curriculum: In order to be more whole-brained in their orientation, schools need to give equal weight to the arts, creativity, and the skills of imagination and synthesis.

Instruction: To foster a more whole-brained scholastic experience, teachers should use instruction techniques that connect with both sides of the brain. They can increase their classroom's right-brain learning activities by incorporating more patterning, metaphors, analogies, role playing, visuals, and movement into their reading, calculation, and analytical activities.

Assessment: For a more accurate whole-brained evaluation of student learning, educators must develop new forms of assessment that honor right-brained talents and skills.

Control Theory

This theory of motivation, developed by William Glasser (born 1925), asserts that behavior is never caused by a response to an outside stimulus. Instead, the control theory states that behavior is inspired by what a person wants most at any given time: survival, love, power, freedom, or any other basic human need.

Responding to complaints that today's students are unmotivated, Glasser attests that all living creatures control their behavior to maximize their need satisfaction. According to Glasser, if students are not motivated to do their schoolwork, it's because they view schoolwork as irrelevant to their basic human needs.

"Boss" teachers use rewards and punishment to coerce students to comply with rules and complete required assignments. Glasser calls this "leaning on your shovel" work. He shows how high percentages of students recognize that the work they do - even when their teachers praise them - is such low-level work.

"Lead" teachers, on the other hand, avoid coercion completely. Instead, they make the intrinsic rewards of doing the work clear to their students, correlating any proposed assignments to the students' basic needs. In addition, they use grades only as temporary indicators of what has and hasn't been learned, rather than as a reward. Lead teachers will "protect" highly engaged, deeply motivated students who are doing quality work from having to fulfill meaningless requirements.

How the Control Theory Impacts Learning

Curriculum: Teachers must negotiate both content and method with students. Students' basic needs literally help shape how and what they are taught.

Instruction: Teachers rely on cooperative, active learning techniques that enhance the power of the learners. Lead teachers make sure that all assignments meet some degree of their students' need satisfaction. This secures student loyalty, which carries the class through whatever relatively meaningless tasks might be necessary to satisfy official requirements.

Assessment: Instructors give grades that certify quality work and satisfy students' need for power. Courses for which a student doesn't earn a grade are not recorded on that student's transcript. Teachers grade students using an absolute standard, rather than a relative curve.


Metacognition, Experiential Theory, Social Cognition, and Behaviorism



Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking. John H. Flavell (born 1928) describes it as follows: "Metacognition refers to one's knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data. For example, I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as fact" (1976, p 232).

Flavell argued that metacognition explains why children of different ages deal with learning tasks in different ways, i.e., they have developed new strategies for thinking. Research studies (see Duell, 1986) seem to confirm this conclusion: as children get older, they demonstrate more awareness of their thinking processes.

Metacognition has to do with the active monitoring and regulation of cognitive processes. It represents the "executive control" system that many cognitive theorists have included in their theories (e.g., Miller, Newell & Simon, Schoenfeld). Metacognitive processes are central to planning, problem-solving, evaluation, and many aspects of language learning.

Metacognition is relevant to work on cognitive styles and learning strategies insofar as the individual has some awareness of their thinking or learning processes. The work of Piaget is also relevant to research on metacognition since it deals with the development of cognition in children.


Brown, A. (1978). Knowing When, Where and How to Remember: A Problem of Metacognition. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in Instructional Psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Assoc.

Duell, O.K. (1986). Metacognitive Skills. In G. Phye & T. Andre (Eds.), Cognitive Classroom Learning. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Flavell, J. (1976). Metacognitive Aspects of Problem-solving. In L. Resnick (Ed.), The Nature of Intelligence. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Assoc.

Forrest-Pressly, D., MacKinnon, G., & Waller, T. (1985). Metacognition, Cognition, and Human Performance. Orlando: Academic Press.

Garner, R. (1987). Metacognition and Reading Comprehension. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.


Experiential Learning

Carl Rogers (1902 - 1987) distinguished two types of learning: cognitive (meaningless) and experiential (significant). The former corresponds to academic knowledge such as learning vocabulary or multiplication tables, and the latter refers to applied knowledge such as learning about engines in order to repair a car. The key to the distinction is that experiential learning addresses the needs and wants of the learner. Rogers identified the following as the key qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by learner, and having pervasive effects on the learner.

To Rogers, experiential learning is equivalent to personal change and growth. Rogers feels that all human beings have a natural propensity to learn; the role of the teacher is to facilitate such learning. This includes:

  1. Setting a positive climate for learning.
  2. Clarifying the purposes of the learner(s).
  3. Organizing and making available learning resources.
  4. Balancing intellectual and emotional components of learning.
  5. Sharing feelings and thoughts with learners, but not dominating.

According to Rogers, learning is facilitated when:

  1. The student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction.
  2. Learning is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal, or research problems.
  3. Self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.

Rogers also emphasizes the importance of learning to learn and an openness to change.


