Using Learning Theories

Pedagogy: Using theories in the classroom

Remember those theory lectures from your training year? How often do you hear people saying it’s not the theorising that’s important, it’s the doing? Those theories are what make you a professional - it’s not enough to look, sound and behave like a teacher, you have to know why you do the things that you do. Here’s a quick reminder of some theories and, more importantly, how they can be used in the classroom.


Benjamin Bloom provided three overlapping domains. The cognitive domain covers intellectual capability, such as knowledge or the ability to think. The affective domain looked at feelings, emotions and behaviour (attitude and motivation) and the psychomotor domain covered manual and physical skills.

Bloom’s provides an excellent structure for planning, designing, assessing and evaluating your teaching. To make lessons more challenging aim for the higher levels. Look to include analysis and synthesis for the cognitive domain, or the ability to organise ideas and internalise in the affective domain. Naturalisation - being able to do something almost without thinking about it - is the highest level in the psychomotor domain.


In Pavlov’s famous experiments, when a bell rang, dogs salivated. Your pupils almost do the same. When the bell rings they instinctively pack up and try to leave the classroom, leading to the classic teachers’ phrase “the bell is for me and not for you”.

B.F. Skinner made links between learning and behaviour, such as responding to a stimulus produces a consequence. So, when pupils display behaviours we want, we reward them to reinforce that behaviour. You could allow pupils to read quietly if they complete all their work rather than giving them more work to do, as this can result in negative reinforcement with children not completing work to avoid having to do extra.

Behaviour management is a bit like Pavlov’s dogs - only more sophisticated - for example, if you have to hand out a detention in a class why not provide a way for the pupil to cancel it out with appropriate hard work and behaviour? That way there is an incentive to behave rather than one to continue to disrupt a lesson - if they are in detention anyway they may just reason that more bad behaviour won’t make much of a difference.


Carl Rogers saw the main job of a teacher as facilitating learning rather than direct teaching. He believed that teachers should create supportive learning environments where pupils would grow to love learning. Rogers found that children preferred classrooms where they collaborated, carried out their own investigations and taught each other. Try to create a sense of ownership for your classroom (easier in primary than secondary schools) as this creates a positive working environment for the pupils.

Use peer and self assessment and get the pupils to take responsibility for their own learning. Teach them how to work in groups, don’t assume that they know and make sure that they work individually at times. Use open- ended, rather than low-level closed questions and foster a sense of respect for the views of all pupils.


“Start from where the child is at” best sums up the constructivist approach to teaching. Everybody learns from experience. We try to make sense of the world around us, but that can lead to misconceptions. The trick is to challenge those misconceptions to allow the pupil to see that their version of events does not fit so they move to a more acceptable idea. Learning builds on the knowledge that pupils already have. Constructivist teaching has a number of characteristics:

Activities are interactive and pupil-centred.
Learners are actively involved in lessons.
There is a democratic feel to the class.
Teachers facilitate learning rather than just tell children what to learn.
Pupils are encouraged to be autonomous learners.


What motivates children is a complex issue. John Keller produced the ARCS model for lesson design based on the work of Abraham Maslow, who said that people’s behaviour is dominated by “needs”. Starting with the need for food and water, progressing to needing to feel safe, people next need friendship and a feeling of self worth. If such needs are met then positive learning can take place and people could end up achieving self-actualisation.


Attention - can be gained by a stimulating question, a thought provoking reading or a video clip.
Relevance - use language and examples familiar to your pupils.
Confidence - make sure that the content is not too challenging.
Satisfaction - at the end of the learning experience pupils need to be rewarded with a sense of achievement.