Learning theories tend to fall into one of several perspectives or paradigms, including behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and others.  Here are some of the basic ones:


  • Founders and proponents: John B. Watson in the early 20th century. B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, and others.
  • Basic idea: Stimulus-response. All behavior caused by external stimuli (operant conditioning). All behavior can be explained without the need to consider internal mental states or consciousness.
  • Learner viewed as: Passive, responding to environmental stimuli.
  • Behavior may result in reinforcement (increased likelihood that behavior will occur in the future); or punishment.



  • Founders and proponents: Replaced behaviorism in 1960s as dominant paradigm. Noam Chomsky.
  • Basic idea: Mental function can be understood
  • Learner viewed as: Information processor
  • Cognitivism focuses on inner mental activities — opening the “black box” of the human mind. It is necessary to determine how processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem-solving occur. People are not “programmed animals” that merely respond to environmental stimuli; people are rational beings whose action are a consequence of thinking.
  • Metaphor of mind as computer: information comes in, is being processed, and leads to certain outcomes.



  • Founders and proponents: John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky, others.
  • Basic idea: Learning is an active, constructive process.
  • Learner viewed as: Information constructor.
  • People actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality. New information is linked to to prior knowledge, thus mental representations are subjective.



  • Founders and proponents: Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, others.
  • Basic idea: Learning is a personal act to fulfill one’s potential.
  • Learner viewed as: One with affective and cognitive needs.
  • Emphasis on the freedom, dignity, and potential of humans.
  • Learning is student-centered and personal, facilitated by teachers, with the goal of developing self-actualized people in a cooperative, supportive environment.


21st Century Skills

  • An education standards and reform movement based primarily in the United States focused on improving what US public school students must learn in school to be prepared for the workforce in the digital age.  Skills include:
    • Life/career skills: adaptability & flexibility, initiative & self-direction, leadership & responsibility, productivity & accountability, social & cross-cultural skills
    • Core subjects: English/language arts, mathematics, arts, science, history, geography and others
    • 21st century themes: civic literacy, environmental literacy, financial  literacy (including economic, business, and entrepreneurial skills), global awareness, health literacy
    • Information/media/technology skills: media literacy, information literacy
    • Learning/innovation skills: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, problem solving
    • Systems thinking

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Please share or cite this article as: David L, "Paradigms," in Learning Theories, December 12, 2015, https://learning-theories.com/paradigms.