History and Philosophy of Learning Theory


Introspection as the scientific method had to give place to behavioral psychology in the nineteenth century [1], which opposed mentalist approaches to the study of associative mechanisms in learned behavior [2] with rigorous observable laboratory experiments and animal behavior training as performed by B.F. Skinner [3] (Figure 1.). Associationists like E. Thorndike believed in biological processes which construe memory in the form of neuronal connections in the brain [1]. Reinforcement, for example in the form of dopamine rewards, was considered necessary feedback for learning enablement [4]. Today there is substantial evidence that learning can happen without this kind of reinforcement though [5]. The classical conditioning (Figure 2.) through basic physical stimulation proven too simplistic, Ivan Pavlov introduced a second system allowing for linguistic inputs too [2]. L.S. Vygotsky considered language as a requirement for the human ability to analyze the world by cognitively separating real-world objects from related conceptualizations [6]. Signs and symbols allow a shared subjectivity, e.g., between teacher and student [7]. Verbal animal behavior is studied to find roots for the development of human language sophistication [8].

Skinner.pngFigure 1. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Quadrant

Pavlov.pngFigure 2. Pavlov’s classical conditioning

Cognitive Approach to Learning

Noam Chomsky criticized that animal verbal behavior might follow different principles that wouldn’t allow generalization attempts to human behavior [3]. The lack of real-life conditions in the laboratory environments and the difficulty to repeat animal experiments in wild life [8], ethical constraints in animal research limiting invasive practices [21], utterly operant-mathematical approaches, and an over-emphasis on language opened the way towards cognitive approaches beyond the study of language [2]. The negligence of instinct’s role, as proven by Konrad Lorenz to be relevant for imprinting mechanisms in learning (Figure 3.), also brought behaviorism into critique [9]. Vygotsky’s developmental method of research of the human species was re-discovered [10]. Around the same time, after the mid of the twentieth century, Jean Piaget’s schema theory (Figure 4.) introduced the concepts of assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration as the developmental cognitive principles of his influential genetics based philosophy [11].

Konrad Lorenz.pngFigure 3. Konrad Lorenz’ Imprinting

Piaget schema.png

Figure 4. Piaget’s Schema stages

After 1980, intelligence, especially Howard E. Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Figure 5.) (but also, Robert J. Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence [12], as well as his personality characteristics related to thinking styles [13]), were taken into account in education programs [12]. Autonomous learning raised from Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (Figure 6.) noticing that human behavior is about willful and context-dependent mental processes [14]. Innate needs for competence, as described by Skinner [16], and Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory further contributed to the motivational aspect of learning [15].

Gardner multiple intelligences

Figure 5. Gardner’s multiple intelligences

Bandura social cognitive theory.pngFigure 6. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory


Piaget and Vygotsky both construct human development holistically from transactional, relational, and situational thinking perspectives [17]. Such a constructivism also implies that education is about active learning rather than teaching [18], putting the focus on human growth experience instead of economic principles [19]. Vygotsky with his socio-cultural approach to psychological development (Figure 7.) is, in my opinion, best reflecting Plato’s principle of “the meaning of the world is embedded in the experience of the world” (p. 399) reminding us that the theory of learning remains a dynamic and context-sensitive science going forward [20].

Vygotsky socio-cultural developmentFigure 7. Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural approach



[1] Malone, J. C. (2014). Did John B. Watson really ‘found’ behaviorism?. The Behavior Analyst, 37(1), 1-12. doi:10.1007/s40614-014-0004-3

[2] Jerome, B. (2004). A Short History of Psychological Theories of Learning. Daedalus, (1), 13.

[3] Palmer, D. ). (2006). On Chomsky’s appraisal of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior: A half century of misunderstanding. Behavior Analyst, 29(2), 253-267.

[4] Jeff A, B. (2012). Thorndike’s Law 2.0: Dopamine and the regulation of thrift. Frontiers In Neuroscience, Vol 6 (2012), doi:10.3389/fnins.2012.00116/full

[5] Artino, A. J. (2007). Bandura, Ross, and Ross: Observational Learning and the Bobo Doll.