A person interested in becoming rich might seek out books or classes on economics, investment, great financiers, banking, etc. Such an individual would perceive (and learn) any information provided on this subject in a much different fashion than a person who is assigned a reading or class.


  1. Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is relevant to the personal interests of the student.
  2. Learning that is threatening to the self (e.g., new attitudes or perspectives) is more easily assimilated when external threats are at a minimum.
  3. Learning proceeds faster when the threat to the self is low.
  4. Self-initiated learning is the most lasting and pervasive.


Combs, A.W. (1982). Affective Education or None at All. Educational Leadership, 39(7), 494-497.

Patterson, C.H. (1973). Humanistic Education. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Rogers, C.R. (1969). Freedom to Learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Rogers, C.R. & Freiberg, H.J. (1994). Freedom to Learn (3rd Ed). Columbus, OH: Merrill/Macmillan.

Valett, R.E. (1977). Humanistic Education. St Louis, MO: Mosby.

Relevant Web Sites:

(adapted from:

For more about Rogers and his work, see:

An overview of Carl Rogers' life and philosophy:

Social Cognition

The social cognition learning model, developed by Lev Vygotsky (1896 - 1934), asserts that culture is the prime determinant of individual development. Humans are the only species to have created culture, and every human child develops in the context of a culture. Therefore, a child's learning development is affected in ways large and small by the culture (including the culture of the family environment) in which he or she is enmeshed.

Culture makes two sorts of contributions to a child's intellectual development. First, through culture, children acquire much of the content of their thinking, that is, their knowledge. Second, the surrounding culture provides a child with the processes or means of their thinking, what Vygotskians call the tools of "intellectual adaptation." In short, according to the social cognition learning model, culture teaches children both what to think and how to think.

Cognitive development results from a dialectical process whereby a child learns through problem-solving experiences shared with someone else, usually a parent or teacher but sometimes a sibling or a peer.

Initially, the person interacting with the child assumes most of the responsibility for guiding the problem solving, but gradually this responsibility transfers to the child.

Language is a primary form of interaction through which adults or more capable peers transmit to the child the rich body of knowledge that exists in the culture.

As learning progresses, the child's own language comes to serve as her primary tool of intellectual adaptation. Eventually, children can use internal language to direct their own behavior.

Internalization refers to the process of learning - and thereby internalizing - a rich body of knowledge and tools of thought that first exist outside the child. This happens primarily through language.

A difference exists between what the child can do on her own and what the child can do with help. Vygotskians call this difference the "zone of proximal development."

Since much of what a child learns comes from the culture around her and much of the child's problem solving is mediated through an adult's help, it is wrong to focus on a child in isolation. Such focus does not reveal the processes by which children acquire new skills.

Interactions with surrounding culture and social agents, such as parents and more competent peers, contribute significantly to a child's intellectual development.


How Vygotsky Impacts Learning

Curriculum: Since children learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks.

Instruction: With appropriate adult help, children can often perform tasks that they are incapable of completing on their own. With this in mind, scaffolding - where the adult continually adjusts the level of his or her help in response to the child's level of performance - is an effective form of teaching. Scaffolding not only produces immediate results, but also instills the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future.

Assessment: Assessment methods must take into account the zone of proximal development. What children can do on their own is their level of actual development and what they can do with help is their level of potential development. Two children might have the same level of actual development, but given the appropriate help from an adult, one might be able to solve many more problems than the other. Assessment methods must target both the level of actual development and the level of potential development.


Behaviorism is a theory of animal and human learning that only focuses on objectively observable behaviors and discounts mental activities. Behavioral theorists define learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behavior.

Experiments by behaviorists identify conditioning as a universal learning process. There are two different types of conditioning, each yielding a different behavioral pattern: 


  1. Classic conditioning occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus. The most popular example is Ivan Pavlov's (1849 - 1936) observation that dogs salivate when they eat or even see food. Essentially, animals and people are biologically "wired" so that a certain stimulus will produce a specific response.
  2. Behavioral or operant conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced. Basically, operant conditioning is a simple feedback system: If a reward or reinforcement follows the response to a stimulus, then the response becomes more probable in the future. For example, leading behaviorist B. F. Skinner used reinforcement techniques to teach pigeons to dance and bowl a ball in a mini-alley.

There have been many criticisms of behaviorism, including the following:

  1. Behaviorism does not account for all kinds of learning, since it disregards the activities of the mind.
  2. Behaviorism does not explain some learning such as the recognition of new language patterns by young children - for which there is no reinforcement mechanism.

How Behaviorism Impacts Learning

This theory is relatively simple to understand because it relies only on observable behavior and describes several universal laws of behavior. Its positive and negative reinforcement techniques can be very effective - both in animals and in treatments for human disorders such as autism and antisocial behavior. Behaviorism is often used by teachers who reward or punish student behaviors.

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource. fred. (2008, June 13). Education for the New Millennium. Retrieved May 04, 2010, from TWB Courseware Web site. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.