7 Key Learning Theories And How They Shape Our Thinking At Green Shoots

November 25, 2021

At Green Shoots we are in the practice of supporting student learning for multiple, wonderful, lifelong and complex outcomes. Yet one needs to be conscious and aware of what learning is and we need to have in our basket of strategies an understanding of what the various key theories of learning that exist are, so we can personalize the learning experience in our support of every student in our care.

But let’s first try and define what learning is - 'The acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.’ Oxford Dictionary (https://www.lexico.com/definition/learning)

Should one dig a little deeper one establishes that: ‘Learning has been defined functionally as changes in behavior that result from experience or mechanistically as changes in the organism that result from experience’. Or to make that even clearer;  ‘Learning is ontogenetic adaptation, that is, changes in the behavior of an organism that result from regularities in the environment of the organism’ .(https://www.researchgate.net)  Wow - and so much for thinking definitions help simplify things! 

At Green Shoots, we plan our practices around the understanding that ‘Learning is a process whereby new knowledge, skills, behaviours and beliefs are gained by an individual or group.’ (Cambridge Assessment International Education Official Website)  We acknowledge that while we create a learning environment for our students, the continuous process of learning is an internal activity, it is a process one can only do for oneself, it is a personal development key for every individual,  it is  an ongoing lifelong process and it is a process that happens in many ways and in many situations within and beyond the school environment.

With our association and affiliation to Cambridge International I have taken the liberty to draw directly from them a brief review they post that discusses 7 of the main theories pertaining to learning. It is from the basis of an understanding of these learning theories that Green Shoots makes decisions regarding curricular, pedagogical and instruction strategy decisions. This supports our recognition of the critical importance of integrating theory and practice to make ongoing decisions about academic and classroom practices within the context of deeply understood and relevant theory to best support successful student learning.


This theory assumes that a learner is essentially passive. Learning therefore is described as a  change in behaviour based on a reaction to environmental conditions. This theory states that the  principles of repetition and reinforcement are viewed as central to explaining the learning process. 

Cognitive psychology

Cognitive theory attempts to explain human behaviour by understanding the thought processes.  The assumption is that humans are logical beings that make the choices that make the most sense  to them. Methods of instruction are lecturing and reading textbooks and the learner is viewed as a  passive receiver of knowledge by the teacher. 


Constructivism emphasises the fact that learners construct or build their own understanding.  Learning is a process of making meaning. Learners replace or adapt their existing knowledge and  understanding (based on their prior knowledge) with deeper and more skilled levels of  understanding. 

Social constructivism 

Social constructivism focuses on the importance of learning within a community and was  developed by the psycholinguist Lev Vygotsky. For Vygotsky, learning is primarily by building up  knowledge as we interact with other people through language. An important idea is the zone of  proximal development (ZPD) which describes the area where the teacher interacts with the learner  to take them from tasks that they can accomplish independently to more challenging tasks. 

Experiential learning 

Experiential learning involves learning from experience and was proposed by psychologist David  Kolb. According to Kolb, this type of learning can be defined as ‘the process whereby knowledge is  created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of  grasping and transforming experience.’ 

Multiple intelligences 

Developed by Howard Gardner in 1983, this theory states there are at least seven ‘intelligences’ of  how learners understand and perceive the world. The theory has been criticised by educators who  argue that Gardner's definition of intelligence is too broad, and that his seven different intelligences  simply represent personality traits and abilities. 

Situated-learning theory 

The theorist Jean Lave argues that learning is situated, which means that it is embedded within an  activity, context and culture. It is also usually unintentional rather than deliberate. This theory  assumes that knowledge needs to be presented in authentic contexts. Social interaction and  collaboration are essential components of situated learning, where learners become involved in a  ‘community of practice’ which represents certain beliefs and behaviours to be acquired. 

Rick Elya

Head of School

Green Shoots International School, Hoi An








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