[6] Chuprikova, N. (2016). Unknown Vygotsky: Cultural-Historical Theory in the Context of Pavlov’s Theory of Higher Nervous Activity and H. Werner’s Differential Development Theory. Kulʹturno-Istoričeskaâ Psihologiâ, Vol 12, Iss 3, Pp 232-246 (2016), (3), 232. doi:10.17759/chp.2016120313

[7] Pardjono, P. (2016). Active Learning: The Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Constructivist Theory Perspectives. Jurnal Ilmu Pendidikan, Vol 9, Iss 3 (2016), (3), doi:10.17977/jip.v9i3.487

[8] Reznikova, Z. (2007). Dialog with black box: using Information Theory to study animal language behaviour. Acta Ethologica10 (1), 1–12.

[9] Átima Clemente Alves, Z. (2007). Instinto, etologia e a teoria de Konrad Lorenz / Instinct, etology and the Konrad Lorenz theory. Ciência & Educação (Bauru), (3), 337. doi:10.1590/S1516-73132007000300005

[10] Salonen, L. (2013). L. S. Vygotsky’s psychology and theory of learning applied to the rehabilitation of aphasia: A developmental and systemic view. Aphasiology, 27(5), 615-635. doi:10.1080/02687038.2013.780284

[11] Zhang, Z. (2015). Assimilation, Accommodation, and Equilibration: A Schema-Based Perspective on Translation as Process and as Product. International Forum Of Teaching & Studies, 11(1/2), 84-89.

[12] Ekinci, B. (2014). The relationships among Sternberg’s Triarchic Abilities, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and academic achievement. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 42(4), 625-633.

[13] Nahla, A. (2017). Differences in styles of thinking ‘In Light of Sternberg’s Theory’: A case study of different educational levels in Saudi Arabia. Journal Of Technology And Science Education, Vol 7, Iss 3, Pp 333-346 (2017), (3), 333. doi:10.3926/jotse.291

[14] Ponton, M. K., & Rhea, N. E. (2006). Autonomous Learning from a Social Cognitive Perspective. New Horizons In Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 20(2), 38-49.

[15] Joko, S., & Sri Wiwoho, M. (2017). Motivation Engineering to Employee by Employees Abraham Maslow Theory. Journal Of Education, Teaching And Learning, Vol 2, Iss 1, Pp 86-92 (2017), (1), 86.

[16] Fryer, L. K. (2017). Building Bridges: Seeking Structure and Direction for Higher Education Motivated Learning Strategy Models. Educational Psychology Review, 29(2), 325-344.

[17] Vianna, E., & Stetsenko, A. (2006). Embracing History through Transforming It: Constrasting Piagetian versus Vygotskian (Activity) Theories of Learning and Development to Expand Contructivs within a Dialectical View of History. Theory & Psychology, 16(1), 81-108. doi:10.1177/095934306060108

[18] Cattaneo, K. H. (2017). Telling Active Learning Pedagogies Apart: From Theory to Practice. Journal Of New Approaches In Educational Research, 6(2), 144-152.

[19] Illeris, K. (2015). The Development of a Comprehensive and Coherent Theory of Learning. European Journal Of Education, 50(1), 29-40.

[20] Spector, J. (2001). Philosophical implications for the design of instruction. Instructional Science29 (4/5), 381–402.

[21] Rollin, B. (2006). The regulation of animal research and the emergence of animal ethics: A conceptual history. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 27 (4), 285–304.

About mathias sager

Thinking and writing for happiness, painting colorfully, and enabling personal growth for all. Fostering co-operative and humanitarian principles, economic and social equality, as well as environmental sustainability. Using broad international experience and progressive, egalitarian and global outlook to promote care for the next generation.
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3 Responses to History and Philosophy of Learning Theory

  1. Patty says:

    Yes, agree with your conclusion too. Especially, since we seem to be more and more visual ‘focused’ with the growing virtual world. Reminds me also of the saying ‘seeing is believing’, so I think that goes for learning to ‘experiencing is understanding’.

    • mathias sager says:

      Right, that’s a great example; thank you! And maybe we can even go one step further as related to creation: When connecting to our full human potential, we can create what seemed impossible. As Einstein said: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

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