Learning Theories

Topic Progress:

Looking (Way) Back…

Much of what we know about effective online learning environments is grounded in very old ideas. Socrates is well-known for his method of teaching, the Socratic Method, in which he relied on pointed questions and group discussion with a relatively small number of interested (or not) learners. The point of the questions wasn’t to lead to a specific predetermined answer, but to stimulate thinking and reflection about the nature of reality. Another ancient teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, is recorded in the gospels as having asked over 100 questions, usually to a small group of his followers but sometimes in a larger lecture style setting. Again, his questions could rarely be answered with simple, unthinking responses and they almost always caused people to think in new ways.

It would be difficult to understate the influence of these two men on modern society and how we understand teaching and learning.

Fast Forward (FFWD)

I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be ]earned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative. ~John Dewey

In the 19th century, John Dewey published My pedagogic creed 1, in which he outlined a series of principles to guide pedagogical practice. A major theme throughout Dewey’s work is the notion that learning is not only a cognitive process, but it is a necessarily social process.

At around the same time as Dewey, though unknown to ‘the west’ until the mid-20th century, Lev Vygotsky 2, 3 was developing his theories of cognitive development in which he tried to show how people learn in social situations. He grounded his thoughts in three premises:

  1. People can perform more challenging tasks when the have the assistance of someone more competent than themselves.
  2. People learn optimally when tasks are appropriately challenging.
  3. Play is an important component of cognitive development.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, the theoretical space between what a learner can do on their own (he called this the learner’s actual development) and what a learner cannot do, even with the assistance of a more capable peer (the level of potential development), has received considerable attention from educators.


An Analogy…

I enjoy riding bicycles. I clearly remember the first time that I rode a bicycle without training wheels. It was glorious. As soon as I felt the wind in my hair, I realized the joy of tearing around our yard, leaning into the corners, and the freedom symbolized by this remarkably simple machine, I was hooked. I have rarely spent a summer without riding my bike since then.

Shortly after I moved back to Canada from Japan, I decided that it would be a good thing to convert my trusted old Kona mountain bike into a singlespeed rig. A singlespeed bike is just that, a bike with a single chainring up front and a single sprocket in the back. My bike is set up with a chainring with 34 teeth and a sprocket with 22 teeth, as suggested by the mechanic who did the conversion for me.

Riding in Kamloops can be challenging for cyclists as the city is largely built on the north slope of a rather substantial hill. This means that folks who live on top of that hill, like me, have a significant amount of elevation difference between home and just about everywhere else.

Click on the image below to see my current route home from work.

Being on a singlespeed bike, this topography presents some challenges. Some people assume that just because I can’t change gears, that it must be difficult to get home, but that is not necessarily the case. It all depends on what gear I have available. If the gear is too small, then my cadence will be too high, meaning that I won’t get a training benefit (actual development); if the gear is too large, then I won’t be able to get up the hill (potential development). But if the gear is appropriate in that it provides a challenge to get up the hill, but the task is still acheivable, then I will reap the training benefits of climbing the hill (zone of proximal development).


…and we have a brief understanding of a group of learning theories that fall under the label social constructivism, which is where the Community of Inquiry framework is situated.



  1. Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed. In M. S. Dworkin (Ed.), Dewey on education. NewYork, NY: Teachers College Press
  2. Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language (E. Hanfmann, Trans.). Massacheusetts Institute of Technology.
  3. Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society (A. R. Luria, Trans.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.