Four Learning Theories: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism and Connectivism

Let’s begin with a brief description of four well-known theories about how people learn.

1. Behaviorism: Learning is a response to external stimuli.

2. Cognitivism: Learning is a process of acquiring and storing information.

3. Constructivism: Learning is a process of building an understanding.

4. Connectivism: Learning is a process of connecting nodes or information sources; it is dependent upon technology and recognizes the role the Internet plays in helping people expand their learning.

Allowing for what we currently know – or think we know – about the brain, it is easy to see that each of these learning theories are both correct and limited. Given that understanding, there are elements of each of these theories that I find myself agreeing with, and there are elements of each that make me uncomfortable.

Consider Behaviorism. All of our lives, we are subject to conditioning by positive and negative stimuli. Praise and scoldings, pay and poverty, a comforting touch or a slap – all of these external stimuli impact our learning. And I disagree with the most narrow views of Behaviorism which hold that these external stimuli don’t foster higher level thinking. Our quest for love, acceptance and a comfortable life are probably the most motivating elements in our world. Some of the most sophisticated, high-level thinking humans have produced – in the form of art, exploration or simply mastering the math skills necessary to earn a good paycheck are driven by these external stimuli. But when Behaviorists ignore internal predispositions of learners, they oversimplify the learning process.

Cognitivism, with its emphasis on discrete facts and memory, is also a vital part of learning. Attending lectures, memorizing poems, music, sequential moves in sports and math facts are quite enjoyable for most people possessed of healthy minds, and this kind of learning has the further benefit of creating connections in our brains that also allow us to remember shopping lists and phone numbers and in other ways make negotiating life easier and less stressful. I think what makes me most uncomfortable about Cognitivism is not anything in the theory itself, but the attitude among some educators that it is somehow not an important or relevant part of how we learn. But, like Behaviorism, in and of itself, it’s an incomplete explanation of learning.

Constructivism is another facet of learning that all healthy minds engage in. A reality is that many schools – perhaps most schools – are poorly equipped to adequately facilitate this type of student engagement. And so we have example upon example of some of the greatest minds in history either literally dropping out of school or de facto dropping out of school in order to pursue a Constructivist model of learning under the tutelage of a mentor. What concerns me, though, is that many self-identified Constructivists take an approach as narrow as the Behaviorists. They overstate their case and ignore other important pathways to learning. Students who do not have a solid grasp of facts – and an ability to readily recall and remember what they do know – may be lacking the foundational blocks necessary to engage in meaningful construction of knowledge.

Connectivism is intriguing. But again, caution against too narrow an interpretation is warranted. While the theory of Connectivism may have emerged in response to our ability to acquire and share knowledge electronically, the principal is surely much older than this new technology. Anyone familiar with science, literature and the arts appreciates that circles of friendships and acquaintances – inquiry circles before anyone used that phrase – spawned some of the best thinking, writing and artwork of any given era. Humans have always been Connectivists, just as they’ve always been subject to external stimuli (Behaviorism), have had a need for and found enjoyment in acquiring and memorizing facts (Cognitivism) and have always sought out their own means of creating meaning out of the world (Constructivism).

My question is this: Why do so many educators see learning primarily through only one lens?

See our photo essays on food, nature and life in Alaska and Mongolia at

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