Instructional Technology:

Theories and Thinkers


Behaviorism explores the relationship between stimulus and response, and how this mechanism can be used to shape and reinforce behavior. Learning is measured in terms of the learner’s outward behaviors as prompted by environments and stimuli.

In the classroom or online, behaviorism’s fingerprint can be seen anytime teachers or technology-driven systems help learners move along a predetermined, pre-programmed course of instruction with explicit learning objectives and outcomes. Feedback is provided to shape, reward, or reinforce a student’s learning according to pre-arranged objectives. “Gamified” learning represents a key component of behaviorist practice: the use of rewards such as points, badges, or certificates to encourage learning.

Behaviorist methods such as repetition and repeated practice of information — also called drill and practice — are ideal for memorizing factual information, and flash cards and computer-based exercises are used at all levels of education. Because of this emphasis on memorization, behaviorism is not recommended when instructional goals prioritize understanding the context or deeper meaning of what the facts represent.

B. F. Skinner 

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Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was an American psychologist and is considered the founder of behaviorism. Skinner studied how the behavior of animals could be influenced by its environment and contingencies of reinforcement, part of a set of principles that he called “operant conditioning.” The course of his life’s work was altered upon discovering that his daughter’s math teacher was unknowingly “violating almost everything we knew about the learning process.” Skinner developed the teaching machine, which provided programmed instruction of material broken into small steps and gradually decreasing feedback to foster independence.

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory, also called cognitivism, became the dominant paradigm of learning psychology by the 1970s as computers entered the mainstream. As such, cognitive theory considers how the mind encodes and processes information by examining memory, attitude, thinking, and motivation, particularly in complex thinking. Learners are said to assimilate information by connecting it to what they already know through the building of schemas, or units of knowledge.

Cognitive theory is present in the educational setting when learners are encouraged to process new information through its relationship to prior knowledge. Tools include advance organizers such as analogies, metaphors, narratives, charts, and diagrams to assist with encoding and retrieval of information. Efficient instruction reduces extraneous cognitive load, freeing up cognitive resources, such as “chunking” information into smaller building blocks.

Cognitivist methods that build schemas by fostering practice in a variety of contexts are ideal for learning objectives that require higher-level processing such as problem solving, procedures, or task analysis. 

Jean Piaget

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Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist who focused on developmental psychology, particularly the cognitive development of children. He theorized that learning takes place in stages, and believed that learning is an active process involving memory and information processing via direct interaction with one’s environment. Piaget envisioned learning as a process of building schemata (cognitive frameworks) over a lifetime, and proposed 4 stages of cognitive development that demonstrate how children’s logic and modes of thinking differ from those of an adult.

Cognitive Apprenticeship

Cognitive apprenticeship theory emphasizes learning through experience, incorporating mentorship and performance of authentic, real-world “situated” learning as a path to expertise. Learners observe and work alongside experts to receive coaching, feedback, and guidance, developing a conceptual model of how to extend what they learn to diverse applications and contexts. Unlike traditional apprenticeship, underlying cognitive processes are explored and utilized.

In the educational setting, social interaction is a key facet of cognitive apprenticeship. Live or recorded demonstrations and real-world practice scenarios enable instructors to model skills and knowledge, providing coaching as the learner gains practice. Scaffolding, gradually increasing task complexity while decreasing guidance, helps learners to advance their skills. Learners reflect on their experience, their strengths and weaknesses, and ways to improve, and discover how to apply these new skills to other contexts or situations.

Cognitive apprenticeship theory is suited to a wide range of educational settings, from classrooms to workplace training programs, and its principles apply in any circumstance where individuals will need to achieve “real world” mastery, putting knowledge to use in professional practice. 

Lev Vygotsky

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Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist who emphasized the role of culture and social interaction in learning. He proposed the zone of proximal development (ZPD), the gap between what a learner can perform with help and without it. Vygotsky believed that fostering development at the edge of a learner’s ZPD would lead to the most rapid outcomes, and that coaching should provide assistance at a level just beyond what the learner could do alone. This concept of teaching as “assisted performance” paved the way for the development of the cognitive apprenticeship model and its concepts of scaffolding, modeling, and fading by scholars such as Brown, Collins, Duguid, Newman, Lave, and Wegner in the 1980s and 1990s.

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